Econ 101: Trade Deficits, another Bite

Some years ago my friend Moritz Schularick and I were walking down a street in what is now called midtown Berlin (the former Eastern zone). Moritz asked me if I could explain why capital was flowing into the U.S. from developing countries when economic theory suggested it should flow in the other direction. At the time I didn’t have a very good answer. This note offers a better one.

We expect investors to put their money where the risk adjusted return is highest because that would maximize their profits. Wealthy countries like the United States have large capital stocks as a result of many decades of investment. Poor countries—especially the emerging economies—have much smaller capital stocks. Under those circumstances, the return to investing in more capital where it is relatively scarce is normally higher than where large investments have already been made. Economists call this the declining marginal return to capital. So the capital intensive, wealthier countries should have a lower return on investing in still more capital than would the poorer capital scarce countries. If the return to capital (interest rate) in emerging market economies is higher than in the U.S., capital should flow from the U.S. to promising developing countries.

I told Moritz that it must be that because of stronger institutions and property rights (rule of law) in the U.S. compared to many developing economies, investment in them was riskier to such an extent that the risk adjusted return was actually lower in developing economies. That may explain part of the reverse flow of capital into the U.S.

But two other factors might be even more important.

First we need to understand how capital flows from the U.S. to another economy. Consider American investments in Chile, a rapidly growing emerging economy with relatively good institutions and rule of law. American investors must buy Chilean pesos in the amounts to be invested. This will appreciate the peso some (one peso will be more dollars than before making American goods cheaper). Those pesos might be used to buy shares in a growing Chilean company. The purchase of these shares by an American might simply be a change in ownership (portfolio investment) or might finance new investment (Foreign direct investment—an actual increase in capital).

But what does the Chilean who sold her pesos for dollars do with those dollars? It simplifies without fundamentally changing the story to assume that the Chilean firm selling its share to an American acquired those dollars. The firm might buy U.S. treasury securities with these dollars (this is the simple swap of asset ownership of portfolio investments). But more likely it buys American machinery and equipment for its new investment. The U.S. “enjoys” a trade surplus as a result of these capital outflows. This is the traditional relationship assumed between the developed and undeveloped world. Capital flows from the U.S. to Chile.

Two additional very important factors have changed this story causing capital to flow backward from the Chiles of the world to the U.S. In my previous blog “Econ-101-trade-deficits” I explained the following relationship:

(M – X)   =   (I – S) +   (G – T),

which says that the trade deficit (imports-M- less exports-X) is equal to the savings deficit (investment-I- less saving-S) plus the government’s fiscal deficit (government spending-G- less its tax revenue-T). Uncle Sam has had a fiscal deficit every year since the Clinton administration surpluses (even currently when the economy is fully employed!) The rest of the world has helped finance our fiscal profligacy thus keeping US interest rates lower than they otherwise would have been and crowding out less of our private investment than such fiscal deficits would otherwise have caused. The rest of the world acquires the dollars to invest in the U.S. by selling more to us than they buy from us (i.e., via our trade deficit). So other things equal a smaller fiscal deficit or, god forbid, a fiscal surplus will reduce our trade deficit.

The other, often overlooked, cause of our trade deficits arises from the use of the U.S. dollar as the world’s primary reserve asset and thus the demand from foreign central banks to hold them in their foreign exchange reserves. They acquire these dollars via our trade deficit (and their trade surplus). Their demand for U.S. dollars appreciates the exchange rate of the dollar relative to foreign currencies making foreign goods cheaper in the U.S. and American exports more expensive abroad, thus creating our trade deficits and their surpluses (see my blog from last week linked above and/or this more extensive treatment; “Why the world needs a reserve asset with a hard anchor” Frontiers of Economics in China 2017, Vol 12 Issue 4, http://journal.hep.com.cn/fec/EN/10.3868/s060-006-017-0023-7).

