Donald Trump is well known for his vociferous complaints about foreign trade. Trump has also gained notoriety for offering very vague policy proposals, and trade is no exception. This has left observers knowing that Trump wants to do something big on trade but without much sense of what, specifically, that will be. Now that Trump is president-elect of the United States, that uncertainty is bound to vanish as Trump’s plans and intentions necessarily become more concrete.
For the moment, however, we are left to speculate based on Trump’s vague and bellicose announcements. The most reliable indicator of Trump’s plans is probably Trump’s “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” he produced in the closing weeks of his campaign. That plan has reportedly been fleshed out a bit by his transition team. The plan includes numerous executive actions and a list of legislative proposals.
In one section, Trump lists “Seven actions to protect American workers,” four of which directly involve trade. Let’s go through them one by one.
Renegotiate of Withdraw from NAFTA
It’s no secret Donald Trump really doesn’t like NAFTA. He has said that NAFTA “destroyed our country.” It’s safe to assume Trump means to act on this. According to Politico, the longer version of Trump’s 100-day plan specifies that Trump will start renegotiating NAFTA on day one and withdraw from NAFTA “by day 200” if he hasn’t gotten what he wants yet.
Please excuse the haste, as I’ve spent the last week ignoring the “impossible,” focused instead on writing about the likely direction — including the copious double‐talk and rhetorical pirouettes — of President Clinton’s trade policy. If you’re a sucker for transparency, congratulations! You’ll get that in spades from President Trump’s trade policy. It will be transparently awful — for a while, at least.
Having a Republican president and GOP control of both chambers of Congress was once the ideal formulation for successfully negotiating and ratifying trade agreements. That all changed when Donald Trump, an avowed critic of U.S. trade agreements, rose to the top of the party’s ticket. As of last night, there is no longer any realistic chance that the Trans‐Pacific Partnership agreement will be ratified in the Lame Duck session of Congress; there is no chance that the TPP will be implemented over the next four years without the deal first being reopened and revised to reflect terms desired by President Trump; there is much greater scope for trade frictions, especially with China, to erupt into deleterious rounds of tit for tat protectionism; and there is the distinct risk that policies intended to punish U.S. companies for outsourcing will slow inward foreign direct investment (insourcing) and chase U.S. companies off‐shore, altogether, depleting capital, driving up interest rates, and hamstringing prospects for growth.
But there is a silver lining, which is that the worldviews of presidents tend to be more outward, engaging, and accommodating than the worldviews of presidential candidates. After repeatedly pledging to force Canada and Mexico back to the table to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement during his bid for the White House, President Obama phoned the Canadian prime minister and Mexican president within one week of his 2009 inauguration to reassure them that he had had a change of heart.
President‐elect Trump’s hardline, isolationist, nationalistic, protectionist proposals may be more difficult to walk back, especially if he fails to excommunicate some of his current advisors and branch out to obtain the counsel of economists and policy specialists who have a better understanding of international economics and the rules of global trade. If he is able to expand and diversify the pool of people advising him, there is a reasonable chance that President Trump’s actions will be less bellicose than his rhetoric has been. After all, as someone who wants to make America “great again,” President‐elect Trump will want the policies implemented by his administration to help grow the economy. Trade agreements have succeeded in that regard and, in addition to the TPP, there are plenty of countries and regions willing to partner, including the European Union and the United Kingdom (separately), and plenty of alternative negotiating platforms for accomplishing trade and investment liberalization.
In the short term, if President‐elect Trump wants to encourage U.S. manufacturing to produce and hire more, he should ask Congress to eliminate tariffs on all imported intermediate goods – components and raw materials that go into U.S. production. That would immediately reduce U.S. manufacturing costs, which would give the sector a leg up in its competition for U.S. and foreign investment.
Trump might quickly grasp that removing tariffs — rather than imposing them — is the kind of protectionism we can afford.
At a monetary conference in Vienna back in 2014, the distinguished Frenchman, my friend, and occasional collaborator Jacques de Larosière proclaimed that the current world monetary order should be termed an “anti‐system.” He has a point – an important point. Among other things, such an anti‐system invites an enormous amount of instability, as well as uninformed loose talk that influences public opinion and policy.
The Chinese yuan has been at the center of much of the recent misinformation and disinformation about currencies. For example, during the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump fingered China as the world’s best practitioner of currency devaluations – devaluations that Trump claims power China’s exports. Clinton didn’t object to Trump’s thesis. Indeed, she boarded the same bandwagon. And with the Chinese yuan making new lows, the ever‐misinformed mercantilists who populate Washington, D.C. are clinging to the bandwagon, too.
