Topic: Trade and Immigration

Cotton Subsidies and the Upside of Wasteful Government Incompetence

An internal audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of the “Economic Adjustment Assistance to Users of Upland Cotton Program” (EAAP) has revealed widespread misuse of subsidies given to owners of textile mills.  The program pays mills based on how much cotton they buy and requires that they spend the money on capital improvements at the mill.  It turns out some owners were just buying whatever the heck they wanted with the money—and that’s probably a good thing.

The primary purpose of the EAAP is to increase the demand for cotton.  The money goes to the mills, but the intended beneficiary is the cotton farmer, who gets an overpaying customer.  By conditioning the payment on an equivalent reinvestment in the cotton mill, the program also hopes to artificially increase the supply of cotton mills.  This, too, is meant to benefit cotton farmers by keeping their customers invested in buying their product. 

If the textile mill owners are using the subsidies to purchase—as the Washington Free Beacon reports—“Ford Explorers, artwork, sound systems, and elephant lamps,” then the program is ultimately less distortive of the U.S. and global cotton market.  That’s a good thing.  If the government is going to take money from some people and give it to others, at the very least we should hope that they do it in the least destructive way possible.

On the other hand, if the mill owners get the money with no strings attached, that increases the incentive for them to take the subsidy in the first place.  My guess, though, is that paying people to buy things they actually want is less distortive than paying them to buy things the government wants them to buy.

So, a toast to government incompetence (this time).  If someone’s going to do bad things, I’m glad it’s these idiots.

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)

How the Sharing Economy Can Help Developing Nations

While many sellers and buyers in the so-called sharing economy might like it for its convenience, there is a case to be made that in the developing world decentralized and peer-to-peer economies could help solve a crippling informational problem in environments with weak property rights and bad regulatory regimes.

Writing in Forbes earlier this week, Adam Ozimek, Director of Research and Senior Economist at Econsult Solutions, Inc., pointed out that the rating systems used by companies such as Uber and Airbnb allow for customers to “do what we previously thought tight regulations and even natural monopolies were needed to do.” Before the rise of the technologies that allowed for Uber and Lyft to exist, the taxi industry could argue that customers might face rip-offs or safety concerns in the absence of regulation. Thanks to the rating system used by companies in the sharing economy, this informational problem can be overcome.

Would We Start the Ex-Im Bank Today?

One point that I think gets overlooked in the Ex-Im Bank debate is whether we would create the bank today, if it did not already exist. If there were no export credit agencies out there already, what would the discussion over whether to start one look like? I have a difficult time believing that, based on current understandings of finance markets, a proposal to start using government-run export credit banks would gain any traction today.

So what we really have is a program that was created many years ago, vested interests have emerged to fight its repeal, and the practice has spread around the world. It’s basically just status quo bias that is keeping Ex-Im around, as I argue in this HuffPo piece:

It is difficult to imagine that we would create an Ex-Im Bank today if none existed. Yet we cannot seem to get rid of it.

The Ex-Im Bank was created in 1934, at a time when finance markets were undeveloped and international trade was filled with uncertainty. This was also a time of growing economic intervention in the economy, centered around the New Deal. As the Ex-Im Bank itself explains, “The Export-Import Bank was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1934, as a New Deal program and to support his foreign policy.”

In the ensuing decades, economic thinking has changed radically, as our understanding of markets has grown. While it is possible that financing was simply not available for certain transactions at the time of Ex-Im’s creation, it is difficult to believe this is the case today. Finance is a sophisticated field with numerous options. If financing is not available for a particular transaction, it is almost certainly because the sale is not commercially viable. As The Economist recently put it, “The scarcity of private financing for certain exports reflects genuine risks that taxpayers are forced to assume.”

Of course, this problem of overcoming the status quo occurs in other policy areas as well. No doubt this blog’s readers can think of many examples where programs exist and linger on, even though they could never generate the support to start them today.

Most U.S. Manufacturers Victimized by Ex-Im’s Hidden Costs

In an earlier post today, I described a reasonable methodology for estimating the hidden costs imposed on companies whose suppliers receive export subsidies from the Export-Import Bank. Ex-Im officials like to talk about how they “grow the economy” and create jobs by enticing foreign customers with low-rate financing to buy U.S. exports. As I described in that earlier post, when the cost to business of exporting is mitigated by subsidies, companies will likely export more. That may be good for them, but it’s not so good for their U.S. customers, whose foreign competition is now enjoying lower costs (courtesy of U.S. taxpayers). Delta Airlines’ complaint about subsidized Boeing sales to Air India having an adverse impact on Delta, who competes for passengers with Air India, is a fairly clear example of the problem.