It would be in our interest to replace the dollar’s use in foreign reserves with an internationally issued reserve currency, something I have been advocating for many years. The details for what this might look like and how it could be done are provided here: “Real SDR Currency Board”

 

 

Econ 101: Trade deficits

Responding to critics of the administration’s proposed steel and aluminum tariffs, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated on CNBC: “I think this is scare tactics by the people who want the status quo, the people who have given away jobs in this country, who’ve left us with an enormous trade deficit and one that’s growing. [The trade deficit] grew again last year, and if we don’t do something, it will keep growing and keep destroying American jobs.” “Wilbur-Ross’s-star-rises-as-trump-imposes-tariffs”

Though the forces determining our trade deficits have many moving parts, it is not that complicated to explain why everything in the above statement is wrong. In this note I explain why:

  • Our trade deficits are caused more by U.S. government fiscal deficits than by the mercantilist export promotion policies of China, Japan, and Germany;
  • Mercantilist policies that subsidize exports and restrict imports don’t cost American jobs but rather reallocate workers and capital to less productive jobs that lower our standard of living; and
  • Challenging mercantilist policies using the tools and provisions of the WTO and other trade agreements better serves our long run interests than unilaterally imposing tariffs and inciting trade wars.

To understand the relationship between our fiscal deficit and trade balance, it is essential to understand the macro level relationship of our trade deficit to the other broad categories of our national income and expenditures. So take a deep breath as I explain the national income identities through which I will explore that relationship.

The economy’s total domestic output, known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), can be broken into the broad components of our output/income that reflect how that income is spent. I understand how a little math can discourage some from reading further, but this is necessary and I hope you will indulge me. Starting with the components of expenditures:

GDP = C –M + I + G + X, or GDP = C + I + G + (X-M)

Where:
C = household consumption expenditures / personal consumption expenditures
I = gross private domestic investment
G = government consumption and gross investment expenditures
X = gross exports of goods and services
M = gross imports of goods and services

C-M is household consumption of domestically made goods and services, while M is household consumption of foreign made goods and services. If we subtract M from X (foreign expenditures on domestically made goods and services) we have the famous trade balance. When we buy more foreign goods and services than foreigners buy of our output, i.e., when X-M is negative, we have a trade deficit. As discussed further below, it is important to note that the trade balance (deficit or surplus) is between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Bilateral deficits or surpluses with individual countries are irrelevant.

But another way of breaking up total output (and thus income) is into how households allocate it:

GDP = C + T + S

Where:

T = household tax payments (personal and corporate income taxes plus sales taxes)

S = household saving

These two equations each provide definitions of the same quantity (GDP) and thus can be set equal to each other. This enables us to arrive at a useful formulation of the trade deficit:

C + I + G + (X-M) = C + T + S, or M-X = I-S + G-T;

The relationships in the identity can be described in several ways. Our fiscal deficit (G-T) must be financed by domestic net saving, i.e. a negative I-S, or by foreigners (M-X), i.e. a trade deficit or a mix of the two. Government finances its deficits by selling treasury securities domestically or abroad. If they are purchased domestically, residents must save more for that purpose or investors must borrow less from existing saving. If a fiscal deficit doesn’t crowd out private investment or increase private domestic saving (e.g., if I-S = 0) then it must be financed by foreigners who get the dollars with which to buy U.S. treasure securities by selling their goods and services to us in excess of what they buy from us, i.e., a trade deficit.

The above relationships are derived from definitions. They are tautologies. If the government’s spending exceeds its tax revenue it must borrow the difference from someone: a diversion of spending that would have financed investment (crowding out), a reduction in consumption (i.e., increase in saving), or an increase in the share of consumption spent abroad (increase in imports) giving foreigners the dollars they lend to the U.S. government. The interesting part—the underlying economics—is how markets bring about these results (usually a mix of all three).

When the government increases its need to borrow, other things equal, the increase in the supply of treasury securities relative to the existing demand for them increases the interest rate the government must pay. Higher interest rates generally encourage more saving and discourage investment. If we have no trade deficit (X-M = 0 so that G-T = S-T), the government’s deficit (G-T) must be financed by net saving (S-T). Depending on how much of the net saving comes from an increase in saving and how much from a decrease in investment, government deficits are bad for investment and economic growth in the long run (abstracting from countercyclical budget deficits and surpluses meant to offset cyclical swings in aggregate demand).

