Tag: currency

Facts That Lack Currency

In Washington, everybody seems to have an opinion about the Chinese currency these days.  But too often those opinions show contempt for the facts.

The prevailing wisdom—undergirded by theories and equations that may need updating in this age of global production sharing and transnational supply chains—is that an appreciating yuan will reduce the bilateral trade deficit, as U.S. imports from China become relatively more expensive for Americans using dollars, and U.S. exports to China become relatively less expensive for Chinese using yuan.

The lead article in Sunday’s Washington Post presents this point of view unquestioningly, and in the process foregoes an opportunity to explain to its readers that the relationship between currency values and trade balances, and between trade balances and jobs, is not as straightforward as many proponents of Chinese revaluation argue.

In the fourth paragraph, the authors write:

“Whether Saturday’s announcement [from the Chinese government that it will allow its currency to appreciate gradually] will help the U.S. economy depends on how much Beijing lets its currency rise.  A jump of 20 percent, for example, could cut as much as $150 billion off the U.S. trade deficit with China and create as many as 1 million U.S. jobs by making American exports more competitive, according to estimates by C. Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute of International Economics.  From 2005 to 2008, China let the yuan appreciate 20 percent against the dollar before it stopped the process while it confronted the global financial crisis.”  (My emphasis, primarily for what is absent from this sentence).

No doubt Fred Bergsten and his colleagues at the Peterson Institute know something about economics, but Bergsten’s projection should raise some red flags for anyone who’s been following this subject.   The authors cite Bergsten’s estimation that a 20 percent appreciation of the yuan could lead to a $150 billion decline in the U.S. trade deficit with China, and they even indicate that China has allowed that kind of appreciation before—from 2005 to 2008.  But then, inexplicably, the authors abandon what should be the next logical question in reporting this story: what happened to the bilateral trade deficit during that recent period of 20 percent yuan appreciation?  After all, if the authors are going to acknowledge that period of appreciation, then surely it should serve as support for Bergsten’s current projections of trade deficit reduction and job creation—unless, of course, it doesn’t.  And it doesn’t.

That recent period of Yuan appreciation (21 percent between July 2005 and July 2008) is associated with a U.S. bilateral trade deficit that increased by $66 billion from $202 to $268 billion between 2005 and 2008, and incidentally, the number of jobs in the U.S. economy increased by 3.5 million between July 2005 and July 2008 (the precise period of appreciation), from 142.0 million to 145.5 million.  It is confounding to me that reporters are still adhering, seemingly unquestioningly, to the pre-financial crisis, pre-recession fallacy that a trade deficit hurts the economy?  Didn’t our huge economic hiccup put that myth the bed for good?

Between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009, deficit hawks got their wish.  The U.S. trade deficit declined, and substantially, by $327 billion, from $702 billion to $375 billion.  But the huge payoff they promised never materialized.  Instead, U.S. employment fell from 146 million workers in 2007 to 138 million workers in 2009.  The unemployment rate increased from an average of 4.7 percent in 2007 to 10.1 percent in 2009.  What was that about currency values and trade balances?  And between trade balances and employment?

A review of Federal Reserve exchange rate data and Commerce Department trade data reveals that the textbook characterizations of an inverse relationship between currency value and the trade account does not hold for many of America’s largest trading partners.  Between 2002 and 2008 (before trade flows dropped dramatically across the globe on account of the recession), the dollar declined considerably against the Chinese yuan, the Canadian dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen the Korean won, the Indian rupee, and the Malaysian ringgit, yet the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with all of those countries (and the Eurozone collectively) increased, in some cases substantially.

As I suggested in this paper and in this op-ed a couple months ago, many factors, including income, the availability of substitutes, and perhaps most significantly, globalized production and supply chains influence trade flows.  Since somewhere between one-half to two-thirds of the value of Chinese exports to the United States comprise of value that was first imported into China (as components, raw materials, and the labor and overhead embedded therein), an appreciating yuan produces mitigating effects.  The appreciating yuan makes the price tag higher to Americans than before the appreciation, if all else were equal.  But all else isn’t equal.  The rising yuan also reduces the cost of production in China — the cost of imported inputs, which accounts for up to two-thirds of the U.S. price tag, on average (but far more for devices like the Apple iPod)–thereby enabling Chinese exporters to lower their price tags to American consumers.

The evidence, as presented in this paper, suggests that this dynamic played a big role in preventing the trade deficit from declining.  I wonder how these transnational production processes factor into Fred Bergsten’s economic models or whether the 2005 to 2008 period can be explained away as some anomaly.  Nevertheless, at the very least those data, that recent evidence, should be acknowledged and understood by economists, who in turn can help reporters provide a more complete picture to the public.

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Calling Out Trade’s Myth Makers

Organized labor’s trade “think tank” in Washington, the Economic Policy Institute, claims that currency manipulation is a major cause of the U.S. trade deficit with China, which (along with other unfair trade practices) accounted for 2.4 million American job losses between 2001 and 2008. EPI has been making similar claims for years, getting lots of media attention for its hyperbole, and providing smoke bombs for charlatan politicians to hurl into the discussion to obscure the public’s understanding of trade.   For starters, as conveyed in this new paper, I am skeptical about the relationship between currency undervaluation and the trade account.

EPI’s methodology (to use the term loosely) is not to be taken seriously, though, because it derives from a simple formula that approximates job gains from export value and job losses from import value, as though there were a straight line correlation between the jobs and trade data. It pretends that there are no jobs created when we import, and that import value is somehow an appropriate measure of job loss.

The flaws of those assumptions are many, but perhaps the easiest one to convey is that most of the value embedded in imports from China is not Chinese. (The ensuing discussion is from a forthcoming Cato paper.)

According to the results from a growing field of research, only about one-third to one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China comes from Chinese labor, material and overhead. Official U.S. import statistics—which pay no heed to the constituent value-added elements—therefore overstate the Chinese value in those imports by 100 to 200 percent, on average. The cited job loss figures are based on import values that are unequivocally overstated because one-half to two-thirds of that value are the costs of material, labor, and overhead added in other countries, including the United States.

What is seldom discussed—because they are often portrayed as victims—is that large numbers of American workers are employed precisely because of imports from China. This is the case because the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy are highly complementary. U.S. factories and workers are more likely to be collaborating with Chinese factories and workers in production of the same goods than they are to be competing directly. The proliferation of vertical integration (whereby the production process is carved up and each function performed where it is most efficient to perform that function) and transnational supply chains has joined higher-value-added U.S. manufacturing, design, and R&D activities with lower-value manufacturing and assembly operations in China. The old factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders.

Though the focus is typically on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, legions of American workers and their factories, offices, and laboratories would be idled without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. Without access to lower-cost labor in places like Shenzhen, countless ideas hatched in U.S. laboratories, that became viable commercial products and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing might never have made it beyond conception because the costs of production would have been deemed prohibitive for mass consumption. Just imagine if all of the components in the Apple iPod had to be manufactured and assembled in the United States. Instead of $150 per unit, the cost of production might be double or triple or quadruple that amount.

Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would have sold, how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution, and sales would have supported, how much lower Apple’s profits (and those of the entities in its supply chains) would have been, how much lower Apple’s research and development expenditures would have been, how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be, how many fewer jobs those industries would support and the lower profits those industries would generate. Now multiply that process by the hundreds of other similarly ubiquitous devices and gadgets, computers and Blu-Rays, and every other product that is designed in the United States and assembled in China from components made in the United States and elsewhere.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows characterizes the complementarity of U.S. and Chinese production sharing as following the shape of a “Smiley Curve” plotted on a chart where the production process from start to finish is measured along the horizontal axis and the value of each stage of production is measured on the vertical axis. U.S. value added comes at the early stages—in branding, product conception, engineering, and design. Chinese value added operations occupy the middle stages—some engineering, some manufacturing and assembly, primarily. And more U.S. value added occurs at the end stages in logistics, retailing, and after market servicing. Under this typical production arrangement, collaboration, not competition, is what links U.S. and Chinese workers.

EPI’s work on this subject provides fodder for sensational stump speeches. But it is also a major disservice to a public that is hungering for truth, and not self-serving advocacy masquerading as truth.

Wednesday Links

  • There has been talk that House Democrats are planning to “deem” the health care bill into law without calling for a vote. If you’re not sure how that process works, read this.
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Currency Issue Still a Red Herring

Following are some thoughts from a broader analysis of mine on  the state of U.S.-China relations, which will be published in the near future.

Between July 2005 and July 2008, the Chinese RMB appreciated by 21 percent against the dollar.  But over that 3-year period, the U.S. trade deficit with China increased from $202 to $268 billion.  Why, then, do policymakers think revaluation is the key to reducing the trade deficit?  Why do they even care about the bilateral trade deficit, which is meaningless in the context of our globalized economy.  Only one-third to one-half of U.S. imports from China is Chinese value added.  The rest is Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, Australian, American and other countries’ value added.  The bilateral figures tell us nothing important.

During the aforementioned period of RMB appreciation, U.S. exports to China increased by $28 billion.  But U.S. imports from China increased by $94 billion.  Americans continued to purchase Chinese imports–despite the currency-induced price increase–for two primary reasons.  First, there aren’t many substitutes for the Chinese products U.S. consumers tend to purchase.  Second, Chinese exporters, by virtue of a stronger RMB, were able to reduce their costs of production because many of those costs are for imported inputs (made cheaper because of the stronger RMB), which subsequently enabled them to lower their prices for export to the United States.

There is no compelling reason to think things will be different this time.  Thus, all of the hollering, name-calling, and finger-pointing can only worsen the state of bilateral relations.

There are less provocative alternatives.

If it is desirable that China recycle some of its estimated $2.4 trillion in accumulated foreign reserves, U.S. policy (and the policy of other governments) should be more welcoming of Chinese investment in the private sector. Indeed, some of China’s past efforts to take equity positions or purchase U.S. companies or buy assets or land to build new production facilities have been viewed skeptically by U.S. policymakers, and scuttled, ostensibly over ill-defined security concerns.

As of the close of 2008, Chinese direct investment in the United States stood at just $1.2 billion—a mere rounding error at about 0.05 percent of the $2.3 trillion in total foreign direct investment in the United States. That figure does not come anywhere near the amount of U.S. direct investment held by foreigners in most of the world’s medium-sized economies, nevermind the large ones. U.S. direct investment in 2008 held in the United Kingdom was $454 billion; it was $260 billion in Japan; $259 billion in the Netherlands; $221 billion in Canada; $211 billion in Germany; $64 in Australia; $16 billion in South Korea; and even $1.7 billion in Russia.

In light of China’s large reserves, its need and desire to diversify, America’s need for investment in the real economy, and the objective of creating jobs and achieving sustained economic growth, U.S. policy should be clarified so that the benchmarks and hurdles facing Chinese investors are better understood. Lowering those hurdles would encourage greater Chinese investment in the U.S. economy and a deepening of our mutual economic interests.