Tag: trade restrictions

Pearlstein Wants Tough Trade Measures Against China…and the U.S.

Steven Pearlstein’s ready for the nuclear option.  With the conviction of a man who knows he won’t be held accountable for the consequences of his prescriptions, Pearlstein says the time has come for action against China.  Hopefully, those whose fingers are actually near the button will recognize Pearlstein’s suggestion for what it is: an outburst of frustration over what he considers China’s insubordination.

In his Washington Post business column yesterday, Pearlstein criticizes U.S. policymakers for blindly adhering to the view that China will inevitably transition to democratic capitalism, while they’ve excused market-distorting protectionism, mercantilism, and state dominance over the economy in China.  Pearlstein writes:

Up to now, a succession of administrations has argued against directly challenging China over its mercantilist policies, figuring it would be more effective in the long run to let the economic relationship grow deeper and give the Chinese the time and respect their culture demands to make the inevitable transition to democratic capitalism.

What we have discovered, however, is that the Chinese don’t view the transition as inevitable and that, in any case, they really aren’t much interested in relationships. If anything, they’ve proven to be relentlessly transactional. And their view of business and economics remains so thoroughly mercantilist that they not only can’t imagine any other way, but assume that everyone else thinks the way they do. To try to convince them otherwise is folly.

Pearlstein’s suggestion that the Chinese “aren’t much interested in relationships” strikes me as frustration over the fact that China is no longer a U.S. supplicant.  Perhaps the truth is that China isn’t much interested in a one-way relationship, where it is expected to meet all U.S. demands, while seeing its own wishes ignored.  Calling them “relentlessly transactional” is accusing them of naivety for missing the bigger picture, which, for Pearlstein, is that the U.S. is still top dog and China ignores that at its peril. 

Pearlstein is not the first columnist to criticize the Chinese government for putting its interests ahead of America’s (or, more accurately, putting what it believes to be its best interests ahead of what U.S. policymakers believe to be in their own interests).  In a recent Cato policy paper titled Manufacturing Discord: Growing Tensions Threaten the U.S.-China Economic Relationship, I was addressing opinion leaders who have staked out positions similar to Pearlstein’s when I wrote:

Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes….

One explanation for the change in tenor is that media pundits, policymakers, and other analysts are viewing the relationship through a prism that has been altered by the fact of a rapidly rising China.  That China emerged from the financial meltdown and subsequent global recession wealthier and on a virtually unchanged high-growth trajectory, while the United States faces slow growth, high unemployment, and a large debt (much of it owned by the Chinese), is breeding anxiety and changing perceptions of the relationship in both countries….

Of course, the U. S. is the larger economy and the chief designer of the still-prevailing global economic architecture.  But the implication that that distinction immunizes the U. S. from costly repercussions if U.S. sanctions were imposed against China is foolish.  But that’s exactly where Pearlstein’s going when he writes:

Getting this economic relationship back into balance is the single biggest challenge to the global economy, not just because of its direct effects on China and the United States, but the indirect effects it has on the rest of the world. The alternative is a return to living beyond our means, a further erosion of our industrial and technological base and a continued loss of ownership of business and financial assets.

By balancing the economic relationship, presumably Pearlstein is speaking about the need to reduce the bilateral trade deficit, which spurs a net outflow of dollars to China, some of which the Chinese lend back to Americans, who in turn can then buy more imports from China, and the cycle continues.  But to tip the scales in favor of the blunt force action he recommends later, Pearlstein characterizes Chinese investment in the United States as living beyond our means, losing ownership of “our” assets, and eroding our industrial and technological base.  That is a paternalistic and inaccurate characterization of the dynamics of capital inflows from China.

First, let’s remember that the Chinese aren’t holding a gun to the heads of the chairs of our congressional appropriations committees demanding that politicians borrow and spend more on senseless programs.  It’s absolutely priceless when spendthrift members of Congress, oblivious to the irony, blame the Chinese for having caused the U.S. financial crisis for providing cheap credit to fuel asset bubbles when it was their own profligacy that brought the Chinese to U.S. debt markets in the first place.  Stop deficit spending and the need to borrow from China (or anywhere else) goes away. 

Likewise, it is a sad commentary on the state of individual responsibility in the U.S. when a prominent business writer thinks the only way to keep consumers from living beyond their means is to deprive their would-be-creditors of capital.  It sounds a bit like the same tactics deployed in the U.S. War on Drugs.  Blame the suppliers.  The fact that U.S. savings rates have been rising for two years suggests that responsible Americans are interested in rebuilding their assets without need of such measures.

There are other destinations for capital inflows from China, which (despite Pearlstein’s disparaging allusions) should be entirely unobjectionable.  Chinese investment in U.S. corporate debt, equities markets, real estate markets, and direct investment in U.S. manufacturing and services industries does not erode our industrial and technological base.  It enhances it.  It does not constitute a loss of ownership of business and financial assets, but rather a mutual exchange of assets at an agreed price.  When Chinese investors compete as buyers in U.S. markets, the value of the assets in those markets rises, which benefits the owners of those assets when there is an exchange.  Chinese purchases of anything American, with the exception of debt, do not constitute claims on the future.  Accordingly, the economic relationship can achieve the much vaunted need for rebalancing without need of attempting to forcefully reduce the trade deficit by restraining imports.

Pearlstein continues:

So if the urgent need is to rebalance the global economy by rebalancing the U.S.-China economic relationship, we are probably going to have to begin this process on our own. And that means establishing some sort of tariff regime that will increase the cost of imports not just from China, but other countries that keep their currencies artificially low, restrict the flow of capital or maintain significant barriers to imports of goods and services. The proceeds of those tariffs should be used to encourage exports in some fashion…

This relationship, however, is one that must be actively managed by the two governments. It should be obvious by now that their government is rather effective at managing their end of things. It should be equally obvious that we cannot continue to rely on free markets to manage our end.

So Pearlstein comes full circle.  He wants the U. S. to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, subsidize U.S. exports, and institute top-down industrial policy.  In other words, he wants the U.S. to be more like China. 

Of course, I would argue, we already have something that encourages exports.  They’re called imports.  Over half of the value of U.S. imports are intermediate goods—capital equipment, components, raw materials—that are used by American-based producers to make goods for their customers in the U. S. and abroad.  Furthermore, foreigners need to be able to sell to Americans if they are going to have the dollars to buy products from Americans.  And finally, if the U.S. implements trade restrictions on China to compel currency revaluation or anything else, retaliation against U.S. exports is a given.

In short, imports are a determinant of exports.  If you impede imports, you impede exports.  So Pearlstein’s idea that we can somehow subsidize exports by taxing and reducing imports is not particularly well-considered.  And though it may be tempting to look at China’s economic success as an endorsement or vindication of industrial policy, it is difficult to discern how much of China’s growth can be attributed to central planning, and how much has happened despite it.  But in the U.S., where one of our unique and core strengths has been the relative dynamism that has produced more inventions, more patents, more actionable industrial ideas, more freeedom, and more wealth than at any other time in any other nation-state in the world, it would be imprudent bordering on reckless to suppress those synergies in the name of industrial policy.

In the end, I rather doubt that Pearlstein is truly on board with the course of action he suggests.  In response to a question presented to him on the Washington Post live web chat yesterday about how the Chinese would react if his proposal were implemented, Pearlstein wrote:

They’d make a huge stink. They’d cancel some contracts. They’d slap on some tariffs of their own. They’d launch an appeal with the World Trade Organization. It would not be costless to us – getting into fights never is. But after a year, once they saw we were serious, they would find a way to begin accomodating [sic] us in significant ways, and if we respond with a positive tit for tat, things could finally improve. They’ve been testing us for years and what they discovered was that we were easy to push around. So guess what – they pushed us around.

I’m willing to chalk up Pearlstein’s diatribe to pent-up frustration.  But let me end with this admonition from that May Cato paper:

 [I]ndignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.  China is a sovereign nation.  Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people).  Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous.  Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft.  These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.

Hey G-20! Here’s How You Curb Protectionism

Last week I recommended reading a new paper published by the Lowy Institute in Australia, which proposes an utterly sensible reform for the G-20, if curbing protectionism is a serious aim.

Using Australia’s own successful experience as an example, the authors recommend other countries adopt “domestic transparency” programs, which would essentially include analysis from an independent, apolitical board or agency that measures the real costs and benefits of proposed trade restrictions.

The findings of these independent reviews would be accessible to the public—and probably published in newspapers and other popular media—in advance of any decision to impose or reject the proposed trade restrictions. The findings wouldn’t legally bind the authorities to take any particular action, but would help chase from the shadows the real costs of protectionism, so that those ultimately making the decision know that the public at large is aware of the costs.

When a politician knows that he/she can benefit politically by imposing import duties, the costs of which are hidden in higher prices paid by consumers, who are unlikely to make the causal connection, there is a profound asymmetry of incentives and disincentives. The politician is much more likely to choose to secure the political benefit of imposing duties since the costs are hidden. But if light is shone on those costs, through domestic transparency initiatives, that asymmetry is reduced or eliminated. Politicians, under these circumstances, can go back to the special interests and say how much they’d like to help out with a tariff, but the costs don’t justify the measure. And the protection-seekers know the politician’s hands are tied because the public is aware of those costs.

Well, Alan Mitchell of the Australian Financial Review on Monday supposed how the presence of a domestic transparency regime would have affected President Obama’s tire tariff decision. It is very instructive:

The case of the Chinese tyres provides a striking example. The action was taken under a section of the US Trade Act popularly known as the “China-specific safeguard” provision. The act allows increased import duties if the imports cause, or even just threaten, material injury to US producers. If material injury is identified, the president must take action against the imports unless he determines that the “provision of such relief is not in the national economic interest.”

 The US International Trade Commission (ITC) publicly advises the president on the issue of material injury, and on the level of trade barriers needed to stop it, but not on the question of the national economic interest.

The president is left to determine that for himself. And the public is aware of nothing but the ITC-endorsed case for protection….

Suppose the ITC had been asked to also publicly advise the President on whether action against Chinese tyres was in the national economic interest. There is no doubt about what its advice would have been. The duties on Chinese tyres will save some jobs among US producers of low-cost tyres, but at the price of propping up uneconomic producers, and at the cost of jobs lost among US tyre retailers and in other sectors of the economy….

Had the ITC advised that action was against the national economic interest, the President would have been in a much stronger position to reject the demand, if he had wanted to. He may not have wanted to, of course….

The US action against Chinese tyres was initiated by a complaint from the unions that are an important part of Obama’s support base. But even if Obama had protected the tyre makers against the advice of the ITC, an important blow still would have been struck against protectionism. The American people would have heard the truth from an unimpeachable source: the protection of inefficient tyre makers is against the US economic interest….

It would have been a small but important step towards educating and changing public opinion. And, without that, multilateral trade reform will never gain the domestic political support it needs to bring down trade barriers in agriculture and services.

This is what could have been had ”domestic transparency” already been embraced in the United States.  See the point in such a reform?

High Noon for U.S. Trade Policy

This morning, the U.S. International Trade Commission issued an affirmative determination in a so-called “Section 421” or “China-Specific Safeguard” case that imports of consumer tires from China are causing market disruption in the United States. That may sound like just another day in Washington, but the decision could very well be the catalyst for the most consequential event in trade policy since the Bush steel tariffs of 2002. It will certainly force a defining moment for a president who has preferred obfuscation to clear direction on trade policy.

Under the statute (which became U.S. law as a condition of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001), the ITC has 20 days to provide remedial recommendations to the president and the U.S. trade representative. Those recommendations are likely to include quotas, tariffs, or some combination that will ultimately curtail the supply and raise the prices of all tires in the United States – not just those imported from China. However, the president has the discretion to deny import “relief” if he determines that such restrictions would have an adverse impact on the U.S. economy that is clearly greater than its benefits, or if he determines that such relief would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States.

I will forego my own explanation as to why restrictions would have an adverse impact that is clearly greater than its benefits, and instead give you the statement of the U.S. Tire Industry Association, which represents “all segments of the tire industry, including those that manufacture, repair, recycle, sell, service or use new or retreaded tires, and also those suppliers or individuals who furnish equipment, material or services to the industry.” Suffice it to say that no producers of tires in the United States supported this petition, so it is not a matter of U.S. tire producers against Chinese tire producers. It is really nothing more than a matter of a U.S. union objecting to management’s decision to produce its lowest grade (lowest quality, lowest priced, lowest profit margin) tires abroad. Yet the consequences of trade restraints could affect interests across and throughout the economy, particularly if China responds in kind.

During the Bush administration, there were six Section 421 cases filed by domestic parties, four of which were found by the ITC to warrant import relief. In each of those four cases, President Bush exercised his discretion to deny relief. The tires case is a test case for President Obama. Will 421 fly under this president? Or will it remain the dead letter that petitioners considered it to be under President Bush?

The stakes are much higher for Obama than they were for Bush because the unions (the United Steel Workers union is the petitioner in the tires case) and the Chinese both feel more emboldened in their positions now. Bush didn’t win the near-unanimous support of organized labor in his elections, nor did he promise to get tough on Chinese trade practices, as Obama did.

Instead, Bush set the precedent of denying relief. And he did it four times. So, the Chinese see this firmly as a matter of presidential discretion – unlike antidumping or countervailing duties, which run on statutory auto pilot without requiring the president’s attention or consent. In other words, although there are over 50 outstanding U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty orders against various Chinese products, none of them is considered to reflect the direct wishes of the U.S. president, and thus don’t rise to the level of a potentially explosive trade dispute. But trade restraints under the 421 will no doubt be considered by the Chinese to be a directive of the U.S. president, thus the offense taken and the consequences wrought could be profound.

The good news is that President Obama will finally be forced to take a stand – to match his words and deeds. After a campaign in which trade was disparaged, President Obama’s first 100 days were characterized by a conciliatory tone and some enlightened actions. He told the Mexican president and the Canadian prime minister that he no longer wanted to reopen NAFTA. He spoke out against the most protectionist provisions of the Buy American language in the so-called stimulus bill. He repudiated protectionism and pledged to avoid new protectionist measures at the G-20 and before other international gatherings. His Treasury Department declined to label China a currency manipulator. And his trade representative set about articulating a pro-trade agenda, including support for a push to pass pending bilateral trade agreements and concluding the Doha Round.

But there’s been very little follow through and trade partners are beginning to doubt his sincerity. Efforts to schedule votes on pending trade agreements have been shunted aside as too controversial to happen before health care reform legislation. In the meantime, imports are being turned away from U.S. procurement projects on account of some mindless Buy American caveats and overzealous interpretation of other Buy American rules by project administrators, which is inciting copycat rules in Canada and China.

The time has come for the president to stop wavering and to take decisive actions on trade policy. Of course, he will have until September 17 to render his decision about whether to grant or deny relief in the tires case. Between now and then he should conclude that trade restrictions are not the appropriate course – that among other problems, they will also undermine his economic and diplomatic objectives. And while he’s denying relief, he should take some advice from Scott Lincicome and me to speak the truth about trade to those constituencies who will feel betrayed. Directly and honestly making the case for trade to those who doubt is more durable than rationalizing each pro-trade decision, which has been the norm for too long in Washington. Besides, the polls show that Americans have already turned the corner and are moving away from their misguided flirtation with protectionism. That may help inspire an uncommitted president to take the baton.

Echoes of Smoot-Hawley

President Barack Obama appears to have learned something compared to candidate Obama: protectionism isn’t to America’s advantage.  Unfortunately, it is not clear that Congress has learned the same lesson.  Three free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration remain in limbo, while no one is pushing to reinstate the president’s so-called fast track negotiating authority.

And past protectionist actions are now bearing ill fruit.  The “stimulus” bill required that construction money be spent in the U.S.  Although the provision was amended in response to foreign criticism, some Canadian firms have been adversely affected.  So Canadian cities have begun boycotting American products.

Reports Reuters:

Canadian municipal leaders threatened to retaliate against the “Buy America” movement in the United States on Saturday, warning trade restrictions will hurt both countries’ economies.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities endorsed a controversial proposal to support communities that refuse to buy products from countries that put trade restrictions on products and services from Canada.

The measure is a response to a provision in the U.S. economic stimulus package passed by Congress in February that says public works projects should use iron, steel and other goods made in the United States.

The United States is Canada’s largest trading partner, and Canadians have complained the restrictions will bar their companies from billions of dollars in business that they have previously had access to.

“This U.S. protectionist policy is hurting Canadian firms, costing Canadian jobs and damaging Canadian efforts to grow our economy in the midst of a worldwide recession,” said Sherbrooke, Quebec, Mayor Jean Perrault, also president of the federation that represents cities and towns across Canada.

The municipal officials meeting at the federation’s convention in Whistler, British Columbia, endorsed the measure despite complaints by Canadian trade officials.

Trade Minister Stockwell Day told the group on Friday that Ottawa was actively negotiating with Washington to get the “Buy American” restrictions removed.

Thankfully, this bilateral spat isn’t likely to spark another Great Depression.  However, it illustrates how protectionism is self-defeating.  Other countries will not stand by silently as American legislators attempt to bar their products from the American market.  And U.S. workers will be the ultimate victims as the cycle of retaliation spreads.