Topic: Trade and Immigration

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.

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.

Solution Already in Place for Chinese Product Safety Problems

The recent spate of recalls involving products manufactured in China has elicited cries from the public for better regulatory oversight and glee from protectionists who seek to demonize all trade with China. But increased government screening or an outright import ban would be unnecessarily intrusive and prohibitively expensive. The solution that makes the most sense is already working.

There is nothing more immediately deleterious to the bottom line than the kind of bad publicity that connotes wanton disregard for the vulnerable and innocent. Think Exxon Valdez and oil-drenched, arctic sea mammals; think Kathy Lee Gifford and allegations of sweatshop labor; and now, think Mattel and sick children. Companies pay dearly even for the perception that they have transgressed.

Large quantities of poisonous products ending up in consumers’ toy chests, medicine chests, and refrigerators constitute serious transgressions, which should be punished and relegated to the very rare occurrence. For its recent woes, Mattel is being punished. The company’s stock value took a hit, its revenues are projected to decline as we head into the holiday buying season, it will incur huge costs refunding and replacing purchases of tainted toys, and it will be spending hundreds of million of dollars to improve its safety audits. Meanwhile, Chinese factories that compete for Mattel’s business have every financial incentive to clean up their own acts.

If Mattel fails to win back the confidence of American parents, it could be facing extinction. But allowing Americans to decide whether they will purchase Mattel products, or other products made in China, is preferable to Congress or the administration making that decision for them.

Pandering to the Protectionists

Given the audience, one could have expected a goodly amount of protectionist rhetoric from the Democratic presidential candidates in their debate last night at an AFL-CIO forum. But at times it seemed as though they were battling to see who among them could pander the most.

Dennis Kucinich has never been a promoter of open trade and markets, so it is hardly surprising that he said withdrawing from NAFTA and the WTO would be a “first week in office” priority. Thank goodness he’s not a serious candidate. What is worrisome is the cheers his pledge elicited. Do the members of the AFL-CIO truly believe that if two of our largest trade partners (Canada and Mexico) increased their tariffs on American goods, that would somehow benefit them? Is the WTO seen as such a negative force overall that withdrawing from its forums and its legal protections is perceived as wise?

The other candidates, to their credit, did not match Mr Kucinich’s pledge. But that is to damn them with faint praise, however, as most of them did undertake to “revise” trade agreements, including NAFTA, (presumably by putting in more stringent rules on labor and environmental provisions) and to put more emphasis on enforcement of trade agreements. None of them, not even Senator Clinton, whose husband showed a commendable commitment to trade during his time in office, stood up and defended the benefits of trade.

Senator Obama, given the chance to acknowledge the positive effect of trade on working families – i.e., cheap goods – demurred, making an emotive, if economically illiterate, point about how a cheap T-shirt is useless if one doesn’t have a job. As though the U.S. economy was not demonstrating that consumers can have access to cheaper goods as well as record employment.

Perhaps the next Democratic presidential candidates debate should be held at a consumer- or taxpayer-group forum.

Brother, Can You Spare a Z$200,000 Note?

Hyperinflations would be almost comic if it were not for the misery they inflict on the people they affect. In the misruled African country of Zimbabwe, the inflation rate of the Zimbabwean dollar has reached an annualized rate of 13,000 percent. According to a story Thursday in the Financial Times, an IMF official predicts the annual rate could be heading towards an incredible 100,000 percent.

One sure sign of a hyperinflation is that the central bank must issue new currency notes in ever higher denominations so that people won’t have to carry bags or wheelbarrows of money around to make everyday purchases. Sure enough, the government of Zimbabwe is now wrestling with that very question. According to the FT story:

The launch yesterday of a new large-denomination bank note of Z$200,000—worth [US$13] at the official exchange rate and [US$1.30] at the more realistic parallel rate—underlines the disarray. The central bank had wanted to issue a Z$500,000 note, but a bank official said this was vetoed by the finance ministry because senior staff thought such a large denomination would have reinforced an impression that inflation was out of control.

At a 13,000 percent rate, that cat is probably already out of the bag.

If You’re Not a Farmer, Then Shut Up

I blogged about the arrogance of some members of Congress during last week’s farm debate in the House.

From the Congressional Record, check out this bluster from farm committee member Tim Walz (D-MN) during the floor debate. (Note that he is objecting to reforms proposed by Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ):

I rise in opposition to my good friend from Wisconsin’s piece of legislation. It’s well meaning, but I believe it does not address the needs of my district. The people of the First District of Minnesota, I think, can probably lay claim to one of the richest agricultural pieces of land in the entire world … I had 14 hearings throughout my district with universal acceptance of making sure the safety net is maintained … When I need advice on the farm bill, I go to a couple of good farmers in my district, Kevin Papp, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, and Doug Peterson, president of Minnesota’s Farmers Union. I don’t need to go to the ideologues at the Cato Institute or Club for Growth to know what’s good for rural America.

Have you got it? If you are a taxpayer footing the bill for $30 billion or so of farm subsidies each year, then tough beans–just sit down and let Mr. Walz spend your money on his special interest friends.

A few questions to ponder:

Do you think that there was “universal acceptance” of big farm subsidies at his meetings because they were meetings of farmers?

If Mr. Walz’s district is “one of the richest agricultural pieces of land in the entire world” then why the heck does it need subsidies?