Tag: trade

Appreciating China’s Currency

China’s President Hu Jintau arrives in Washington today for a state visit, turning the spotlight once again on U.S.-China trade and China’s allegedly undervalued currency, the yuan. Not one to let such an opportunity go to waste, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is introducing legislation that would threaten to impose duties on imports from China if the yuan does not appreciate quickly.

Count me skeptical that a more expensive yuan relative to the U.S. dollar would make much of a dent in our bilateral trade deficit with China, or that it would have any positive effect on U.S. economic growth and employment. But even if those assumptions were true, the big story is how much the yuan as already appreciated against the dollar.

It has been a mantra of Sen. Schumer and other critics of U.S.-China trade that the yuan is undervalued by 15 to 40 percent. They were saying that before the 2005 appreciation, and they’re saying that now, as though nothing has changed.

Yet a lot has changed. In nominal terms, the yuan appreciated by more than 20 percent between 2005 and 2008. That’s when China relaxed its hard peg with the dollar and allowed its currency to gradually appreciate. After holding the peg steady again during the recent financial turmoil, China has again allowed it to rise another 3 percent since last June.

The nominal rate is just part of the story, however. Price levels in the United States and China determine the real exchange rate–the actual amount of goods that can be bought with each currency. A big story in China recently is its rising inflation rate, which makes Chinese goods relatively more expensive at any given exchange rate. In this way, a relatively higher inflation rate in China compared to the United States acts in the same was as a nominal increase in the exchange rate of the yuan.

When you combine the effect of rising prices in China with the higher nominal value of the yuan, you get a double boost to the real exchange rate. According to a chart on the front page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the real value of the yuan has appreciated by 50 percent since the beginning of 2005. In early 2005, 100 Chinese yuan could be exchanged for about $12; today it can be exchanged for $18 (in real, inflation adjusted dollars).

Rather than complain, Sen. Schumer and his allies should congratulate themselves on achieving their goal of a much stronger yuan and a much weaker dollar, even if we are still waiting for the tonic effect they predicted it would have on jobs and growth.

Congress: Where 20 Jobs = $580m

When talking to groups about the political economy of trade protection, I always mention concentrated benefits versus diffuse costs. Public choice theory explains many bad policies, of course, but tariffs and subsidies are excellent examples of interventions that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Congress, or specifically two members of that esteemed body, have recently provided me with a textbook example. The Generalized System of Preferences is a federal program that offers duty-free access to the U.S. market to certain goods from certain developing countries. Or, I should say, was a federal program, because it expired on December 31. My opinion of the program is ambivalent at best, but one cannot deny that the program brings real cost savings to American consumers and businesses – to the tune of $580 million a year – through lower import duties.

But those duty savings are, apparently, worthless in the face of special interest politics. From Inside U.S. Trade on January 6 [$]:

An Alabama sleeping bag manufacturer that benefited from the expiration late last year of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program is now taking further steps in an attempt to ensure that Congress does not renew the program this year in the same form.

Exxel Outdoors CEO Harry Kazazian this week said his company is in the process of expanding its U.S. plant by adding workers and increasing production, and that this expansion is occurring as a direct result of the fact that Congress allowed the GSP program to expire on Dec. 31.

Under GSP, Bangladeshi sleeping bags that competed with the Exxel Outdoors product were able to enter the U.S. duty-free. On behalf of Exxel Outdoors, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) last year refused to let any renewal of GSP pass that would not remove at least some sleeping bags from the scope of the GSP program (Inside U.S. Trade, Dec. 23).

With the future of the GSP program still uncertain, Kazazian said he is now expanding his Alabama plant in part to put pressure on Congress to either not renew the GSP program, or renew it in a modified form that would exclude imported sleeping bags from its scope.

Kazazian said that if GSP is renewed in its old form, he would have to reverse his expansion plans. He reasoned that members of Congress may be more willing to accommodate Sessions and remove sleeping bags from GSP if faced with the prospect that renewing the program in its full form would lead to the firing of U.S. workers.

“I can’t see how anyone would make any decisions against us,” he said in an interview this week. “We are going to work as hard as we can to make sure sleeping bags are exempted from the GSP.”

These expansion plans must be really something if they can justify holding up such a broad program, right?

