Topic: International Economics and Development

French Government Proposes Global Financial Regulation to Counter “Typical Excesses” of American Capitalism

Joined by Germany (gee, what a surprise), France is calling for more regulation of financial markets. But politicians are not hopelessly stupid. They understand that they will drive even more money offshore or underground if they increase the relative burden of government in France. So they want other nations to agree to the same misguided policies. The International Herald Tribune reports:

France said Wednesday that the recent turmoil in credit markets had strengthened its case for tougher regulation of global financial markets and that it would press ahead with proposals at a fall meeting of Group of 7 finance ministers. …Lagarde said during an interview that she had not yet discussed the initiative with the United States or Britain, members of the G-7 who have been reluctant to ponder any regulation of financial markets in the past. But she said that France and Germany, two countries she described as being “at the heart” of the initiative, were determined to use the current crisis as a catalyst for a stricter global rule book. …”There is a growing case for better state involvement on a coordinated basis in various areas, one of which is stock markets and financial markets,” Lagarde added. …Economists and investors expressed skepticism as to how governments could enforce more transparency in markets that trade in such a vast variety of financial products, arguing that the correction in markets was a more effective way of forcing banks and investors to reassess and reprice the risk in their portfolios. …Lagarde…has blamed the crisis on the “typical excesses” of American capitalism. She said that a gambling culture in the markets was simply more widespread on the other side of the Atlantic.

More Thoughts on Trade Enforcement

In addition to the sock safeguard action against Honduras, the U.S. government recently requested arbitration over alleged violations by Canada of the 2006 Softwood Lumber Agreement.  (We’ve written about this long-running dispute here, here, and elsewhere). Under the SLA, Canada is required to restrict the volume of its exports or impose an export tax (or some combination of the two) when the prevailing monthly price falls below U.S. $355 per million board feet.

The deal, which the Canadians signed with guns to their heads, was agreed during a period of a robust housing market and relatively high lumber prices.  With the decline of the U.S. housing market, lumber prices have gone south, and the stipulation that Canada intervene in the lumber market has kicked in.

Enforcement in this case, then, means that the housing market slump will endure longer than it has to.  Builders will be less capable of offsetting rising mortgage rates with lower priced homes, as the cost of their most important input remains artificially high.

Even the cost of nails should be expected to rise and for the same reason –  enforcement.  On Tuesday, the U.S. International Trade Commission determined preliminarily that imports of certain steel nails from China and the United Arab Emirates (co-winners of the 2006 Congressional Pinata of the Year Award) are being sold at less than fair value in the United States and causing material injury to domestic producers.   Additional duties are likely to be formalized by the end of the year. 

Thus, the administration’s indulgence of Congress’s demands for more trade enforcement will have the noble effect of making life more difficult, in particular, for Americans at the lower end of the income spectrum, who will need to devote more of their limited resources to housing and socks.  More often than not, trade enforcement is just another term for regressive taxation.

Denmark’s Meager Tax-Cut Package

The good news is that Danish politicians have announced that taxes will be reduced. This is welcome news in a nation with the world’s highest income tax rate. Indeed, the tax burden is so onerous that even the OECD suggested it might not be a good idea to subject 40 percent of workers to marginal tax rates of more than 70 percent. Unfortunately, the tax cuts that have been proposed are akin to putting a band-aid on a compound fracture. Instead of reducing the top tax rate, the government merely intends to adjust the income level where the top bracket takes effect. While this surely is better than nothing, the government also is raising taxes on energy and increasing an already bloated welfare system. Tax-news.com reports on Denmark’s less-than-exciting reforms:

The Danish government has announced its intention to cut taxes by DKK10 billion (EUR1.34 billion) per year in 2008 and 2009 in a bid to stimulate the labour market, and improve incentives to work. Under the proposed reforms, announced by the government on Tuesday, the income ceiling for the middle and top income tax brackets will be raised to DKK353,000 per year from DKK304,100, and to DKK381,300 per year from DKK365,000, respectively. …In the same announcement, the Danish government also promised that a broad economic plan for the next eight years would not raise any taxes between now and 2015. The economic package also promises DKK50 billion in extra spending to improve Denmark’s welfare system between 2009 and 2018. …To help offset the tax cuts, the government also announced that green taxes on energy consumption would increase from 2008 to match inflation. This would increase taxes on heating, water and electricity.

Sockin’ it to Honduras

A constant refrain from Democrats in Congress is that the Bush administration has been lax about enforcing the terms of U.S. trade agreements. Such a conclusion reveals a true naivete about trade diplomacy. The U.S. Trade Representative maintains ongoing dialogues with our trade partners during which many trade irritants are addressed and resolved without need of resort to the stick.

But Congress wants to see more of the stick, and more of the stick it shall see. Apparently our poor, but industrious Honduran neighbors have been shipping too many socks stateside. U.S. imports of cotton, wool, and man-made fiber socks from Honduras rose from 10.9 million dozen pairs in 2005 to 15.2 million dozen pairs in 2006, an increase of nearly 50 percent. In 2007 through June, imports from Honduras are up about 60 percent from the same period in 2006.

Under the terms of the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), the U.S. government can impose special safeguards in the form of new a tariff if a textile or apparel product:

“is being imported into the United States in such increased quantities, in absolute terms or relative to the domestic market for that article, and under such conditions as to cause serious damage, or actual threat thereof, to a domestic industry producing an article that is like, or directly competitive with, the imported article.”

The Committee for the Implementation of the Textile Agreements (CITA), an agency within the Commerce Department, initiated proceedings for such a safeguard last week. If it makes an affirmative finding, duties of 13.5 percent will be imposed later in the year.

Despite the surge in sock imports from Honduras, the country still accounts for only about 4 percent of U.S. consumption. How can such a miniscule presence account for “serious damage” or even the threat thereof to the domestic industry?

The safeguard rule is a farce, and its application to a country which depends heavily on its few manufacturing industries, and where two-thirds of the citizens live in poverty, explains a lot about why international regard for
America is in decline.

Summoning the Ghosts of Smoot and Hawley

Members of the 110th Congress haven’t been shy about expressing their disdain for trade. No fewer than two dozen trade-related bills, almost all of which are antagonistic toward U.S. trade partners or outright protectionist, were introduced in the first seven months of this Congress. While some of those bills were crafted mostly for political effect, it is pretty clear that some hostile trade legislation will at least make it to the floors of both chambers this session or next. With Congress adjourned for August recess, here’s where things stand.

For all intents and purposes, the completed bilateral trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, Peru, and Panama have been shunted aside to consider, instead, enforcement-oriented legislation and the expansion of trade adjustment assistance legislation. Although House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York has stated his intention to promote the Peru Agreement, it is doubtful that he will take to the task with much vigor or any success. His colleagues have different plans for trade policy.

Consider the names of some of the bills before Congress: The Trade Prosecutor Act; The Trade Enforcement Act; The Trade Law Reform Act; The Japan Currency Manipulation Act; The Balancing Trade Act; The Trade Adjustment Assistance Improvement Act, and the still-nameless legislation that would revoke normal trade relations status for China. Implicit in all of this: trade liberalization is bad, our trade partners cheat, and the folly of our embrace of globalization is evidenced by its massive human toll.

The Chinese “currency issue” has dominated trade discussions on the Hill. In the Senate, the currency bill most likely to make it to the floor is S.1607 (the Baucus-Grassley-Schumer-Graham Bill). It requires the Treasury Department to issue semiannual reports on the currencies of our trade partners, with action triggered against countries whose currencies are found to be fundamentally misaligned. If a currency is designated as such (and the country has been tagged for “priority action” because its central bank has engaged in “protracted, large-scale” exchange market intervention with partial or full sterilization) the country would have 90 days to take corrective measures. If insufficient measures are taken on the part of the offending country, a series of actions by the U.S. government would be triggered.

Most problematically, the bill mandates that all subsequent antidumping calculations (for products that are subject to antidumping measures) would require the conversion of foreign prices into U.S. dollars using the rate of exchange that would be observed if the currency weren’t misaligned. It is still unclear how the “would be observed” rate would be determined, but it’s crystal clear that such actions would be found to violate the WTO Antidumping Agreement.

If after one year, the currency is still misaligned, the legislation mandates the U.S. Trade Representative to lodge a formal complaint within the WTO. Again, it’s unclear which provision of the WTO agreements would be violated by the action or inaction of the foreign government.

The House’s currency bill contains similar provisions, but is more aggressive and more problematic. It would treat currency misalignment as an export subsidy, and mandates application of countervailing duties to offset those “subsidies.”

But currency isn’t the only topic on the congressional trade agenda. They’re thinking enforcement and reparations, too.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance Improvement act would broaden the scope for compensating workers and communities adversely affected by import competition. Financial assistance would be made available to primary and secondary service workers who can demonstrate that they lost their jobs to outsourcing.

On August 1, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana introduced S.1919, The Trade Enforcement Act of 2007, which is a bill that consolidates his favorite provisions from the various stand-alone bills introduced earlier in the year. Among other things, it would:

  • create a Chief Enforcement Officer at the USTR to identify, investigate, and prosecute cases where trade partners are not in compliance with their obligations;
  • establish a panel of retired federal judges to review adverse WTO decisions, and to advise Congress on the efficacy of those decisions before any steps toward compliance are undertaken;
  • eliminate presidential discretion to not impose tariffs or quotas recommended by U.S. International Trade Commission in so-called China Safeguard cases;
  • eliminate presidential discretion to not apply the countervailing duty law to so-called non-market economies;
  • lower the evidentiary threshold for finding “material injury” in antidumping cases, which would encourage the initiation of more antidumping cases.

In the House, the inclination toward mischief is even greater than in the Senate. While versions of most of the provisions specified in S.1919 exist in various House bills, there is also legislation that would reverse U.S. implementation of a prior WTO ruling regarding the antidumping calculation practice known as zeroing. There are also provisions in the Trade Law Reform Act that would result in the calculation of higher antidumping duties by the Commerce Department.

There seems to me a huge inconsistency in all of these provisions. On the one hand, it says, let’s beef up our enforcement and prosecutorial capacity and bring more WTO cases. On the other hand, it says, let’s enact provisions that are likely WTO-inconsistent, and while we’re at it, show defiance of the WTO by affirming our belief that its rulings are beneath us. In other words, Congress wants to rely on the WTO to compel other countries to act in accordance with their commitments, while Congress decides on a case- by-case basis whether such WTO rulings against U.S. policies have merit.

This Congress, more than any in my lifetime, is apt to upset the apple cart in ways we may regret for years to come.

The Czechs Adopt a Flat Tax

The lower house of the Czech parliament passed legislation earlier today implementing a 15 percent flat tax on personal income. The new tax system will take effect on January 1, 2008, and the rate is then scheduled to drop to 12.5 percent in 2009. The legislation also reduces the corporate tax rate from 24 percent today to 19 percent by 2010.

The reform, which was narrowly passed by 101 members of the 200-member parliament, now goes to the upper house, where the government has a massive majority and no obstacles are expected. Once the reform clears that hurdle, it will then be signed into law by the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who is a free-market economist. That act would make the Czech Republic the 20th country to adopt a flat tax. (The Bulgarian government has agreed to introduce a flat tax by January 2008, but the measure has not yet passed through the Bulgarian parliament.)

The opposition socialists have stated that they will repeal the law if or when they return to power and may even raise constitutional objections to it. For now it seems, however, that the legislation will come into force.

The Czech flat tax is a big step in the right direction, and another sign that tax competition is having a positive effect. But the legislation is not perfect. One of the salient features of a pure flat tax is the elimination of tax exemptions, deductions and loopholes. The Czech legislation is less ambitious and many of the bad features of the current system will remain in force. Also, the 15 percent tax rate will be levied on gross income, including payroll taxes. This means the tax rate is not directly comparable to nations that impose the flat tax only on net income, such as Slovakia.

A Timely Reminder on Trade

From the Wall Street Journal’s ‘The Informed Reader’ blog today is a timely reminder that the stalled Doha round does not necessarily mean the end of trade liberalization efforts. According to the article, only 25 percent of tariff cuts between 1983 and 2003 were as a result of negotiated multilateral trade agreements. About 66 percent of tariff reductions came about from unilateral policy changes: from a recognition of the damage that tariffs do to one’s own economy through higher prices and lower productivity growth.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much political appetite for unilateral reductions in tariffs in the United States today (see here and here, for example) so a Doha agreement would have been welcome, to say the least. For one thing, subsidies (which are particularly prevalent in agricultural markets) are pretty much impossible to reduce on a bilateral or regional basis. But the expiration of trade promotion authority does not necessarily mean the end if lawmakers could get off the mercantalist bandwagon.