Tag: trade

Weighing Trump’s Trade Apologists

In the wake of the recent “trade agreement” between President Trump and EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, we have seen a surfeit of commentary heaping praise on the U.S. president for his strategic trade policy vision and tactical brilliance. Much of that praise has come from people who share the president’s flat-earth view that trade is a zero-sum game played by national governments where the objective is to promote exports, block imports, and secure a trade surplus. Trump throwing U.S. weight around to assert the rule of power over the rule of law is music to this crowd’s ears.

But then there are the apologists who know better; the enablers. They are the bigger problem. In their obsequious tones, they explain how our brilliant president is blazing his own path toward free trade and that the evidence of his success is all around us. If we just disregarded Trump’s nationalist rhetoric, ignored his belief that the trade deficit means the United States is getting ripped off, shoveled away his mounting pile of destructive, protectionist actions, and stopped believing our own lying eyes, we too would rejoice in the greatness of a man who is committed—above all else and above all others—to free trade. 

Engaging in such extreme mental contortions is no easy task, but that’s exactly what an op-ed by tax reform luminaries Steve Moore, Art Laffer, and Steve Forbes in the New York Times last week expects readers to do.

Moore, Laffer, and Forbes (MLF) portray Trump’s “gunboat diplomacy” (you open your markets fully or I’ll close ours!) as strategic genius, akin to Reagan’s nuclear arms race, which broke the Soviets’ backs.  They conclude: “Just as no one ever thought Mr. Reagan would stem nuclear proliferation, if Mr. Trump aggressively pursues this policy, he could build a legacy as the president who expanded world commerce and economic freedom by ending trade barriers rather than erecting them.” Well, yeah, maybe he could.  But so far Trump has only increased trade barriers, more are coming, and there are no negotiations underway—with anyone—aimed at lowering tariffs or other barriers to trade.  But just close your eyes and imagine.

Topics:

Why All Went Quiet on the Western Trade Front

Although many hailed last week’s “trade agreement” between President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as an important achievement, it included no firm commitments to reduce tariffs, non-tariff barriers, or subsidies—or to do anything for that matter. The only agreement of substance was that new tariffs would not be imposed, while Washington and Brussels negotiated longer-term solutions to problems both real and imagined.

Those hungering for some good trade news might call that progress, but the only new tariffs that were under consideration (outside the exclusive domain of the president’s head) were those related to the Commerce Department’s investigation into the national security implications of automobile and auto parts imports. Of course, that investigation is still proceeding and there’s no reason to think Trump won’t leverage the threat of imposing auto tariffs to bend the outcome of those EU negotiations in his favor.

So what does Trump want? Trump seems committed to prosecuting a trade war with China and he expects the EU to have his back in that fight. Trump’s tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese products are scheduled to expand to $50 billion in early August and potentially to $250 billion in September. In a recent CNBC interview, Trump even threatened to subject all Chinese goods—more than $500 billion worth of imports in 2017—to additional tariffs.

For the first $34 billion, China has retaliated in kind, targeting mostly agricultural, aquaculture, and meat products. Beijing has pledged to go tit-for-tat throughout, even though its retaliation would have to take other forms—such as penalizing U.S. multinationals operating in China—because annual U.S. exports to China are in the neighborhood of only $130 billion.

The only real factor constraining Trump’s trade war is the potential that workers in red states will abandon the cause and turn on him. But so far, even as domestic production and employment are threatened as a consequence of the tariffs and the retaliation, Trump’s base still seems to be supporting his unorthodox, zero-sum approach to trade. Last month, a worker at Wisconsin’s Harley-Davidson facility, which will be downsizing as the company shifts production to Europe as a result of the EU’s retaliatory tariffs, said of Trump: “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.” That worker and many others agree that the United States should be throwing its weight around to obtain a larger slice of the pie—even if that process ends up reducing the overall size of the pie.

Topics:

The Hidden Costs of Tariffs

This news report from the Washington Post is a striking example of the absurd costs of complex tariff systems:

Brand-new Ford Transit Connect vans, made in Spain, are dropped off at U.S. ports several times a month. First, they pass through customs — and then workers hired by the automaker start to rip the vehicles apart. The rear seats are plucked out. The seat belts in back go, too. Sometimes, the rear side windows are covered with painted plates. Any holes left in the floor are patched over. 

Why? Because there’s a 25 percent tariff on imported pickup trucks and work vans, but only a 2.5 percent tariff on passenger vans. So even with all the extra effort of building a passenger-quality van, and then dismantling it, it’s still cheaper to do that than to pay a substantial tax on the import. 

The story is also a reminder of how bad policies can linger for decades. In the early 1960s Europeans increased their purchases of American chicken. European governments responded by imposing tariffs on chicken imported from the United States. In retaliation, President Lyndon B. Johnson imposed a 25 percent tariff – known as the “chicken tax” – on potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and light trucks. Tariffs on the other products were eventually lifted, but the high tax on light trucks remains. Thus the counterproductive construction and destruction. And by the way, this is no secret; the Wall Street Journal wrote about Ford’s practice in 2009.

The Post goes on to report:

Tariff engineering has a long history.

In the 1880s, the Supreme Court ruled it was acceptable for a sugar importer to intentionally darken refined sugar with molasses to lower the grade and secure a lower duty. Three decades later, the court took up the case of a company accused of trying to evade a 60 percent duty on strung pearls by instead shipping loose pearls with holes pre-drilled for stringing. Those faced only a 10 percent duty….

For example, some athletic shoes, such as Converse All-Stars, come with just enough fuzzy cloth on the rubber soles to qualify them as lower-duty slippers. In the early 1980s, the United States imposed a tariff on motorcycles with engines larger than 700 cubic centimeters in a bid to protect U.S.-based Harley-Davidson, so Japanese companies turned to making 699-cubic-centimeter motorcycles instead.

[See https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/taking-america-ride-politics-motorcycle-tariffs]

Topics:

U.S. Maritime Sector Among the Jones Act’s Biggest Victims

Monday of this week marked the Day of the Seafarer, an occasion meant to recognize the critical role played by mariners in the global economy. American seafarers, however, increasingly find little to celebrate. A large source of their travails is the Jones Act. Signed into law 98 years ago this month, the law mandates that cargo transported between two domestic ports be carried on ships that are U.S.-built, U.S.-owned, U.S.-flagged, and U.S.-crewed.

The harm caused by this law is well documented. By reducing competition from foreign shipping options and mandating the use of domestically built ships that are vastly more expensive than those constructed elsewhere, the Jones Act has raised transportation costs and served as a de facto tax on the economy.

Too often overlooked is that the Jones Act has also presided over the decimation of the U.S. maritime sector, the very industry whose fortunes it was meant to promote (an age-old story in the annals of protectionism). The numbers speak for themselves. Since 2000 the number of oceangoing vessels of at least 1,000 tons which meet the Jones Act’s requirements has shrunk from 193 to 99. A mere three U.S. shipyards are capable of producing oceangoing vessels for commercial shipping, and one of them, the Philly Shipyard, is facing a possible shutdown. Europe, in contrast, has roughly 60 major shipyards capable of building vessels of at least 150 meters in length, while the United States has a total of seven such shipyards when those producing military vessels are included.

Both the declining number of Jones Act ships and the struggles of the shipyards that build them are in large part explained by the vastly inflated cost of ships constructed in the United States. According to the Congressional Research Service, American-built coastal and feeder ships—the types of ships commonly used in domestic sea transport—cost between $190 and $250 million, whereas similar vessels constructed in a foreign shipyard cost about $30 million.

