Tag: trade

Is the U.S. Trade Representative a Closet Free Trader?

Not to get him in trouble with his boss, but U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has been sounding like a free trader lately. I’m beginning to think Ambassador Kirk consumes the analyses we produce over here at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Well, let me rephrase: that he consumes the meat of our analyses, but still hides the vegetables under the picked-over potatoes.

Still, that’s pretty commendable for a Washington policymaker.

Just the other day, Ambassador Kirk lamented how policymakers do a poor job selling trade agreements to a skeptical public. Inside U.S. Trade [$] paraphrased Kirk as saying:

[P]oliticians must ‘talk about trade differently’ and demonstrate how trade policy is directly responsible for sustaining economic growth and creating jobs. If the focus is only on how trade deals will improve supply chains for businesses, for instance, that is not enough to build the base for support for trade deals.

That is a sound criticism. The typical, mercantilist arguments that tout the benefits of exports and rationalize imports as necessary evils are foolish and self-defeating—particularly in a country that will run trade deficits into the distant future as its economy continues to grow and attract greater amounts of foreign investment. The freedom to engage in commerce with whom and how one chooses, and the impact of import competition are the real benefits of freer trade.

Like some others in town, we at Cato advocate free trade. But unlike most, we advocate free trade here in the United States—not just over there in foreign countries. Free trade requires more than getting other governments to eliminate their barriers to U.S. exports; it requires getting the U.S. government to eliminate its barriers to U.S. imports from abroad. The latter is the real objective of free trade advocacy and the well-spring of most of its benefits.

But the economic benefits of imports rarely make the Washington “free trade advocate’s” Top-10 list of talking points, nor do they officially register in the minds of trade negotiators, whose chief aims are to secure for their exporters the greatest possible access to foreign markets, while simultaneously conceding to foreigners as little access as possible to the domestic market. “Import” is a four-letter word in the Washington trade policy community.

That’s why Ambassador Kirk’s recent comments have me thinking: epiphany?

In a statement responding to the WTO Appellate Body ruling last week that China’s export restrictions on nine raw materials were not in conformity with that country’s WTO commitments, Ambassador Kirk made the point that U.S. firms that use those raw materials will be better able to compete once those restrictions are lifted.

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.

The USTR had previously made the following point:

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.

Technically, Ambassador Kirk is not engaging in profanity—he doesn’t use the word import. But his argument against Chinese export restrictions is 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.

So let’s take Ambassador Kirk’s sound logic and see if it might apply elsewhere in the realm of U.S. trade policy. If the U.S. government thought it worthwhile to take China to the WTO over the restrictions it imposes on raw material exports because those restrictions hurt U.S. producers, then why does the same U.S. government impose its own restrictions on imports of some of the very same raw materials? That’s right. The United States maintains antidumping duties on magnesium, silicon metal, and coke (all raw materials subject to Chinese export restrictions).

If Ambassador Kirk ate the vegetables as well as the meat of Cato’s trade policy analyses, he would recognize that his logic provides a compelling case for antidumping reforms, such as one requiring the administering authorities to consider the economic impact of antidumping measures on producers in downstream industries, such as magnesium-cast automobile parts producers, manufacturers of silicones used in solar panels, and even steel producers, who require coke for their blast furnaces.

We will know that the ambassador has eaten his free-trade vegetables when he starts sounding like former USTR Robert Zoellick who once hoped for the Doha Round of trade negotiations that it would “[T]urn every corner store in America into a duty-free shop.”

President Obama Could Improve Relations with China at the Stroke of His Pen

When China joined the WTO in December 2001, one of the many terms it agreed to was to allow the United States to continue to treat it as a non-market economy under U.S. antidumping law for a period of 15 years. China has regretted that concession ever since, and there are precious few gestures that would win more goodwill from the Chinese government than a decision by President Obama to graduate China to market economy status now.

A ruling last month from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit making it illegal to apply the U.S. Countervailing Duty Law (anti-subsidy law) to imports from non-market economies gives the president the perfect opening to make the change now. From the perspective of a free trader, that solution is far from ideal: it preserves domestic industries access to the antidumping law and countervailing duty laws, both of which produce egregiously punitive duties on imports and are ripe for serious reform or outright repeal.

