Tag: trade

U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement? A Pep Talk or Overhaul at USTR Is the Place to Start

In its first 49 months, the Obama adminstration has paid lip service to trade liberalization. There have been the announcements, the platitudes, the initiatives, the task forces, and the interminable negotiations, but no new trade agreements. Not one. Still, in his State of the Union speech tonight, the president will offer assurances that his rhetorical commitment to trade liberalization remains steadfast, when he announces grand plans to pursue a trans-Atlantic free trade deal. Of course, rhetorical commitments and pursuing free trade don’t exactly get the job done.

Whether anything comes of prospective U.S.-EU trade negotiations or the still-brewing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations depends, more than anything else, on whether President Obama believes his own rhetoric. Of course, actions speak louder than words and on that score things don’t look especially promising.

Exhibit A is the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where employee morale has gone from bad to worse. In a 2012 OPM survey of 29 small federal agencies published in a report titled “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government,” USTR ranked dead last. The results showed employee dissatisfaction with their jobs, their organization, and their senior leadership.

The overall weighted index score of 32.7 (out of a possible 100) in 2012 is the latest point in a continuous and steep decline in satisfaction, which was 74.2 in 2009, 57.4 in 2010, and 47.7 in 2011. The sub-index for “Effective Leadership - Senior Leaders” declined from 71.2 to 49.7 to 37.5 to 18.6 over those same four years. Only 17.7 percent of the 101 USTR respondents said they had a high level of respect for their organization’s senior leaders, while 62.1 dissented from that view. Only 12.8 percent of 102 USTR respondents said their organization’s leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce, while 67.3 dissented.

These are some profound rebukes of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and by extension, President Obama.

Romney’s Misplaced Obsession with Chinese Currency Manipulation

More than anything else, Mitt Romney’s zealous determination to pin a scarlett “CM” on the Chinese government’s lapel has defined his trade platform.  And that draws an unfavorable contrast for Romney, since President Obama’s repeated decisions not to label China a currency manipulator make him look the more cautious, circumspect, risk-averse business executive that Romney portrays himself to be.

In any event, the currency issue is very much last decade’s battle.  By continuously harping about it, Governor Romney evokes tales of old Japanese soldiers, left behind on South Pacific islands, still fighting WWII well into the 1960s.

As I noted in this piece on Forbes yesterday, if Romney is elected he will  have to renege on this silly commitment (substantively, at least), and change focus:

If Mitt Romney believes in “free trade,” his focus with respect to China should be on correcting that government’s failures to honor all of its commitments to liberalize and on the misguided efforts by U.S. policymakers to thwart legitimate commerce between Chinese exporters and American consumers.

You Say Tomato and I Say Tomate; Let’s Call this Whole Antidumping Racket Off

Last month, on the day the president was addressing audiences in the auto-parts-factory-rich state of Ohio, the administration filed a formal trade complaint before the World Trade Organization alleging that China is subsidizing exports of automobile parts.

Last week, at the request of domestic tomato producers operating preponderantly in the state of Florida, the Commerce Department agreed to terminate a 4-year-old agreement, which has allowed tomatoes from Mexico to be sold in the United States under certain minimum price conditions.

Of course it would be cynical to believe that these actions have anything to do with an incumbent candidate wielding Executive branch authorities to curry favor with special interests in major swing states before an election. So let’s make this latest episode a teaching moment about the perils of the antidumping status quo.

The long-standing – but vaguely understood – “trade agreement” between the United States and Mexico that was terminated last week was an agreement between Mexican tomato producers and the U.S. Department of Commerce to “suspend” an antidumping investigation that had been initiated at the request of U.S. tomato producers back in 1996. At the time, U.S. producers alleged that they were being materially injured by reason of tomatoes imported from Mexico and sold at “less than fair value.” The U.S. International Trade Commission agreed, preliminarily, on the issue of injury and the Commerce Department had calculated that the Mexicans were, in fact, dumping – selling in the United States at prices below “fair value.” (Here and here are two of many Cato exposés of what passes for objective administration of the antidumping law at the Commerce Department.)

But instead of carrying the investigation through to the final stage which likely would have included the imposition of duties, a “suspension agreement” was reached under which the Commerce Department would suspend the antidumping investigation if the Mexicans agreed to certain terms – most importantly, that they sell their tomatoes above a minimum benchmark price.  Understanding why the parties would agree to suspend an investigation – and why there are only seven suspension agreements among 240 active antidumping measures – is important to understanding one of the most anti-consumer, anti-competitive aspects of the U.S. antidumping law.

In an antidumping investigation, the Commerce Department calculates a dumping “margin,” which is purported to be the average difference between the foreign producer’s home market prices and his U.S. prices of the same or similar merchandise sold contemporaneously, allocated over the average value of the producer’s U.S. sales, which yields an ad valorem antidumping duty rate. That rate is then applied to the value of imports, as they enter Customs, to calculate the amount of duty “deposits” owed by the importer.

So, if a Mexican tomato producer’s rate has been calculated to be 14.6% and the value of a container of tomatoes from that producer is $100,000, then U.S. Customs will require the U.S. importer of those tomatoes to post a deposit of $14,600. Why is it called a deposit? Because the final duty liability to the importer is still unknown at the time of entry. The 14.6% is an estimate of the current rate of dumping based on sales comparisons from the previous year. But the actual rate of dumping for the current period – and, thus, the actual cost of importing tomatoes from Mexico – is unknown until completion of an “administrative review” of the current period’s sales by the Commerce Department, which occurs after the period is over.

In other words, because of the unique retrospective nature of the U.S. antidumping law, importers DO NOT KNOW the amount of antidumping duties they will ultimately have to pay until well after the subject products have been imported and sold in the United States. The final liability might be larger, much larger, smaller, or much smaller than the deposit. If smaller, the importer gets a refund with interest. If larger, the importer owes the difference plus interest.

How many business ventures would be started – or even qualify for a loan – with so much uncertainty about its operating costs? Imagine your local supermarket operating on the same principles. Imagine ringing up your basket-full of groceries, paying $122.45, and then waiting a year to find out whether you get a rebate or have to issue a supplemental check. Gamblers might enjoy the thrill, but this kind of uncertainty is anathema to business. Most grocery shoppers would buy their groceries somewhere else, where the prices are final.  Likewise, importers and other businesses in the supply chain are likely to stop doing business altogether with exporters who are subject to antidumping measures.

Such is the consequence of our ”retrospective” antidumping system. Every other major country that has an antidumping law has a “prospective” system, whereunder the duties assessed upon importation are final.  And this brings us back to Mexican tomatoes.

The suspension agreement terminated last week had been in effect since 2008 and required Mexican producers to sell their tomatoes at prices above $0.17 per pound between July 1 and October 22 and above $0.22 per pound between October 23 and June 30.  (That agreement was actually the third suspension agreement governing the terms of Mexican tomato sales in the United States since 1996.  The previous two were terminated at the request of the Mexican producers, presumably because market conditions had changed, and they were seeking better terms.)

The advantage of a suspension agreement is that it brings a degree of certainty – even if prices are higher.  It would be collusion but for the fact that the deal is struck between foreign producers and the Commerce Department and not between foreign producers and U.S. producers.  Occasionally, domestic producers desire certainty because its always possible that antidumping rates will decline in subsequent years. But foreign producers are more inclined to covet the certainty of a suspension agreement because the uncertainty that would otherwise confront their customers – U.S. importers – is often enough to chase them away entirely. And that helps explain the dearth of suspension agreements.

The retrospective nature of the U.S. law is just another example of how the antidumping regime is punitive and not remedial.

Mitt Romney’s Contrived Trade War

The Obama administration filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization on Monday alleging that the Chinese government is bestowing various prohibited subsidies upon Chinese automobile and auto parts producers to the tune of $1 billion and that Beijing is, accordingly, in violation of its commitments under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.