As an approximation of the cost imposed on Downstream Industy A, (let’s call it the Delta Effect), I used the subsidies received by every industry whose output is used in Downstream Industy A’s production process, adjusted those subsidies by the importance of the input relative to the total of all intermediate goods inputs, and summed up the values.  I did this for every 6-digit NAICS manfuacturing code and presented tables of results in descending order from biggest victim to biggest beneficiary.  There were 236 industries – perhaps too much information, particularly for a blog post.

So for greater clarity, this table compiles the data at the broader, 3-digit NAIC industry level.  

As you can see, most aggregated 3-digit industries are victims of Ex-Im subsidies.  And most of the 6-digit industries within each broader 3-digit industry are victims, too. U.S. manufacturers of electrical equipment, appliances, furniture, food products, non-metallic metals, chemicals, computers, plastics, rubber, paper, primary metals, and many other goods should give Delta a call and get really busy during Congress’s August recess.

The Export-Import Bank and Its Victims: Which Industries Bear the Brunt

The Export-Import Bank of the United States is a government-run export credit agency, which provides access to favorable financing for the foreign customers of some U.S. companies.  For several months, Washington has been embroiled in a debate over whether to reauthorize the Bank’s charter, which will otherwise expire on September 30.  While Republican House leadership remains publicly committed to shutting down the Bank, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced reauthorization legislation last night, setting the stage for a post-August recess showdown.

Reauthorization buffs contend that Ex-Im fills a void left by private sector lenders unwilling to provide financing for certain transactions and, by doing so, contributes importantly to U.S. export and job growth.  Rather than burdening taxpayers, the Bank generates profits for the U.S. Treasury, helps small businesses succeed abroad, encourages exports of green goods, contributes to development in sub-Saharan Africa, and helps “level the playing field” for U.S. companies competing in export markets with foreign companies benefitting from their own governments’ generous export financing programs.  Accordingly, failure to reauthorize the Bank’s charter would be akin to unilateral disarmament.

But those justifications – two rationalizations, really, and a few token appeals to liberal sensibilities intended to create the illusion of a bipartisan imperative for reauthorization – are unpersuasive or non-responsive to Ex-Im’s critics.  By effectively superseding the risk-based decision-making processes of legions of private-sector, profit-maximizing financial firms with the choices of a handful of bureaucrats using non-market benchmarks and pursuing often opaque, political objectives, Ex-Im risks taxpayer dollars.  That Ex-Im is currently self-sustaining and generating revenues is entirely beside the point and is no more reassuring than a drunk driver rationalizing that he made it home safely last night so there’s no danger in drunk driving tonight.

House Border Bill Would Treat Children Worse than Adults

After much debate, the House finally rolled out its version of a supplemental appropriations bill to deal with the surge of unaccompanied children (UAC) entering the United States.  The bill would treat Mexican and Central American UAC equally under the law - meaning they all would have fewer due process protections than many adults.  

1.       Interviews: The bill would treat Central Americans the same as how Mexican children are already treated. But Mexican children are subject to fewer due process protections than adults in two ways. First, apprehended adults are interviewed by asylum officers who are trained in country-conditions and asylum law.  Under current law, Mexican children are interviewed by Border Patrol agents who are untrained in this area.  In one case, a United Nations report found that a Border Patrol agent believed that a child who had expressed a fear of being trafficked had to be returned “because the paperwork was already filled out.”  Children are also expected to describe their fears of persecution and descriptions of traumatic and violent experiences to a gun-carrying law enforcement agent, which in many cases is an unreasonable request. In fact, a 2011 study by the Appleseed Foundation concluded that “no meaningful screening is being conducted” by Border Patrol.

2.       Appeals: Second, under current law, adult asylum seekers can appeal a determination by an asylum officer that they lack a “credible” asylum claim to an immigration judge (IJ).  The IJ can reverse the decision.  Mexican children cannot appeal the decision of a border agent – they are simply summarily removed from the United States.  This bill would treat Central American children in the same way, denying them an appeal.  The importance of these provisions was recently highlighted by the case of a Honduran girl who was accidentally deported to Mexico.  The United Nations found that border agents are requiring children to “prove they are being persecuted or trafficked” on the spot despite the fact that they are supposed to simply screen out those without any claim at all.  IJs mitigate that problem.