But the benefit of granting market economy status to China now is that it will help slow, and likely reverse the deterioration in bilateral economic relations. And that would be an important benefit for all of us.

At the very beginning of the Obama administration, Scott Lincicome and I urged the new president to consider more than just the litany of gripes so often heard at home and to recognize that China has its own justifiable concerns about U.S. policy:

The time has come to seriously consider carrots and not just sticksparticularly since the pain from the sticks is not limited to its intended targets, but is felt in the United States and in other countries, given the transnational nature of supply chains. President Obama would invigorate the relationship if he were to grant China market economy treatment in anti-dumping cases. While such a reform would take very little out of petitioning industries hides, the gesture would win vast sums of goodwill from the

Chinesegoodwill needed to resolve more important issues going forward. Indeed, repeal of the non-market economy (NME) designation presents a win-win scenario for several reasons.

First, graduation from NME status is one of the Chinese governments top international

trade priorities. China wants to be treated like all other major economies, and accordingly, the Chinese government is likely willing to make important concessions in other contested areas of trade policy to achieve market economy status. But the longer we wait to grant market economy status to China, the less valuable that concession becomes. Under the rules governing Chinas accession to the WTO, the United States must repeal Chinas NME designation by 2016. Thus, the value of that concession

will be greater in 2009seven years earlythan it will be in 2010 or 2012. Much beyond

2012, and the concession looks a bit like Confederate money.

Second, Chinas NME designation has drawn intense criticism from domestic consuming industries, trade policy experts, and U.S. trade partners because of its incongruous application (for example, Russia was deemed a market economy in 2002, yet still is not a WTO member, while China became a WTO member in 2001) and the latitude for abuse of administrative discretion it affords. Also, the relatively recent change in policy that opened the door to countervailing duty cases against China has sparked controversy about whether NME treatment in anti-dumping cases should still be permissible.

U.S. revocation of Chinas NME status would alleviate many of those domestic concerns at virtually no cost to domestic petitioning industries, but petitioners value NME because of the trade-suppressing uncertainty the process engenders. It is important that President Obama understand that our trade relationship with China has been mutually beneficial, that the rhetoric about the impact of unfair Chinese practices has been highly exaggerated, and that unnecessary provocation could open a Pandoras Box of economic problems.

(Read the whole analysis here.)

Well, Lincicome (in a thorough analysis) and I (in a fairly technical one) continue to make the case for market economy designation, and welcome the retorts of those who are opposed.

Solar Panel Case Shines Light on the Imperative of U.S. Trade Law Reform

Earlier this year, the Cato Institute published this paper, which describes the self-flagellating nature of the U.S. antidumping law. Nearly 80 percent of all U.S. antidumping measures imposed between 2000 and 2009 (130 of 164 measures) restrict imports of intermediate goods—inputs required by U.S. producers for their own production processes.

Antidumping duties on magnesium, polyvinyl chloride, and hot-rolled steel, for example, enable petitioning U.S. companies that often dominate domestic supply of raw materials to foreclose alternative sources and then thrust higher prices on their U.S. customers. But those customers—U.S. producers of auto parts, paint, and appliances—who consume the now-restricted raw materials to produce higher value-added goods and who might otherwise create jobs, are instead made less profitable and less competitive, burdening the broader economy.

But here’s the kicker. The statute itself forbids the administering authorities from considering the economic impact of antidumping restrictions on those firms or on the economy at large. The well-being of the petitioning industry is all that matters and the collateral damage to downstream industries and the overall economy is to be ignored.

Now, the high-profile antidumping and countervailing duty cases recently initiated against solar panels from China are shining some fresh light on this outrage. A group called the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), which represents the portion of the U.S. solar industry that is downstream of the solar panel producers (the producers’ customers), is asking the cases be dropped or settled. CASE, representing 145 member companies that employ over 14,000 workers in solar project development, logistics, construction, and installation, argues:

The severe tariffs [being sought] would have a very damaging effect on the solar industry in the United States and would fundamentally undermine many years of effort by all of us who care about the future of solar power …

In simple dollar terms, [the] petition threatens the planned installation of solar electric power systems in the amount of $11 billion in 2012 and the potential installation of $60 billion currently in the total pipeline …

By asking government to interfere and artificially increase the price (equivalent to putting on a high tax) will only hinder the deployment, cost thousands of jobs … and further negatively impact an already shaky economy.