There are reasons to shake one’s head at this move, including the apparent hypocrisy it reveals of an administration that spins the $85 billion of subsidies it heaped upon two U.S. car companies and the United Autoworkers union as its chief economic accomplishment. Of course that figure doesn’t even include the $12-$14 billion in unorthodox tax breaks granted to GM under the bankruptcy terms; $17 billion in funds committed from the TARP to GM’s former financial arm GMAC (which received taxpayer support to facilitate GM auto sales); GM’s portion of the $25 billion Energy Department slush fund to underwrite research and development in green auto technology; and the $7,500 tax credit granted for every new purchase of a Chevy Volt, and more. (Full story here.)

To complain about $1 billion of Chinese subsidies is – shall we say – a bit rich.

Moreover, the filing of the WTO case reveals some of the unseemly perquisites of incumbency. A large concentration of the beneficiaries of the GM bailout resides in Ohio, a state that has had the administration’s strategic attention since its reelection campaign began in November 2008. But in case that largesse wasn’t enough to secure their support in November 2012, a large concentration of the beneficiaries of a successful U.S. WTO complaint also resides in Ohio, which is where – by Jove – the president was speaking when word of the WTO complaint became public.

It is all exasperating, no doubt.

But the bigger and more disconcerting story in all of this is the apparent ascendancy of economic nationalism within the GOP. Romney’s persistence in trying to brand himself the “most protectionist” or “biggest China basher” in the presidential race sort of forced Obama to bring the WTO case – or at least expedited the timetable. Have you seen the Romney ads? Have you read the shrill RNC taunts that cite the widely-discredited, union-funded Economic Policy Institute’s figures on job losses caused by trade with China? Strange bedfellows, indeed!

It was once the case – not too long ago – that Republican candidates argued in support of trade and the freedom of Americans to partake of the opportunities afforded by the global economy. But things, apparently, have changed. The nationalistic strains within the Republican Party have strengthened since 2009. I explained why this was happening in this 2010 Cato paper, which is excerpted below:

Frictions in the U.S.-China relationship are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent months. Tensions that were managed adeptly in the past are multiplying, and the tenor of official dialogue and public discourse has become more strident. 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. Once-respected demarcations between geopolitical and economic aspects of the relationship have been blurred. In fact, economic frictions are now more likely to be cast in the context of our geopolitical differences, which often serves to overstate the challenges and obscure the solutions.

A sign of the times is a recent commentary by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, in which he declares: “China’s worldview threatens America’s geopolitical and economic interests.” That statement would seem to support a course of action very different from the course implied by the same columnist 18 months earlier, when he wrote, “Globalization means interdependence; major nations ignore that at their peril.” That change of heart appears to be contagious.

Understandably, there is angst among the U.S. public, who hear frequently that China will soon surpass the United States in one economic superlative after another. Some worry that China’s rise will impair America’s capacity to fulfill or pursue its traditional geopolitical objectives. And those concerns are magnified by a media that cannot resist tempting the impulses of U.S. nationalism. Woven into stories about China’s frantic pace of development are reminders that the Chinese have not forgotten their two-century slumber—a period of humiliation and exploitation by foreign powers.

A recent National Journal cover story describing areas of bilateral policy contention—which the article laments as “frustrating” the fact that U.S. experts see “few alternatives to continued engagement” —features three menacing photographs of Chinese military formations, one picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il flanked by members of the Chinese military, and one photo of the Chinese foreign minister shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Subtly, and sometimes not, the media and politicians are brandishing the image of an adversarial China. In Chinese reluctance to oblige U.S. policy wishes, we are told that China selfishly follows a “China-First” policy. In the increasing willingness of Chinese officials to criticize U.S. policies, we are told of a new “triumphalism” in China. In the reportedly shabby treatment of President Obama by his Chinese hosts on his recent trip to Beijing, we are told that the “Chinese have an innate sense of superiority.” But indignation 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.

In this campaign, the RNC seems to be fighting to position itself to the protectionist side of Obama, daring the president to take action – a dare the president has accepted, inflating his political credit in places like Ohio. In response to Governor Romney’s assertion that the president had been soft on China and that he, Romney, would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, Obama created the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, which resonated politically with the target audience. While the challenger blathers about the president’s alleged fecklessness in dealing with China, the president responds by bringing new WTO cases against Beijing. The most recent complaint, relative to the strident tack Mitt Romney is advocating, is the more responsible, more pro-market course of action. If Romney is to be believed, his trade actions would have far worse consequences for the economy.

Instead of focusing on the real sources of economic stagnation in the United States – including the uncertain business climate inspired by the bailouts, the proliferation of costly and superfluous new environmental, health, and financial regulations, a tax code that is in constant flux, frivolous torts, an education monopoly that fails to produce enough talent backstopped by an immigration system that chases it away – Mitt Romney has chosen to blame America’s woes on China. THAT is the message the Republican presidential candidate, with the full backing of the RNC, brings to the voters in Ohio, whose fortunes are increasingly tied to America’s engagement in the global economy. As of July, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, more than one full percentage point lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Ohio’s economy is growing on account of trade – particularly with China, the state’s third largest market and destination of $2.7 billion worth of Ohio’s output in 2011. Just look at this bar chart that depicts the importance of China to Ohio, and conversely, the costs of a real bilateral trade war.

Governor Romney should ditch his trade warrior schtick pronto, and start explaining to the electorate how pro-trade policies – including the freedom of corporations to invest abroad (to offshore a la Bain Capital)– help enlarge the economic pie. Puffing out the chest to appear the biggest protectionist in the race is bad economics and bad politics.

Is Romney Going to Defend ‘Shipping Jobs Overseas’? No Way

The lead story in today’s Washington Post accuses Mitt Romney, while at Bain Capital, of investing in firms “that specialized in relocating” American jobs overseas. This gave cause to Obama political adviser David Axelrod to accuse Romney of “breathtaking hypocrisy,” which prompted Roger Pilon to spell out some differences between economics and “Solyndranomics” for the administration. Roger’s correct. But Romney—for running away from that record and playing to that same politically fertile economic ignorance that tempts devastating economic policies—is also worthy of his scorn. Romney should have written Roger’s words.

President Obama set the tone earlier this year during his SOTU address by demonizing companies that get tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas. By “tax breaks,” the president means merely that their un-patriated profits aren’t subject to double taxation. “Shipping jobs overseas” is a metaphor you’ll hear more frequently in the coming months, and Romney is more likely to deny any association with it than to defend it. That’s just the way he rolls.

Outsourcing has been portrayed as a betrayal of American workers by companies that only care about the bottom-line. Well, yes, caring about the bottom line is what companies are supposed to do. Corporate officers have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize profits. It is not the responsibility of corporations to tend to the national employment situation. It is, however, the responsibility of Congress and the administration to have policies in place that encourage investing and hiring or that at least don’t discourage investing and hiring. But for the specific financial inducements that politicians offer firms to invest and hire in particular chosen industries—Solyndranomics—this administration (and the 110th-112th Congresses) has produced too many reasons to forgo domestic investment. Let’s not blame companies for following the incentives and disincentives created by policy.

There’s also the economics. Contrary to the assertions of some anti-trade, anti-globalization interests, countries with low wages or lax labor and environmental standards rarely draw U.S. investment. Total production costs—from product conception to consumption—are what matter and locations with low wages or lax standards tend to be less productive and thus less appealing places to produce.

The vast majority of U.S. direct investment abroad (what the president calls “shipping jobs overseas”) goes to other rich countries (European countries and Canada), where the rule of law is clear and abided, and where there is a market to serve. The primary reason for U.S. corporations establishing foreign affiliates is to serve demand in those markets—not as a platform for exporting back to the United States. In fact, according to this study by Matt Slaughter, over 93 percent of the sales of U.S. foreign affiliates are made in the host or other foreign countries. Only about 7 percent of the sales are to U.S. customers.

Furthermore, the companies that are investing abroad tend to be the same ones that are doing well and investing and hiring at home.  Their operations abroad complement rather than supplant their U.S. operations.

During his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign, candidate John Kerry denigrated “Benedict Arnold companies” that outsourced production and service functions to places like India. Earlier this month, Senator Kerry introduced a bill in the Senate that effectively acknowledges that anti-investment, anti-business policies may be responsible for deterring foreign investment in the United States and for chasing some U.S. companies away. Maybe he should talk to the president—and Romney.