One unsurprising consequence of such stratospheric costs is a reluctance on the part of domestic shipping firms to invest in new ships, with U.S. seafarers forced to work aboard vessels that are significantly older than those found in other countries. Excluding tankers (these vessels were subject to a requirement in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that they be double-hulled by 2015, thus encouraging the purchase of new ships and decreasing their average age), the Jones Act fleet averages 30 years of age—fully 11 years older than the average age of a ship in the merchant fleet of other developed countries. For context, the maximum economic life of a ship in the world market is typically 20 years

International comparisons of specific ship types are even more eye-opening. Jones Act containerships, for example, average more than 30 years old. The international average is 11.5. The only two bulk ships in the Jones Act fleet average 38 years old, while the international average is 8.8. General cargo ships average 34 years of age compared to an international average of 25.2.

Struggling shipyards, a dwindling fleet of old ships, and fewer jobs are now the order of the day in the maritime sector. As Mark H. Buzby, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, testified before Congress earlier this year, “over the last few decades, the U.S. maritime industry has suffered losses as companies, ships, and jobs moved overseas.” Also addressing members of Congress, one senior union official admitted that “the pool of licensed and unlicensed mariners has shrunk to a critical level.”

This is not a new story. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the United States was so desperate for civilian mariners to crew transport vessels that it enlisted the services of two octogenarians and one 92-year-old. Its search for ships was equally frantic, resulting in two requests to borrow a ship from the Soviet Union—and two rejections. Notably, during this conflict a much larger share of U.S. military equipment and supplies was carried by foreign-flagged vessels (26.6 percent) than U.S.-flagged commercial vessels (12.7 percent).

Supporters of the Jones Act often claim the law is vital to assure a strong merchant marine capable of answering the country’s call in times of war or national emergency. Should the Jones Act be repealed, they warn that the maritime industry will enter a dangerous downward spiral. But the record clearly shows that their nightmare scenario, in fact, describes the status quo. It’s time for this law to go, or be significantly reformed.

Toward that end the Cato Institute has unveiled its Project on Jones Act Reform, which will feature a series of policy papers exposing the fallacies and realities of this archaic law. The first of these policy analyses, The Jones Act: A Burden America Can No Longer Bear, is now available and provides an overview of the law, its history, and myriad shortcomings. More such policy analyses will follow both this year and next, along with other commentary pieces about this failed law, so be sure to check back for the latest updates. 

A Trade Armistice in the Works?

President Trump set off another round of Twitter hyperventilation and financial market selling these past 18 hours with his latest threat to assess duties on another $200 billion of Chinese imports. What to make of this?

I see two (and only two) ways of looking at this. You can conclude that Trump is irrational, engaging in rhetoric and taking actions that are inconsistent with his goals, or you can see him as rational. You may not like his goals, but that doesn’t make him irrational.  And he may be rational, but that doesn’t mean he’s not misguided.  It seems to me, though, that if you think Trump’s irrational, then there’s not much use in trying to make heads or tails of the daily gyrations. There’s no basis, really, for offering much in the way of useful analysis of U.S. trade policy for the next couple of years.

I see Trump as rational, but deeply misguided. His unpredictability is risky and frustrating, but it’s also a staple of his governance. Unpredictability is the most predictable feature of this administration. But Trump’s goal is consistent and predictable.  Trump’s goal is to cut deals that make him look Herculaean. The deals he most covets are those that cast him as fixing the trade problem with China and fixing the “worst trade deal ever negotiated,” NAFTA.

From the outset, Trump set his sights on “fixing” the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China.  Is that a worthwhile priority of trade policy?  Absolutely not. But Trump is convinced that reducing the deficit is priority number one.  He sees his high stakes engagement as worthwhile because he miscalculates the potential benefits and costs of his approach. I see the upside of Trump’s approach as offering potentially smallish benefits (getting China to do something that may benefit U.S. exporters), but the downside (a deleterious trade war that leaves the world in far worse shape) as severe and significant. My own approach would be far more risk-averse.

Trump wants the Chinese to buy more American goods and services.  On its face, this is a reasonable desire for a U.S. president to have.  But Trump wants the Chinese government to commit to purchasing more U.S. goods and services, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 billion to $200 billion per year (which, of course, reinforces the fact that China’s economy is centrally directed, which is the basis for the legitimate problems in the economic relationship in the first place.) Threatened tariffs of 25 percent on $50 billion of imports from China, announced as result of a U.S. investigation into Chinese technology and IP practices, are Trump’s initial leverage in getting the Chinese to commit to more purchases. Beijing’s announced retaliation slightly negates that leverage, but then the administration cracked down on ZTE, the Chinese information and communications technology company that admittedly violated U.S. export control laws by selling certain products to Iran and North Korea, and was cut off from U.S. suppliers of semiconductors and other critical components.

The on-again-off-again-on-again sanctions seem to be conditioned on whether and to what extent Beijing commits to purchasing U.S. exports, and that decision now seems to be conditioned upon Trump granting a reprieve to ZTE. Trump has already given ZTE a reprieve on paper (with certain conditions and requirements), but Congress seems to have strenuous objections, and is considering an amendment to the defense authorization bill to prevent Trump’s reprieve from taking effect.

Trump’s latest threat to hit another $200 billion of Chinese products with tariffs is just as much a threat to Congress as it is to China.  Either the Chinese will relent and agree to purchase U.S. stuff (without need of reinstating ZTE) and the tariffs will be called off or Congress, fearing (more than Beijing does) a trade war that will take down U.S. manufacturing and agricultural interests and their representative in Washington, will relent on its legislative push to block ZTE.  Of course, relenting on ZTE while continuing to treat Canada, Mexico, the EU and other allies as national security threats (especially since that designation has resulted in those countries applying tariffs to U.S. agricultural and manfuacturing exports, too) isn’t going to sit well with Congress either. 

So, in order to fix these asymmetries and make Congress and U.S. allies whole (wholer, whole-ish): Congress abandons its legislation to block ZTE, which gets back in business (with conditions); the U.S.-China tariff war is called off; China signs purchasing orders for $100 billion to $200 billion of U.S. exports; the steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the EU are removed; and the NAFTA negotiations are restarted and concluded before the midterms. This gives Trump two major pyrrhic victories that will reinforce his greatness to his base.

Seems to me these are the only outcomes that could remotely explain (if not justify) the ride Trump is taking us on. I see it as misguided, but not irrational.

Topics:

Will Tariffs Consume the Tax Reform Benefits U.S. Manufacturers Were Expecting?

Former White House economist Gary Cohn expressed concerns yesterday that Trump’s tariffs would erode the benefits from tax reform. Since the on-again-off-again 25 percent tariffs on imports from China are—as of 3:23pm, Friday, June 15, 2018—“on again,” let me share this back-of-the-envelope analysis that shows why Cohn’s concerns are justified.

Certainly, the additional profits expected from the reduction in corporate rates from 35 to 21 percent could be entirely wiped out for the manufacturing sector. In 2017, according to Census Bureau data, the pre-tax profits of the U.S. manufacturing sector were $691 billion.  At 35 percent, the taxes on paper would be $242 billion.  At 21 percent, the average tax bill is $145 billion.  So, roughly speaking, the reduction in rates is estimated to be worth about $97 billion in terms of 2017 profits.

Well, in 2017, the value of U.S. goods imports was $2.33 trillion. Commerce Department data show that half of that value was comprised of intermediate goods (raw materials, production inputs, capital equipment)—the purchases of producers, not households. In other words, approximately $1.17 trillion of imports are U.S. costs of production.

If a tariff of, say, 10 percent were imposed on these imports, the cost of production for manufacturers would rise, roughly speaking, by $117 billion. That’s a $117 billion reduction in profits. Meanwhile, assuming foreign governments responded in kind and hit U.S. exports with 10 percent tariffs, manufacturing revenues also would take a hit.  U.S. exports of manufactured goods in 2017 amounted to $1.24 trillion.  Again, roughly speaking, that 10 percent tariff would reduce U.S. manufacturing revenues by $124 billion.  That, too, reduces profits.

