Tag: trade

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.

The TPP Trade Negotiations Need More Japan and Less Detroit

If you harbor any doubts that the parameters of U.S. trade policy are defined by a few politically-important domestic industries, take a look at the debate over whether Japan should be allowed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

Did you miss it?  That’s because there really hasn’t been much debate; there has been near-unanimous support for the idea in the United States.

In December 2011, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative requested comments from the public about Japan’s expression of interest in joining the TPP talks.  In response, 115 submissions were filed on behalf of various U.S. interests (small to large companies, trade associations, unions, and other NGOs).  Five of the responses flat out rejected the idea of Japan’s participation; five expressed a willingness to support Japan’s participation with conditions, and 105 expressed no-strings-attached support for Japan joining the talks.  In other words, 91 percent of the respondents were unequivocally in favor of Japan’s participation in the negotiations.

Yet, four months after reviewing those comments, the Obama administration is equivocal about the matter.

With 91 percent in favor, the only formula that could produce executive equivocation is one that weights extremely heavily the views of those expressing opposition to Japan’s participation.  Which of these five dissenters’ views are likely to be getting extra special consideration from the administration on this matter: Humane Society International, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission, the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, or the American Automotive Policy Council (hint: the lobbying arm of the “Detroit 3” – Ford, GM, and Chrysler)?

Yes, the same GM that American taxpayers bailed out and are still involuntarily vested in to the tune of $27 billion has interest in seeing those same taxpayers denied the enormous benefits of liberalizing trade with the world’s third largest economy.  And yes, this is the same Chrysler that masquerades as an American company (remember the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad), but is owned by the Italian automaker Fiat. Add that little detail to the fact that GM produces more cars in China than it does in the United States and one has to question how, exactly, the process of U.S. trade policy formulation is reality-based.

There is nothing wrong with companies investing across borders and producing wherever they can to serve demand across the globe.  Indeed, freedom of capital, trade, and labor should be the rule, not the exception that it is today.  Likewise, it is to be expected that companies will respond to incentives and if policy is perceived as malleable, the incentive to influence favorable outcomes will motivate companies to lobby.  And as entities beholden to the fiduciary duty to maximize profits for shareholders, these companies try to influence the rules to their own advantages.  But who’s watching over the hen-house here?  Policymakers have a responsibility to the public interest, not to specific industries or companies.

What is proper, democratic, or civic-minded about U.S. policy formulated with the views of a few politically-favored companies – companies that are lobbying foreign governments on some of the very same issues – trumping the opinions of a diverse 91 percent of respondent interests?  If the goal of trade policy is to deliver the benefits of trade liberalization to a broad cross-section of Americans, then why is there this egregious imbalance of influence on the process? What is the point of collecting comments from the public on such matters, if not just to create the illusions of policy accessibility and transparency?  The whole exercise renders trade policy indistinguishable from corporate welfare and gives trade a bad name.

Consider the realpolitik of the matter.  The Chinese government sees the TPP negotiations as a U.S.-led effort to counter China’s growing influence, a perception the administration has not been shy about helping to cultivate.  Presumably, the Chinese government would like to see those efforts fail, and one way to undermine the TPP is to ensure that Japan stays out.  How might China accomplish that?  GM and Ford have big and growing stakes in a Chinese auto market that has been subject to various regulations to control rapid demand growth and stifling traffic congestion.  Might GM’s and Ford’s adamant opposition to Japan’s joining the TPP negotiations be animated by these considerations?  The argument put forward by the American Automotive Policy Council that Japan should be excluded from even negotiating because it has allegedly impermeable non-tariff barriers seems to miss the whole point that negotiations are where those barriers are discussed and, ultimately, dismantled.  It’s like disqualifying someone for a haircut because he wears his hair too long.  To my mind (and I neither offer nor have any proof), the adamancy of AAPC’s opposition whiffs of their trying to uphold their end of a bargain with Beijing.

Another explanation put forth for official U.S. equivocation over Japan is that the administration wants to proceed quickly, but the Japanese government itself has not decided whether it even wants to join the negotiations.  Even if Japan were entirely committed to the negotiations and had no domestic opposition to overcome, the process would be slower.  But there is domestic opposition in Japan, so, in fairness, the Obama administration’s concern for Detroit’s feelings doesn’t present the only obstacle.

Getting the deal done quickly is a valid reason to oppose Japan’s participation if the administration sees the TPP only as a means to a political end: having a deal – a relatively minor one, no doubt – to tout before November.  But this isn’t going to be done before November 2013, let alone November 2012.  And the economics of a Japan-less deal are, frankly, underwhelming.

Japan is the world’s third largest economy and the fourth largest trading partner of the United States.  The $6 trillion Japanese economy is more than double the size of the economies of the eight current U.S. negotiating partners combined.  The $200 billion in two-way trade between the United States and Japan equals that of trade between the United States and all of the eight current negotiating partners combined – and the United States already has free trade agreements with four of them.  If there are good reasons for pursuing a trade agreement with the eight, the reasons are much stronger if Japan is included.


Just a few short weeks ago, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk waxed in the Wall Street Journal about the importance of the U.S. services sector industries.  In a piece titled “Rethinking ‘Made in America’,” Ambassador Kirk made the point that the United States is a services-exporting powerhouse and that industries in those sectors would drive growth and job creation in the 21st century. He wrote:

A commitment to services exports is why services and investment are a [sic] cornerstone of the current nine-country Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, in which the U.S. is seeking broad, nondiscriminatory market access for a wide range of services.

There isn’t a bigger ready-market for U.S. services in the world than Japan’s, but as of this moment an icon of the 20th century’s manufacturing economy is in the driver’s seat of this 21st century agreement.

Those who claim to want to move fast assert that Japan can always accede to the agreement at a later date – when it is good and certain that it wants to join.  But there are no guarantees that Japan would want to get into the club on terms undoubtedly less favorable than those it could secure as a charter member.  Rather than view the TPP as a model for the region, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Canada, Mexico, China and even Europe might create their own alternative.  If the TPP is to have guaranteed drawing power, it needs the anchor of a large Asian economy.  And adding Canada and Mexico makes the endeavor all the more worthwhile.

Trade Policy Lessons in WTO Challenge of China’s Rare Earth Restrictions

This morning the Obama administration lodged an official complaint with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Dispute Settlement Body over China’s ongoing restrictions of exports of “Rare Earth” minerals. Rare Earths are crucial ingredients used in the production of flat-screen televisions, smart phones, hybrid automobile batteries, and other high technology products.

The formal complaint was not entirely unexpected since the dispute has been on a low boil for nearly 18 months; the U.S. government recently prevailed in a WTO dispute over a similar issue concerning Chinese export restrictions on nine raw materials used in manufacturing; and, this is an election year in which President Obama has carte blanche to outbid the Republican presidential aspirants’ China-bashing rhetoric with administrative action. So, no surprises really.

Despite the added political incentive to look tough on China this year, the administration should be applauded for its efforts to compel China to oblige its WTO commitments. This is a legitimate complaint following proper channels. In fact, this is exactly the course of action I have long argued for. Negotiations, consultations, and formal WTO dispute resolution (which begin with a long consultation period in which the parties are encouraged to find solutions without formal adjudication) are precisely the methods of dispute settlement conducted by governments that respect the process, their counterparts, and the rule of law in international trade.

In a Cato paper published last week, I wrote:

There is little doubt that certain other Chinese policies would not pass muster at the WTO. China’s so-called indigenous innovation policies, forced technology transfer requirements, porous intellectual property enforcement regime, and rare earth mineral export restrictions are some of many legitimate concerns that might justify formal WTO challenges. (Emphasis added.)

Now, my perspective is not motivated by a fetish for WTO litigation, but a certainty that the alternatives would be bad. Unilateral, discretionary actions taken by governments to redress perceived violations or shortcomings of another government undermine the rule of law in trade and encourage retaliation. Both China and the United States are guilty of taking such unilateral, discretionary actions, and bilateral tensions have increased as a result (see here).

U.S. policymakers should appreciate that today’s formal complaint on rare earths is an example of the right way to address perceived trade barriers. They should also recognize in the arguments advanced by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative the flawed economics in their support of last week’s countervailing duty legislation (the so-called GPX or NME/CVD bill).

Here’s the USTR’s rationale for the Rare Earths complaint:

China imposes several different types of unfair export restraints on the materials at issue in today’s consultations request, including export duties, export quotas, export pricing requirements as well as related export procedures and requirements. Because China is a top global producer for these key inputs, its harmful policies artificially increase prices for the inputs outside of China while lowering prices in China. This price dynamic creates significant advantages for China’s producers when competing against U.S. producers – both in China’s market and in other markets around the world. The improper export restraints also contribute to creating substantial pressure on U.S. and other non-Chinese downstream producers to move their operations, jobs, and technologies to China.

And here’s a quote from USTR Ron Kirk:

America’s workers and manufacturers are being hurt in both established and budding industrial sectors by these policies. China continues to make its export restraints more restrictive, resulting in massive distortions and harmful disruptions in supply chains for these materials throughout the global marketplace.