However, much of our fiscal deficits have been financed by foreigners (predominantly China and Germany) through their trade surpluses and our trade deficits. The market produces this result because the higher interest rates on U.S. treasury securities (and until now their perceived low risk of default) attracts foreign investors. The foreign demand for dollars in order to buy these treasury securities increases (appreciates) the exchange rate of the dollar for other currencies. An appreciated dollar makes American exports more expensive to foreigners and foreign imports cheaper for Americans. The resulting increase in imports and reduction in exports increases the trade deficit, which then finances our fiscal deficit.

As Alan Blinder put it: “Nations that invest more than they save must borrow the difference from abroad. Happily, the U.S. can do that because foreign countries have confidence in American securities. When we import more than we export, foreigners get IOUs in return for goods and services Americans want. That sounds more like winning than losing: We get German cars, French wines, and Chinese solar panels, while the Germans, French and Chinese get paper assets. America’s tremendous ability to export IOUs has been called our “exorbitant privilege.” Yes, privilege.” “This-is-exactly-how-trade-wars-begin”

If you have made it this far, you will be better able to understand the errors of Secretary Ross’s statement above: “if we don’t do something, it [the trade deficit] will keep growing and keep destroying American jobs.” If the United States government wants to reduce our trade deficit, it should reduce, rather than further increase, our fiscal deficit.

As noted above, however, our trade deficits reflect many moving parts. In the above example, foreigners want to increase their holdings of U.S. dollars (and dollar assets) in part because the dollar is a widely used international reserve asset. Our trade deficit is the primary way in which we supply our dollars to the rest of the world (and its central banks). However, what if our trading partners were manipulating their exchange rates in order to produce trade surpluses for themselves?

In the past, China followed such a mercantilist policy of promoting its exports over imports as part of its economic development strategy. In that case our trade deficit would result in foreign investments in the US with the net dollars accumulated abroad even without U.S. fiscal deficits. If they are not soaked up financing government debt they will be invested in private securities or other assets (such as Trump Hotels). Just to keep it complicated, these foreign investments would either add financing to increased domestic investment (if they lowered U.S. interest rates) or would buy existing American assets freeing up funds of the sellers to help finance government deficits or new investment. As I said, there are many moving parts, which adjust depending on prices (interest rates) and the public’s buying and investing propensities.

Tariffs don’t violate the above national income identities. Rather they potentially change the allocation of resources toward or away from traded goods. The Better Way tax reform proposals of Congressman Kevin Brady in 2016 included a so-called border adjustment tax, which taxed all imports equally and exempted all exports from the domestic expenditure tax. The tax on imports would have been, in effect, a tariff on all imports. Interestingly Brady’s border adjustment tax would not have affected our trade balance nor distorted resource allocation. The dollar’s exchange rate would have adjusted to nullify the impact of the tariff/tax on the prices we would pay domestically on imports.

Contrast this with the tariffs proposed by President Trump on steel and aluminum imports. These tariffs were meant to prop up inefficient American steel and aluminum firms by increasing the cost of their imported competition. As such it would reallocate our workers and capital to activities that are less productive than they would otherwise be used for (i.e., to the increased production of steel and aluminum). Once all of the adjustments were made we would be poorer, though still fully employed. “Econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms.”

It turns out, however, that Trump’s tariff threats were probably a negotiating ploy (He has temporarily exempted Canada and Mexico from the tariffs and is making deals with other suppliers in exchange for suspending the tariff). China is already paying special tariffs on these products to counter Chinese government subsidies and only sells the U.S. 2% of its steel imports. Thus the tariff is largely irrelevant for China. The net short-term affect of Trump’s ploy may well result in almost no tariff revenue and no protection for U.S. steel and aluminum producers and some improvements in other trade deals with our trading partners (or at least what the President considers improvements). In short, Trump’s tariff threat could turn out to be helpful. However, given Trump’s generally negative and/or ill-informed views on trade, this may be an overly generous interpretation.