What are the facts? Well, they contradict the Beltway’s conventional wisdom. Chinese exports have steadily risen since 1995, but they have not been powered by a depreciating yuan. In fact, the yuan has slightly appreciated in both nominal and real terms. The accompanying charts tell that story. Note that the real and nominal charts tell the same story because the inflation rates in the U.S. and China have been similar over the past two decades.
In September, the UK government gave the green light for the construction of the Hinkley Point power plant through a French-Chinese consortium. The project—which has received wide international attention after being very nearly relegated to the protectionist dustbin—has been agreed to after much hemming and hawing. It has been mired in controversy mainly over security concerns related to foreign ownership, viewed by some as smacking of protectionism.
It is no secret that there has been a worrying trend toward protectionism in the global markets. The appetite for international trade agreements and foreign investment has been consistently listless. In the United States, and globally, some politicians have been banking on this by flaunting protectionist rhetoric in an effort to garner support. But while protectionism may win votes in the short-term, domestic economic growth will lose out in the long-term. Ultimately, politicizing the global economic rut will only make matters worse.
George Will writes in his column today about the importance of the Port of Charleston – and by extension, trade – to the economy of South Carolina. Recent completion of the 10-year project to widen the Panama Canal to accommodate more traffic and passage of a new class of container ships with nearly triple the capacity of their immediate predecessors has exposed a logistics snafu that could cost South Carolina’s economy billions of dollars: Charleston Harbor is too shallow to accommodate these much larger, “Post-Panamax” ships efficiently (only limited sections of the harbor are deep enough and only during high tide).
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, these vessels can lower shipping costs from 15-20 percent, but harbors need to be at least 47 feet deep to accommodate them. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports that only seven of the 44 major U.S. Gulf Coast and Atlantic ports are “Post-Panamax ready.” American ports must be modernized if the United States is going to continue to succeed at attracting investment in manufacturing and if U.S. companies are going to compete successfully in the global economy.
As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year:
The absence of suitable harbors, especially in the fast-growing Southeast, means fewer infrastructure- and business-development projects to undergird regional growth. It also means that Post-Panamax ships will have to continue calling on West Coast ports, where their containers will be put on trucks and railcars to get products from Asia to the U.S. East and Midwest—a slower and more expensive process.
The problem can be traced to one major issue: funding. And that issue is made more complicated by another problem: protectionism. Most funding of infrastructure inevitably come from federal and state budgets – taxpayers, who should have a voice in the debate about whether these infrastructure projects constitute wise public investments. But a couple of long-standing, though obscure, protectionist laws have conspired to reduce capacity in dredging services, ensuring that projects take twice as long and cost twice as much as they should.Read the rest of this post »
A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, titled “The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade,” has created Piketty-like buzz in U.S. trade policy circles this year. Among the paper’s findings is that the growth of imports from China between 1999 and 2011 caused a U.S. employment decline of 2.4 million workers, and that wages and employment prospects for those who lost jobs remained depressed for many years after the initial effect.
While commentators on the left have trumpeted these findings as some long-awaited refutation of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the authors have distanced themselves from those conclusions, portraying their analysis as an indictment of a previously prevailing economic consensus that the costs of labor market adjustment to increased trade would be relatively subdued (although I’m skeptical that such a consensus ever existed). But in a year when trade has been scapegoated for nearly everything perceived to be wrong in society, the release of this paper no doubt reinforced fears – and fueled demagogic rants – about trade and globalization being scourges to contain, and even eradicate.
Last week, Alan Reynolds explained why we should take Autor, et. al.’s job-loss figures with a pinch of salt, but there is an even more fundamental point to make here. That is: Trade has one role to perform – to grow the economic pie. Trade fulfills that role by allowing us to specialize. By expanding the size of markets to enable more refined specialization and economies of scale, trade enables us to produce and, thus, consume more. Nothing more is required of trade. Nothing!
Still, politicians, media, and other commentators blame trade for an allegedly unfair distribution of that pie and for the persistence of frictions in domestic labor markets. But reducing those frictions and managing distribution of the larger economic pie are not matters for trade policy. They are matters for domestic policy. Trade does its job. Policymakers must do their jobs, too.
My Cato trade policy colleagues and I recently released a Working Paper analyzing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We find that the agreement is “net liberalizing,” and that despite its various flaws, the agreement will improve people’s lives and should be ratified. Some aspects of the agreement were obviously good (like lower tariffs) and others were easy to condemn (like labor regulations); but for many of the TPP’s 30 chapters, our opinion is more ambivalent.
The TPP’s chapter on “state-owned enterprises” (SOEs) is one of those. The TPP’s SOE rules are good rules, but they’re not nearly as ambitious as we wish they’d be. We gave the chapter a minimally positive grade of 6 out of 10. Here’s some of what we had to say in our report: