Since 1975 – for 41 straight years – the United States has registered annual trade deficits with the rest of the world. That means that year after year, Americans spend more on foreign-produced goods and services than foreigners spend on U.S.-produced goods and services or, put simply, the dollar value of U.S. imports exceeds the dollar value of U.S. exports.
For almost as long, some economists have been arguing that trade deficits are unsustainable – they sap economic growth, bleed jobs, and saddle our descendants with debt. Perhaps if one looks at the trade deficit (or the slightly broader current account deficit) in isolation, these concerns might seem to have merit. But looking at the U.S. trade or current account deficits without considering the capital account surplus is a meaningless, misleading exercise.
Yesterday, I published this piece at Forbes online, explaining why the trade deficit is not only not a problem, but that the associated capital surplus (the excess of inward investment over outward investment), which includes high-quality foreign direct investment, bestows huge advantages on the U.S. economy. In that piece, I ask trade deficit hawks (or scolds, as I call them) to furnish their best, fact-based, comprehensive arguments – to finally step up to the plate and explain why it is that the trade deficit is a problem to solve.
It would be of immense public policy value if we were to be able to catalogue and compare the arguments of both sides (and those who may be in the middle). After all, one of the reasons that trade is so maligned is that the public has been lead to believe that the trade account is a scoreboard, with the deficit indicating that Team America is losing – and it’s losing on account of poorly negotiated trade deals and foreign cheating. Helping the public reach that conclusion (rather than find the truth) may be the goal of some noisy contributors, but I suspect there are plenty of trade deficit hawks with purer motives, if not convincing arguments.
I’ve written often about the global competition to attract foreign investment, and have made the point that investment flows to jurisdictions with good policies in place. Globalization of production and the mobility of capital mean that national policies (regulations, tax policy, immigration, trade, energy, education, etc.) are on trial, with net investment inflows rendering the verdicts.
But some countries (and some U.S. states) use tax holidays and other forms of tax forgiveness, in lieu of adopting good policies, to attract investment, which burdens taxpayers and subverts the process of matching investment to its optimal location. These are subsidies – like so many other programs – that distort markets and should be discouraged.
In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, which is associated with the TTIP conference taking place on October 12, Ted Alden from the Council on Foreign Relations puts forward a strong proposal to end this madness via the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations.
Read it. Provide feedback. And please register to attend the conference.
Some exaggeration notwithstanding, Harold Meyerson, with whom the occasion to agree is rare, does a reasonably good job describing some of the pitfalls of the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism in his Washington Post column yesterday. ISDS has become a source of growing controversy, which threatens to derail the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, which are reported to be floundering during the seventh “round” of talks taking place this week in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“Under ISDS,” Meyerson writes, “foreign investors can sue a nation with which their own country has such treaty arrangements over any rules, regulations or changes in policy that they say harm their financial interests.” That is more or less correct, but the implication that the threshold for bringing a suit is simple harm to a foreign investor’s financial interests is misleading. What is being disciplined under ISDS is not harm to financial interests of foreign investors, but harm that comes from discriminatory treatment of foreign investors. Thus, ISDS avails foreign investors (i.e., U.S. companies invested abroad, foreign companies invested in the U.S.) of access to third-party arbitration tribunals as venues for determining whether and to what extent the plaintiff suffered economic damages on account of host-government actions or policies that fail to meet certain minimum standards of treatment.
Meyerson suggests that ISDS provisions be purged from the TTIP negotiations because they subordinate U.S. courts to unaccountable tribunals, which “invites a massive end-run around national regulations.” Though I firmly believe the U.S. economy is racked with superfluous and otherwise unnecessary regulations, I do believe that a successful foreign challenge of U.S. laws, regulations, or actions in a third-party arbitration tribunal (none has occurred, yet) would subvert accountability, democracy, and the rule of law. For those and several other reasons, I’m on board with Meyerson’s suggestion to purge ISDS from TTIP, and would extend the purge to all trade agreements. In fact, I developed eight reasons for purging ISDS from the trade negotiations in this paper earlier this year.
A Washington Post editorial today pushes back against the argument that a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement would exacerbate income inequality. Amen, I suppose. But in making its case, the editorial burns the village to save it by conceding as fact certain destructive myths that undergird broad skepticism about trade and unify its opponents.
“All else being equal,” the editorial reads, “firms move where labor is cheapest.” Presumably, by “all else being equal,” the editorial board means: if the quality of the factors of production were the same; if skill sets were identical; if workers were endowed with the same capital; if all production locations had equal access to ports and rail; if the proximity of large markets and other nodes in the supply chain were the same; if institutions supporting the rule of law were comparably rigorous or lax; if the risks of asset expropriation were the same; if regulations and taxes were identical; and so on, the final determinant in the production location decision would be the cost of labor. Fair enough. That untestable premise may be correct.
But back in reality, none of those conditions is equal. And what do we see? We see investment flowing (sometimes in the form of “firms mov[ing],” but more often in the form of firms supplementing domestic activities) to rich countries, not poor. In this recent study, I reported statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealing that:
Nearly three quarters of the $5.2 trillion stock of U.S.-owned direct investment abroad is concentrated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. Contrary to persistent rumors, only 1.3 percent of the value of U.S.-outward FDI [foreign direct investment] was in China at the end of 2011.