As The Economist magazine put it: “If this were the extent of Mr. Trump’s protectionism, it would simply be an act of senseless self-harm. In fact, it is a potential disaster—both for America and for the world economy.” “Trumps-tariffs-steel-and-aluminum-could undermine-rules-based-system” Why? Even if the tariffs are waved sufficiently to avoid the retaliatory trade war Europe and others are threatening, Trump’s use of the national security justification for his steel and aluminum tariffs can’t be taken seriously. “That excuse is self-evidently spurious. Most of America’s imports of steel come from Canada, the European Union, Mexico and South Korea, America’s allies.” The Economist My long time friend Jim Roumasset noted that “Wilber Ross did indeed make such a finding [of a national security threat], but then declared that the tariffs are “no big deal.” In other words, the tariffs won’t improve national security. Unfortunately, there is neither check nor balance against the ignorance of commerce secretaries.”

The large expansion of international trade made possible by removing trade barriers, including lowering tariffs, has enormously benefited us (the U.S. and the rest of the world). In 1980 60% of the world’s population earned less than $2.00 a day (inflation and purchasing power parity adjusted). Because of economic growth, significantly spurred by expanding world trade, this number as plummeted to 13% by 2012 (latest figure available). This incredible feat was made possible by the collective agreements of virtually all of the world’s countries to increasingly lower tariffs and other trade barriers and to agree on global rules for fair competition. These trade rules were developed under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) created after WWII as one of the three Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the GATT), which became the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

With its large and diverse membership of 164 rich and poor countries, the GATT/WTO has not been able to conclude new global trade agreements since 1995. Thus attention shifted to regional, multilateral agreements such as the 11 country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which Trump very foolishly withdrew the U.S. last year. “The-shriveling-of-U.S.-influence”

When China was admitted to the WTO in 2001 we expected that it would continue to liberalize and privatize its economy in accordance with the requirements of the WTO’s rules. The expectation was that China’s membership in the WTO would draw it into the liberal international rule based trading system.

In 2002, the IMF sent me to China to discuss these requirements in the banking sector with the Peoples Bank of China. We had high expectations. Unfortunately, China’s liberalization has gone into reverse in recent years. While not a trade issue, China’s recent launch of its centralized rating of the good behavior of its citizens, drawing on its extensive surveillance capacities, and its just announced intension to bar people with low “social credit” scores from airplanes and trains is certainly not an example of the more bottom up civil liberties, human rights views and approaches of most other countries. “China-to-bar-people-with-bad-social-credit-from-planes-trains.”

China’s behavior has been a disappointment. From its accession into the WTO, China began flooding the world with its “cheap” exports while continuing to restrict its imports from the rest of the world. The normal market reaction and adjustment to the inflow of dollars to China from its resulting trade surplus would be an appreciation of the Chinese currency (renminbi), which would increase the cost of China’s exports to the rest of the world (and lower the cost of its foreign import). However, China intervened in foreign currency markets to prevent its currency from appreciating and as a result China accumulated huge foreign exchange reserves (peaking at 4 trillion U.S. dollars in 2014). Not only did China intervene to prevent the nominal appreciation of its currency, but it also sterilized the domestic increase in its money supply that would normally result from the currency intervention, thus preventing the domestic inflation that would also have increased the cost of its exports to the rest of the world.

China’s currency manipulation was not seriously challenged at that time. Economic conditions in China have more recently changed and since 2014 market forces have tended to depreciate the renminbi, which China resisted by drawing down its large FX reserves (all the way to 3 trillion USD by the end of 2016—they have risen modestly since then). China is no longer a currency manipulator as part of an export promotion (mercantilist) policy.