Kazazian said that he plans to hire 20 additional employees to start a fourth production line at the Alabama plant. He said he will commence the first phase of its expansion this month by investing in additional equipment and retooling the plant’s operations.

That’s right, readers. The GSP expired and millions of U.S. consumers and businesses (not to mention developing country exporters) are being penalized to save a hypothetical 20 (that’s two-zero) jobs that don’t even exist yet. The jobs being lost by businesses that depend on the GSP to keep them competive are, apparently, not worth consideration. And as for consumers’ buying power being eroded, well forget it.

Come back, Mancur Olson. Your country needs you.

New Paper on the Generalized System of Preferences

I have a new paper out today on the Generalized System of Preferences, the program by which the U.S. government allows certain imports from most developing countries to enter the U.S. market duty-free. The program has benefits: some producers in some poor countries are able to sell more than they otherwise would in the U.S. market, and U.S. consumers benefit to the tune  of hundreds of millions of dollars a year because of the tariff exemptions.

But the GSP still represents managed trade, and poorly managed at that. The program is designed so certain goods in which poorer countries tend to have a comparative advantage – textiles, for example – are excluded from the program, mainly because of the influence of the U.S. textile lobby. There are limits on how much of a particular product a beneficiary country can export duty-free, which means that truly efficient and competitve exporters are shut out.  The very existence of the program has proved a stumbling block to (superior, if not first-best) multilateral trade liberalization, because GSP beneficiary countries don’t want reductions in general tariffs to erode their preferential access.

With the GSP expiring at the end of the year (more here on possible vehicles for its passage [$]), it is a good time for Congress to consider radically changing this program. The best way to secure an open, prosperous world economy is to allow trade to flow freely across borders. If that is a bridge too far for politicians, they should at least consider some of the other reforms I suggest to make the GSP more open to more products, and to reduce the interference these programs impose on voluntary, peaceful exchange. Opening the U.S. market on a permanent and non-discriminatory basis should be the ultimate goal.

President Obama Fails to Understand Trade

At the beginning of the Obama administration, I had the audacity to hope that the new president would defy conventional wisdom and become a proponent of trade and a good spokesman for its benefits. Scott Lincicome and I even wrote a 20,000-plus word Cato analysis explaining why the economic, geopolitical, and domestic political environment offered the president a unique opportunity to steer his party back to its pro-trade roots.

The thrust of our analysis was that, despite the campaign rhetoric, the president understood the economic benefits of trade and that he would see it as an escape route from recession and a path to political success; that the president’s visibility and new cache with his trade-skeptical political party—and the fact that he wasn’t George W. Bush—made him well-suited to the task of challenging and extinguishing lingering myths about the alleged ravages of trade, while explaining its many benefits; and, that the president would recognize that pro-trade policies should be part of the current Democratic Party platform, if for no other reason than the fact that restrictions governments place on trade harm lower-income Americans and the world’s poor more than they hurt anyone else. (Protectionism is regressive taxation, which is presumably anathema to Democratic Party creed.)

Alas, our study, “Audaciously Hopeful: How President Obama Can Restore the Pro-Trade Consensus,” was just a little too. It fell on deaf ears. It was ignored. In fact, it’s almost as if the past two years of trade policy were conducted to spite the recommendations in that paper.

From this administration, we’ve seen completed bilateral trade agreements sent to an off-site storage warehouse; the imposition of taxes on imported tires; “Buy American” provisions; prohibitions on Mexican trucks; demonization by the president of companies that outsource; defiance of multilateral rules governing use of the antidumping law; and, a “Boardwalk Empire”-style deal to prospectively compensate Brazilian farmers for the lower revenues they should expect on account of the lavish subsidies bestowed by U.S. taxpayers on U.S. cotton producers in lieu of reducing—or better still, halting—cotton subsidies altogether. Yes, the hallmark accomplishment of this administration’s trade policy so far is a deal that requires American taxpayers to subsidize Brazilian cotton producers for the right to continue subsidizing U.S. cotton producers.