There is no good reason for arguments like these—and the facts supporting them—to be ignored in trade remedies cases. Several other major countries that have antidumping and countervailing duty laws on their books employ a so-called public interest provision that directs the authorities to deny duties when the likely costs are demonstrated to exceed any benefits to the petitioning industry. (See page 18 for an elaboration.)

It is difficult to fathom how an administration that begs U.S. businesses to invest and hire would not be pushing hard for this particular reform. After all, the administration acknowledges the importance of ensuring downstream producers have access to imported inputs. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has argued this point in its complaint against Chinese export restrictions at the World Trade Organization. And the president himself described how the competitiveness of U.S. firms is hurt by restrictions on imported inputs when he signed into law the Manufacturer’s Enhancement Act last year.

But then again, incongruities in this administration’s economic policies seem to be the rule, not the exception. In the solar panel case, the president has offered his rhetorical support (at least) to the petitioners, even though their success would drive up the cost of already-too-expensive solar power, reducing demand for an energy source the president has been advocating and subsidizing with the incentive of 30 percent tax credits.

I suppose the White House has determined that the cost of import duties—to consumers up front and to taxpayers through the a much higher tax credit—is worth the benefit of having a Chinese scapegoat to take the heat off the president for Solyndra’s failure.

Big Government Causes Crime, the Norwegian Version

I’ve written several times about the foolish War on Drugs, which has been about as misguided and ineffective as the government’s War on Poverty.

So when I saw a news report about a couple of Swedes getting busted for smuggling 200-plus kilos of contraband into Norway, and then another story about a Russian getting caught trying to sneak 90 kilos of an illicit substance into the country, I wondered whether these were reports about cocaine or marijuana. Or perhaps heroin or crystal meth.

Hardly. Norway’s law enforcement community was protecting people from the horrible scourge of illegal butter.

Sounds absurd, but there’s been an increase in the demand for butter and high import taxes have created a huge incentive for black market butter sales. Here’s a video on this latest example of government stupidity.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you outlaw butter, only outlaws will have butter. Or perhaps butter is the gateway drug leading to whole milk consumption, red meat, salt, and other dietary sins. Surely Mayor Bloomberg will want to investigate.

By the way, the United States is not immune from foolish policies that line the pockets of criminals. Here’s a video from the Mackinac Center revealing how punitive tobacco taxes facilitate organized crime.

Trade Law, Trade War, and the Case of Multilayered Wood Flooring from China

Public angst over China’s rise and the threat of populist currency legislation have prompted speculation about a U.S.-China “Trade War.” With the 2012 elections still a whole year away, there is ample opportunity for campaigning politicians to ignite that fuse.

But pyrotechnics aren’t necessary. Rather than a 1930s-style free-for-all, a trade war—if one were to begin—is more likely to be of the lowercase, “rules-based” variety, where trade restrictions are imposed in compliance (or under the pretense of compliance) with global trade rules. Many of the battles would be waged behind the façade of so-called trade remedy laws.

Antidumping and countervailing duty measures are the most commonly invoked forms of “contingent protectionism” permitted under World Trade Organization rules. Those rules allow member governments to maintain and administer national antidumping and countervailing duty laws to remedy—through the imposition of customs duties—the effects of imports determined to be sold at unfairly low prices (antidumping) or determined to be unfairly subsidized by a government (countervailing). But imposing “remedies” under these laws is contingent upon certain conditions being met. Two core conditions are that the administering authorities need to demonstrate that the imports in question are being dumped or subsidized, and that those dumped or subsidized imports are causing or threatening material injury to the domestic industry.

A determination expected tomorrow from the U.S. International Trade Commission offers a case in point. The Commission will vote on the question of whether dumped and subsidized imports of multilayered wood flooring (MLWF) from China are causing or threatening material injury to the U.S. MLWF industry. An affirmative determination could invite Chinese retaliation because the evidence of a causal connection between imports from China and injury to the U.S. industry is weak to non-existent. If the U.S. government is going to stretch or skirt the evidentiary standards established by domestic law and international treaty, the Chinese government may be inclined to do the same. (In fact, the Chinese government is already alleged to have broken those rules – and the United States is seeking recourse in the WTO – when it imposed antidumping and countervailing duties on U.S. chicken exports in 2010.)

Multilayered wood flooring is a floor covering product—used for the same practical purposes as hardwood flooring, tile, and carpeting. Sales of MLWF are highly dependent upon new housing starts and remodeling expenditures, both of which tanked when the housing bubble burst in 2008. As a result of U.S. housing starts declining from a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.1 million units in February 2008 to just 505,000 units in March 2009, as well as the large decline in remodeling activity over the same period, MLWF industry prices, shipments, revenues, and profits declined substantially, as did imports from China and other countries. But since the second quarter of 2009, housing starts have been stable at about 600,000 units per year and remodeling activity has been steady at about $112 billion per year.

Importantly for the injury analysis, this period of stability in housing starts and renovation activity enables an analysis that isolates the effects of imports on the domestic industry. And what is evident is that, as domestic consumption of MLWF picked up, so did U.S. imports, producer shipments, revenues, and profits (from -9.9 percent in 2009 to -1.0 percent in the first half of 2011). Increasing volumes of subject imports correlate with an improving condition of the domestic industry. Throughout the period of stabilization, prices in the U.S. market have been steady, as well. If imports from China were to have an injurious effect on the domestic industry, one would expect the increasing volume of such imports to drive down prices in the United States. But imports from China, on average, do not underprice domestic MLWF. According to the public version of the USITC Staff Report in this matter:

…prices for MLWF from China were below those for U.S.-produced MLWF in 60 of 110 instances; margins of underselling ranged from 1.5 to 36.4 percent. In the remaining 50 instances, prices for MLWF imported from China were above those for U.S.-produced MLWF; margins of overselling ranged from 0.1 to 30.4 percent.

An affirmative finding of injurious dumping and/or subsidization from the USITC tomorrow would require disregard of these and other crucial facts and would warrant closer scrutiny of the antidumping regime. It would also invite similar actions from Chinese trade remedies authorities and then who know where it will lead.

Making and Taking

In a column on what Jane Jacobs would have thought of the Wall Street protests, Sandy Ikeda quotes a line from her book Systems of Survival:

[W]e have two distinct ways of making a living, no more no less… . First, we’re able to take what we want – simply take, depending of course, on what’s available to be taken. That’s what all other animals do… . But in addition, we human beings are capable of trading – exchanging our services for other goods and services, depending, again, on what’s available, but in this case what’s available for exchange rather than taking. [51-2]

And that reminded me of a cartoon from 2002 that I found last week in moving my office (upstairs to the Cato Institute’s beautiful new seventh floor):


Ikeda goes on to urge the Wall Street protesters to follow Jane Jacobs’s advice:

The “commercial moral syndrome” that underlies free markets and trade counsels: “shun force, come to voluntary agreements, be honest, collaborate easily with strangers and aliens, compete, respect contracts, use initiative and enterprise, be open to inventiveness and novelty, be efficient, promote comfort and convenience, dissent for the sake of the task, invest for productive purposes, be industrious, be thrifty, and be optimistic.”

On the other hand, the “guardian moral syndrome” that underlies government and forced takings counsels: “shun trading, exert prowess, be obedient and disciplined, adhere to tradition, respect hierarchy, adhere to tradition, be loyal, take vengeance, deceive for the sake of the task, make rich use of leisure, be ostentatious, dispense largesse, be exclusive, show fortitude, be fatalistic, and treasure honor.”

Which of these best fits the personality profile of the young, iconoclastic but peaceful, ideologically driven protesters with their iPhones, Twitter, and leaderless organization? Now which of these best fits their enemy?

They really are the two choices that have faced us throughout history. And fortunately, as Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Pinker have pointed out in very different recent books, human life has been enhanced by the fact that people have perceived that making and trading are better than taking.

More on the Ex-Im Bank

Last week I blogged about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) proposal to devote $20 billion of the Export-Import Bank’s funds to promoting manufacturing exports, and why that was a bad idea.

