What to do when confronted with the failures of U.S. maritime protectionism? Call for more protectionism, of course. That, at least, is the apparent attitude of some members of Congress.
A notable aspect of the Jones Act debate is that the law’s supporters often admit, albeit tacitly, that it isn’t working very well. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) is a case in point. Participating in a recent panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, Rep. Garamendi readily conceded the enervated state of U.S. shipbuilding. “What remain of the American shipyards”—approximately 300 shipyards have closed since 1983—consist of “mostly small shipyards,” according to the California Congressman, as well as a few large ones which are “producing ships for the Jones Act but not for the international trade.”
Rep. Garamendi also freely acknowledged that, beyond the decline in shipyards, the United States also suffers from a lack of merchant mariners. Should the federal government call upon U.S. merchant mariners to crew the ships needed to deploy and sustain U.S. forces in time of war, Rep. Garamendi said that current projections show it falling 2,800 short (A 2017 government report found the deficit to be 1,839. This, however, was a best-case scenario assuming every mariner would be available and willing to sail).
This lack of mariners is no surprise given the steep decline in Jones Act-eligible ships, which have fallen from 326 in 1982 to just 99 today. In sum, fewer shipyards are building fewer ships which in turn employ fewer merchant mariners. Everything is trending in the wrong direction.
But if you were expecting Rep. Garamendi to reconsider his support for maritime protectionism in the wake of such failings, think again. Not only does he remain an ardent defender of the Jones Act, Rep. Garamendi believes that the maritime industry’s salvation is to be found in extending similar provisions to other areas of maritime commerce.
Citing the example of similar laws in Russia, India, and China—those noted paragons of wise economic policy—Rep. Garamendi used his Brookings appearance to highlight a bill called the Energizing American Shipbuilding Act. This legislation, which he vowed to re-introduce in a recent letter both he and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) sent to senior Trump administration officials, would mandate that 15 percent of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and 10 percent of oil exports be carried aboard ships that are U.S.-flagged, U.S.-crewed, and U.S.-built.
This bill, if passed, would be a disaster.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s decision in December to raise the federal funds target by 25 basis points, to 2.25–2.50 percent, and to continue raising rates at least twice in the new year, upset financial markets. The Dow and S&P each dropped at least 8.7 percent, logging their worst December declines since 1931.
It looked like the “Powell put” was about to end. However, as criticism of the Fed’s tighter money policy mounted, Powell surprised markets early in the new year. On January 4, he told several thousand economists at the American Economic Association meeting in Atlanta, “We will be patient [in raising rates and reducing the Fed’s $4 trillion balance sheet] as we watch to see how the economy evolves.”
The call for “patience” was put into action on March 20th when the Federal Open Market Committee voted unanimously to maintain the Fed’s 2.25–2.50 target, while signaling that 2019 would see no rate increases. Moreover, details emerged on the Fed’s plan to halt its balance sheet unwind.
Given this backdrop, several issues need special attention as the Fed reviews its formulation, conduct, and communication of monetary policy throughout 2019. The major conference at the Chicago Fed this June is just the place to be asking whether patience, reliance on the “dot plot” as a communication tool, and paying interest on excess reserves are the best we can do in trying to create macroeconomic stability.