Despite all that, I remained audacious (or gullible) enough to hold a glimmer of hope that the president would finally see the wisdom in our advice—given the new political landscape.  That glimmer was snuffed out with publication of an oped in the New York Times this past Saturday, in which President Obama betrays profound misunderstanding of trade and its purpose.  The president portrays trade as an enterprise that is won or lost at the negotiating table, where only the most savvy or most committed negotiators can succeed in bringing home the spoils.  The president promises to fight hard to get Americans their fair shake from this dog-eat-dog process, while actual producers, consumers, workers, and investors are relegated to tertiary roles.

The central dysfunction between Americans and trade is the assumption—reinforced in the president’s op-ed—that exports are good, imports are bad, the trade account is the scoreboard, and our trade deficit means that we are losing at trade. That dysfunction resides comfortably within a zero-sum worldview, which the president touts in a purposeful cadence throughout the oped. In the penultimate sentence, the president writes:

Finally, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Japan, I will continue seeking new markets in Asia for American exports. We want to expand our trade relationships in the region, including through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to make sure that we’re not ceding markets, exports and the jobs they support to other nations.

By opining about trade without understanding that its real benefits are manifest in imports (here’s Don Boudreax’s elaboration of that process), the president is simply reinforcing myths that will continue to confuse and divide American.  As long as politicians insist that our trade account is a scoreboard and that a surplus is a trade policy success metric, Americans will continue to be skeptical about trade.

Commercial Ties with India Are An Opportunity, Mr. President—Not A Problem

During his visit to India, President Obama should bury once and for all his divisive rhetoric about American companies shipping jobs overseas. Our growing commercial ties with India are a great opportunity, not a problem. U.S. exports to India have doubled in the past four years. American companies that have set up shop in India have helped to fuel demand in that country for U.S. products and services. The president should be celebrating rather than demonizing our deeper economic ties with India.

A History Lesson for Trade Bashers

Candidates from both parties are trying to win votes this fall by criticizing free trade and trade agreements. As John Steele Gordon points out in a wonderful historical essay, “The Great Mistake,” in the latest Barron’s Weekly:

We’ve been down this unfortunate road before. Recall the Smoot-Hawley tariff, named after its chief congressional sponsors, Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah and Rep. Willis Hawley of Oregon, both Republicans and both chairmen of the committees in charge of taxes.

Introduced in 1929 as the country was tipping into recession, their bill did not have a happy ending. It imposed steep tariff increases on agricultural as well as manufactured goods, raising overall U.S. tariffs to their highest levels in decades. When President Hoover reluctantly signed the bill in June 1930:

The stock market, once again a leading indicator, immediately turned south. It wouldn’t stop falling for two years—the Dow Jones Industrial Average gave up all its gains since its inception in 1896.

Other countries made good on their threats of retaliatory tariffs, and world trade collapsed. American exports had been $5.24 billion in 1929. Three years later U.S. exports were worth only $1.16 billion, a 78% decline. The Smoot-Hawley tariff would prove to be one of the major government mistakes that converted an ordinary recession into the calamity of the Great Depression.

The protectionist bill was bad politics as well as bad economics. Hoover, Hawley, and Smoot were all swept out of office in 1932.

The Cuba Embargo at 50

Fifty years ago Tuesday, the United States began to impose sanctions on Cuba in what would turn into a comprehensive U.S. trade, finance and travel embargo.

Though the embargo is not the cause of Cuba’s dismal and deteriorating economic and social conditions, neither has it worked to change Cuban policies or even lead to regime change.

It is time to lift the embargo. Doing so will not save communism from its inherent flaws; that system collapsed spectacularly elsewhere around the world in places where the West maintained or established trade. Keeping the sanctions will only further allow the dictatorship and its sympathizers to explain away the regime’s own failings. It would be better for Cubans and the world to see the unraveling of Cuban communism without U.S. intervention. When a free Cuba is eventually born, it will more easily flourish if enemies of the open society cannot rely on a false narrative about how the colossus of the North finally killed off the island’s socialist experiment.

A good way to start would be by lifting the travel portion of the embargo. That measure would expose ordinary Cubans to hundreds of thousands of American citizens, thus inevitably expanding Cuba’s informal economy and establishing innumerable relationships that would make Cuban citizens more independent of the state. The regime may try to reap the benefits of increased revenues, but it will have unleashed a social dynamic that will be difficult to control.