The combined effect of the increased costs and reduced revenues comes to a $241 billion reduction in profits (a 35 percent reduction in manufacturing’s 2017 pre-tax profits). So, ceteris paribus, a 10 percent across-the-board tariff would reduce the U.S. manufacturing sector’s profits by about 35 percent.  With that kind of “downturn” in profitability, from where would the resources come to make capital investments, build new production facilities and R&D centers, and to offer new employment opportunities?

Let’s apply this ball park estimate to the actual situation on the ground. The tariffs Trump has already imposed or announced (steel and China tech products—leaving out aluminum, washers, and solar panels) subject $100 billion of imports to tariffs of 25 percent. The retaliation so far announced (by China, Canada, Mexico, and the EU) is commensurate—it will be approximately 25 percent on $100 billion of U.S. exports.  So, at the moment, $200 billion of U.S. trade is in the crosshairs.

But a new Trump investigation into the national security implications of auto and auto parts imports could add another $600 billion of trade to the mix—$300 billion of imports hit with 25 percent duties and $300 billion of retaliation. The president wants to get the investigation completed before the election in November, so we could be up to $800 billion of U.S. trade by year’s end.  (That’s 20 percent of all U.S. goods trade, by the way.)  

So, 25 percent duties assessed on $800 billion of trade, approximately half of which would be U.S. manufacturing inputs and U.S. manufactured exports comes out to a combined $100 billion hit on the sector’s profits (25 percent of $400 billion).  That eclipses the $97 billion gain from the corporate rate reduction.

While this is all bad news for the economy, I wonder whether the tax-reform advocates who held their noses and excused Trump’s trade transgressions because tax reform would make everything right will start to speak out. Paging Larry Kudlow, Steve Moore, and Art Laffer.

 

 

 

 

 

Topics:

Steel Yourself as Trump Cuts Off Trade to Spite His Face

Various news outlets are reporting that, at midnight tonight, special U.S. tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union will go into effect. This action stems (incongruously and capriciously) from two nearly yearlong investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which found that imports of steel and aluminum “threaten to impair the national security” of the United States. This seldom used statute gives the president broad discretion both to define what constitutes a national security threat and to prescribe a course to mitigate the threat. On both counts, President Trump has abused that discretion.

In March, the president announced his intention to impose duties of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports from all countries. But temporary exemptions were granted to some countries in an effort to extort commitments from them to do their part to reduce the U.S. trade deficit (by selling us less stuff and buying from us more stuff) or to agree to U.S. demands in ongoing trade negotiations (South Korea, Canada, Mexico). The Koreans succeeded by agreeing to limits on their steel exports and by upping the percentage of US-made automobiles that can be sold in Korea without meeting all of the local environmental standards. Ah, free trade…

Apparently, the Europeans, Canadians, and Mexicans haven’t bent sufficiently to Trump’s will, therefore those countries—those steadfast allies—constitute threats to U.S. national security and will no longer be exempt from the tariffs, which means that U.S. industries that rely on steel and aluminum (imported or domestic) will be hit with substantial taxes to mitigate that threat. Got it?

This announcement comes on the heels of one made earlier this week regarding the “trade war” with China, which is back on 10 days after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin declared it to be “put on hold.” (I guess it was just a rain delay.) On June 15, the administration will publish the final list of Chinese products—about 1,300 products valued at about $50 billion—that will be hit with 25 percent duties. The Chinese government has published its own list of U.S. exports that will be hit with retaliatory duties in China.

So, as has been the case every day for the past 16+ months, the U.S. and global economies (even as they’ve strengthened) remain exposed to the whims of an unorthodox president who precariously steers policy from one extreme to the other, keeping us in a perpetual state of uncertainty. With the Europeans, Canadians, Mexicans, and Chinese all preparing to retaliate in response to these precipitous U.S. actions, at the stroke of midnight we may finally get the certainty of the beginning of a deleterious trade war.

Topics:

Pages