But I realize that my recent call to “X Out the Ex-Im Bank” will be facing some very entrenched interests in Washington, and some well-funded lobby groups. The Bank has historically attracted bipartisan support, and a renewal of its charter sailed through the House Committee on Financial Services earlier this year. The Washington establishment loves this program.

My friend and long-time Ex-Im Bank supporter Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics published a critique a few weeks ago of my analysis, and calls for a doubling of Ex-Im’s authorization cap (from $100 billion to $200 billion). His piece is a fair characterization of my arguments, and at least Gary tries to counter them with actual facts and analysis (not always a given in an increasingly poisonous trade policy environment).  But it seems to me that Gary focuses his critique on my assessment of the effectiveness of the Bank. That’s fair enough, of course, but I tried in my paper to make the point that the efficiency or efficacy of the Ex-Im Bank’s activities is kind of irrelevant. The important point, which Gary did not address, is that it is simply not the proper role of the federal government to be in this business at all, even if they can operate “efficiently” (which I do not concede in any case). Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to be involved in the export credit business (a business, by the way, that benefits mainly large, profitable companies)?

My opposition to the Bank, in other words, is at a more fundamental level.  On an empirical level—and this is where Gary’s critique is focused—can markets work well enough in trade finance, and if not, can government intervention work better? Gary points to the Bank’s low default rate as evidence that private markets are missing good opportunities:

These figures suggest that the Ex-Im Bank plays a large role in facilitating exports to countries that encounter reluctance from private banks but nonetheless are not ‘bad risks.” Judging by its low default rate, the Ex-Im Bank’s risk assessment seems more correct than the private market.

But I would argue that its low default rate suggests the Ex-Im Bank’s backing is unnecessary. We don’t know that private credit wasn’t available to finance those exports. And even if it wasn’t, private credit not always being available on terms that the trading partners would like does not necessarily signify market failure. So a finance company missed an opportunity that may have paid out. So what? Maybe they had even better opportunities available to them that we (and bureaucratic Washington) don’t know about, or they simply wanted to hold on to their capital for future investment or to meet new reserve standards. The would-be exporter might miss out, but government intervention to direct that private capital (either through mandates, or siphoning it through the Ex-Im Bank) would come at another producer’s or bank shareholders’ expense.

Gary argues that:

Ex-Im’s capability should be strengthened so that the United States can respond when official finance offered by other countries violates the principles of fair competition…Successful multilateral negotiations…are certainly a superior option to tit-for-tat retaliation…[but]…without sufficient leverage…it is difficult to see what will bring China and India to the negotiating table.

But will China and India (and others) see higher Ex-Im funding as “leverage” to bring them to the table, or will it be seen as just the next step in the escalating arms race of subsidized export credit? I suspect, and fear, the latter.

Gary rejects my call to dismantle the Ex-Im Bank, and in fact suggests the government increase the scope of Ex-Im financing to cover 5 percent (rather than the current 2 percent) of total U.S.exports. That seems pretty arbitrary to me. Why stop at 5 percent? Heck, with the Ex-Im Bank being “self-financing” and all, why not go for 100 percent?

Lastly, Gary repudiates my “orthodox free-market reasoning” and the suggestion, attributed to me, that “… the dollar exchange rate alone determines the volume of U.S. exports or the size of the U.S. trade deficit.”  Exchange rates do not equilibrate to keep trade balances at zero, but to keep them in line with the savings and investment balance. The United States has been running persistent deficits because savings has fallen short of investment for many years.

Similarly, Gary takes issue with my analysis on the net effect of Ex-Im financing on jobs:

 …nor do we agree that free markets are sufficiently self- regulating to ensure a constant and low rate of unemployment…If [that proposition] described the American economy, the United States [unemployment would not be stuck at 9 percent-plus.

Here Gary seems to ignore the many interventions in labor markets that can keep unemployment high, no matter what the exchange rate. I’m certainly not under any illusions that the U.S. economy would be totally free market were it not for the existence of the Ex-Im Bank, and I don’t think my paper implied that, either.

Gary and I, not to mention others who study the Ex-Im Bank, will no doubt continue to debate these issues as the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expiry date comes closer.