Fiddling at the Republican Duty-Suspensions-as-Earmarks Hoedown while Economic Growth Burns

I could be writing in this space about the merits of across-the-board, permanent elimination of U.S. tariffs as a catalyst for U.S. business investment, hiring, and economic growth.  However, I am forced to devote time and energy to argue that temporary import duty suspensions are not earmarks.

The same goes for our beloved legislators.  Because congressional Republicans are mired in a debate about whether temporary suspensions of import duties that benefit fewer than 10 entities are earmarks under House rules, there is no room for a substantive discussion about why we even have import duties in the first place.

Hey Capitol Hill: Duties, not duty suspensions, are the earmarks you should eradicate.

Solar Panels Trade Case Mocks Washington’s Ways

Later today the U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to announce preliminary antidumping duties on solar panels from China. This case might normally be met with an exasperated sigh and chalked up as just another example of myopic, self-flagellating, capricious U.S. antidumping policy toward China.

But in this instance the absurdity is magnified by the fact that Washington has already devoted billions of dollars in production subsidies and consumption tax credits in an effort to invent a non-trivial market for solar energy in the United States.  Imposing duties only undermines that objective. With brand new levies on imports to add to the duties already being imposed on the same products to “countervail” the lower prices afforded U.S. consumers by the Chinese government’s production subsidies, the administration’s already-expensive mission will become even more so – perhaps prohibitively so.

It’s not that President Obama and the Congress woke up one morning and agreed to craft policies that simultaneously promote and deter U.S. solar energy consumption. But that’s what Washington – with its meddling ethos and self-righteous politicians – has wrought: policies working at cross-purposes.

The Economic Report of the President in 2010 (published before Solyndra became a household name) boasts of the administration’s tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for production and tax credits for consumption of solar panels. This industrial policy continues to this day and there is no greater cheerleader for solar than the president himself. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama said:

I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.

One month later, noting that 16 solar projects have been approved on public land since he took office, the president said:

[Solar] is an industry on the rise. It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper. And more and more businesses are starting to take notice.

The president has couched his support for solar in terms of what he sees as the environmental imperative of reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming. Thus his policy aim is to encourage consumption by making solar less expensive to retail consumers with production subsidies and consumption tax credits. (Of course, lower-cost solar is a mirage – accounting smoke and mirrors – because the subsidies come from current taxpayers and the tax credits deprive the Treasury of revenues already earmarked, forcing the government to borrow, burdening future taxpayers with principle and interest debt, which is paid with higher taxes down the road).

However, the president also sees solar and other green technologies as industries that will create great value, spawn new ideas and technologies, keep the United States at the top of the global value chain, and serve as reliable jobs creators going forward. And he seems to think that realization of that objective requires his running interference on behalf of U.S. producers.  He says:

Countries like China are moving even faster… . I’m not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine in the future.

There is nothing incompatible about holding the simultanous beliefs that greater use of solar power could reduce carbon emissions and that a solar industry has great potential to spur innovation, create value, and support good-paying jobs.  But promoting the realization of both premises simultaneously through policy intervention is a fools errand, and we are caught in its midst.

Efforts to protect and nurture these chosen industries by keeping foreign competitors at bay is incompatible with the president’s environmentally-driven objective of increasing retail demand for solar energy.  Intervening to reduce the supply of solar panels will cause prices to rise and rising prices (particularly in light of abundant cheap alternatives like natural gas) will cause demand to fall.  Sure, we may be left with some protected producers in the short-run, but how will they endure without customers.

That question is, apparently, far from minds of perennial interventionist Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and arch-protectionist Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).  Just this week, the duo released a proposal that would make ineligible for the 30% tax credit, solar panels made outside of the United States, claiming that “Chinese solar panel producers’ eligibility for tax credit undercuts Amercian companies and jobs.”  The senators should tell that to the American business owners and employees in the much larger and more economically significant downstream industries that install and service solar panels in the United States.  The proposal would cause a dramtic increase in the retail price of solar panels and imperil livelihoods in these downstream industries.

This Cato video should be required viewing for Washington’s meddling policymakers.