And here’s Ambassador Kirk in a statement responding (a few months ago) to the WTO Appellate Body ruling that China’s export restrictions on nine raw materials were not in conformity with that country’s WTO commitments:

Today’s decision ensures that core manufacturing industries in this country can get the materials they need to produce and compete on a level playing field.

And, finally, a statement from the USTR’s website on the raw material export restrictions cases:

These raw material inputs are used to make many processed products in a number of primary manufacturing industries, including steel, aluminum and various chemical industries. These products, in turn become essential components in even more numerous downstream products.

USTR’s argument against Chinese export restrictions in the raw materials and Rare Earths cases are just as applicable to U.S. import restrictions. Removing restrictions—whether the export variety imposed by foreign governments or the import variety imposed by our own—reduces input prices, lowers domestic production costs, enables more competitive final-goods pricing and, thus, greater profits for U.S.-based producers.

Yet the U.S. government imposes its own restrictions on imports of some of the very same raw materials. It maintains antidumping duties on magnesium, silicon metal, and coke (all raw materials subject to Chinese export restrictions).  In fact, over 80 percent of the nearly 350 U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty measures in place restrict imports of raw materials and industrial inputs—ingredients required by U.S. producers in their own production processes. But those companies—those producers and workers for whom Ambassador Kirk professes to be going to bat in the WTO case on rare earths (and the previous raw materials case)—don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to deciding whether to impose AD or CVD duties. (Full story here.)

Ambassador Kirk’s logic and the facts about who exactly is victimized by U.S. trade policies provide a compelling case for trade law reform, such as requiring the administering authorities to consider the economic impact of AD/CVD measures on producers in downstream industries—companies like magnesium-cast automobile parts producers, manufacturers of silicones used in solar panels, and even steel producers, who require coke for their blast furnaces.

Last week, when the CVD legislation passed both chambers overwhelmingly, Congress was implicitly thumbing their noses at these same producers and workers who the USTR rightly identifies as victims of Chinese trade restrictions. They are clearly victims of our own policies, derived in dark shadows by interests with asymmetric influence on the process. Maybe we should dwell on that hypocrisy for a while, and work to fix it by reconsidering the self-flagellation that is the U.S. trade remedies regime.

The Ex-Im Bank and Crony Capitalism

My esteemed colleague Sallie James broke ground last summer with an excellent expose of the corporate welfare role played by the Export-Import Bank of the United States.  Until this past weekend, Sallie’s had been about the only analysis in the public domain to find the Ex-Im Bank’s activities unseemly, market-distorting, and anathema to free market capitalism.

Thus, I was heartened to see that an editorial in the last Saturday/Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal picked up on Sallie’s theme and emphasized some of her most salient points.  Hopefully, the WSJ and other prominent news outlets read and amplify Sallie’s follow-up, forthcoming analysis, which shines some light on ExIm’s growing role in the business of financing the domestic sales of select U.S. companies.

Time for Some Rapprochement in U.S.-China Economic Relations

Has the Chinese government indulged in protectionist, provocative or otherwise illiberal policies that have, on occasion, violated its commitment to the rules of international trade? Yes.

Do the Chinese maintain other policies that very likely would be found to violate China’s WTO obligations? Yes.

Is the U.S. government within its rights to bring formal complaints about benefit-impairing Chinese trade practices to the World Trade Organization for adjudication and resolution? Yes.

But before getting all righteous and patriotic and demanding that China be deemed an economic pariah worthy of exceptionally harsh treatment, keep in mind that the U.S. government has been found out of compliance with its WTO obligations more than any other WTO member, and it remains out of compliance on a few issues to this very day.

In some respects, the Chinese are emulating the tack taken by U.S. policymakers during the past three presidential administrations and ten congresses by presuming there is no policy or practice that violates WTO rules unless and until that policy or practice has been determined by the WTO Appellate Body to be out of conformity, and sometimes not until after retaliation has been authorized, and sometimes not even then.

China’s protectionist policies – policies that make its markets less accessible to U.S. exports and investment – should be identified and challenged. But U.S. policymakers should consider abandoning self-destructive, protectionist policies that hurt U.S. interests more than Chinese ones in favor of greater cooperation from China resolving problems facing U.S. companies in that market. But greater cooperation doesn’t come at the barrel of a gun.  It requires good will and an attitude of willing reciprocity from the U.S. side.

This new paper gives some background and offers the one important reform that could prove to be the elixir.