In this new paper, I argue that an overly burdensome U.S. regulatory state is partly responsible for the downward trend in domestic and foreign investment in U.S. factories, professional services operations, distribution centers, and research and development facilities. EPA mandates, Obamacare’s costly, complicated new health care directives, and the slowly emerging financial services restrictions stemming from Dodd Frank, are just some of the new regulations that have thickened the Federal Register to more than 80,000 pages per year and added 16,500 new pages to the Code of Federal Regulations during the Obama presidency, undoubtedly deflecting and chasing investment and business creation to foreign shores.
Oddly, this massive expansion of federal rules has evolved as President Obama has simultaneously expressed concerns about the impacts of both declining investment and regulatory overkill on economic growth. In 2011, the president issued Executive Order 13563 under the heading “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review.” Section 1 states:
Our regulatory system must protect public health, welfare, safety, and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness and job creation. It must be based on the best available science. It must allow for public participation and an open exchange of ideas. It must promote predictability and reduce uncertainty. It must identify and use the best, most innovative, and least burdensome tools for achieving regulatory ends. It must take into account benefits and costs, both quantitative and qualitative. It must ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand. It must measure, and seek to improve, the actual results of regulatory requirements.
The president issued this EO in the wake of his party’s mid-term election rebuke, perhaps to indicate that he understood the concerns of business. He even required that his agencies formulate plans for undertaking systematic, retrospective reviews of their rules and regulations with an eye toward making them less imposing on society:
Sec. 6. Retrospective Analyses of Existing Rules. (a) To facilitate the periodic review of existing significant regulations, agencies shall consider how best to promote retrospective analysis for rules that may be outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome, and to modify, streamline, expand, or repeal them in accordance with what has been learned…
In the words of a former chief economist at the Council of Economic Advisers:
The single greatest problem with the current system is that most regulations are subject to a cost-benefit analysis only in advance of their implementation. That is the point when the least is known and any analysis must rest on many unverifiable and potentially controversial assumptions.
This morning, Cato published a new study of mine titled, “Reversing Worrisome Trends: How to Attract and Retain Investment in a Competitive Global Economy.” The thrust of the paper is that, despite still being the world’s premiere destination for foreign direct investment, the U.S. share of the global stock of direct investment fell from 39% in 1999 to 17% today.
This downward trend is attributable to two broad factors. First, developing economies – many of which have achieved greater political stability, sustained economic growth, improved infrastructure and higher-quality worker skill sets – are now viable options for pulling in the kinds of FDI that was once untenable in those locales. Second, a deteriorating business and investment climate in the United States – owing to burgeoning, burdensome, and uncertain regulations; an antiquated, punitive corporate tax system; incoherent immigration, energy, and trade policies; a wayward tort system; cronyism and perceptions thereof; and other perverse incentives and disincentives of policy have pushed investment away.
The first trend should be welcomed and embraced; the second must be reversed. From the study:
Unlike ever before, the world’s producers have a wealth of options when it comes to where and how they organize product development, production, assembly, distribution, and other functions on the continuum from product conception to consumption. As businesses look to the most productive combinations of labor and capital, to the most efficient production processes, and to the best ways of getting products and services to market, perceptions about the business environment can be determinative. In a global economy, “offshoring” is an inevitable consequence of competition. And policy improvement should be the broad, beneficial result.
The capacity of the United States to continue to be a magnet for both foreign and domestic investment is largely a function of its advantages, many of which are shaped by public policy. Considerations of taxes, regulations, trade openness, access to skilled workers, infrastructure, energy policy, and dozens of other policy matters factor into decisions about whether, where, and how much to invest. It should be of major concern that inward FDI has been erratic and relatively downward trending in recent years, but why that is the case should not be a mystery. U.S. scores on a variety of renowned business surveys and investment indices measuring policy and perceptions of policy suggest that the U.S. business environment is becoming increasingly less hospitable.
Although some policymakers recognize the need for reform, others seem to be impervious to the investment-repelling effects of some of the laws and regulations they create. Some see the shale gas and oil booms as more than sufficient for overcoming policy shortcomings and attracting the necessary investment. The most naive consider “American” companies to be tethered to the U.S. economy and obligated to invest and hire in the United States, regardless of the quality of the business and policy environments. They fail to appreciate that increasingly transnational U.S.-based businesses are not obligated to invest, produce, or hire in the United States.
It is the responsibility of policymakers, however, to create an environment that is more attractive to prospective investors. Current laws, regulations, and other conditions affecting the U.S. business environment are conspiring to deter inward investment and to encourage companies to offshore operations that could otherwise be performed competitively in the United States.
A proper accounting of these policies, followed by implementation of reforms to remedy shortcomings, will be necessary if the United States is going to compete effectively for the investment required to fuel economic growth and higher living standards.
Details, charts, and analysis, and citations are all included here.