But China does continue to violate other WTO rules with many state subsidies to export industries and limits and conditions for imports and foreign investment (such as requiring U.S. companies to share their patents as a condition for investing in or operating in China). A government subsidy of exports distorts resource allocation and thus lowers overall output in the same way but in the opposite direction as do tariffs. Both reduce the benefits and gains from trade and are to be resisted. The WTO exists to help remove such barriers and distortions in mutually agreed, rule based ways. A tariff that balances a state subsidy helps restore the efficient allocation of resources upon which maximum economic growth depends. These are allowed by WTO rules when it is established that a country’s exports violate WTO rules. President Trump is considering such targeted tariffs (his steel and aluminum are certainly not an example of this type of tariff) and hopefully they will conform to WTO requirements. “Trump-eyes-tariffs-on-up-to-60-billion-chinese-goods-tech-telecoms-apparel-targeted”

Trump’s bypass of WTO rules for his steel and aluminum tariffs, undermine the WTO and the international standards that have contributed so much to lifting the standard of living around the world. Despite its many weaknesses and shortcomings our interests are better serviced by strengthening the WTO rather than weakening it. “Trumps-tariffs-aren’t-killing-the-world-trade-organ”

“Whatever the WTO’s problems, it would be a tragedy to undermine it. If America pursues a mercantilist trade policy in defiance of the global trading system, other countries are bound to follow. That might not lead to an immediate collapse of the WTO, but it would gradually erode one of the foundations of the globalised economy. Everyone would suffer.” The Economist

As an aside, our bilateral trade deficits (e.g., with China) and surpluses (e.g., with Canada) are totally irrelevant and any policy designed to achieve trade balance country by country would damage the extent and efficiency of our international trade and thus lower our standard of living. See my earlier discussion of this issue in: “The-balance-of-trade”

“Even though trade policies are unlikely to change the long-run trade balance, they are not unimportant. Americans will be better off if the United States can use trade negotiations to open foreign markets for its exports, not because more exports will increase the US trade surplus, but rather because US incomes will be higher if more US workers can be employed in the most efficient US firms that pay high wages, and if those firms can sell more exports at higher prices. Similarly, US living standards will be higher if the United States reduces its trade barriers at home because this will give consumers access to cheaper imports and make the economy more efficient. Ultimately, therefore, the goal of US trade policies should not be focused on trade balances but instead on eliminating trade barriers at home and abroad.” This is quoted from the excellent and more detailed discussion of many of these issues that can be found here: “Five reasons why the focus on trade deficits is misleading”

There is another, very important negative byproduct of Trump’s transactional, confrontational, zero sum approach to getting better trade agreements. Mutually beneficial trade relations strengthen political and security relations and cooperation. These have been important non-economic benefits, for example, of NAFTA. Trump’s confrontational approach undermines these benefits. Pew Research Center surveys in 37 countries found that: “In the closing years of the Obama presidency, a median of 64% had a positive view of the U.S. Today, just 49% are favorably inclined toward America. Again, some of the steepest declines in U.S. image are found among long-standing allies.” Senator Ben Sasse delivered an exceptional speech on this subject followed by an outstanding panel discussion of the NAFTA negotiations at the Heritage Foundation. I urge you to watch the following video of that event: “The-national-security-implications-of withdrawing from-NAFTA”

Bitcoin, Cybercurrencies and Blockchain

What would we do without money/currency? Money is the unit in which we express prices (making it easer to compare the relative cost of things) and the asset with which we pay for our purchases and debts. A good currency has a stable value relative to goods and services (low or zero inflation) and is universally (or very widely) accepted in payment. The U.S. dollar receives high marks by these criteria. Bitcoin, however, fails miserably in all of these respects.

Why would anyone want to hold a highly volatile “currency” whose value one year ago was $1,230, then rose to $19,343 on December 16, 2017, dropped to $6,915 February 5 of this year and is now $9,364 (March 10, 2018). In addition, bitcoin is not accepted in payment almost anywhere? See my earlier explanation of bitcoin: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”

Bitcoin is better characterized as a security – an investment asset. It’s sort of like an option on a lottery, except that a lottery promises to pay something to the lucky person(s) holding the ticket. Bitcoin doesn’t promise to pay out anything to anyone. Its value is simply what you can get someone else to pay you for a bitcoin you want to sell. Buying bitcoin is a bet that its value will rise for some reason while you own it. Its ideological appeal for some is that it exists and functions totally independent of government; and its economic appeal is that it allows the transfer of funds (illegally gained or not) without much chance of being detected. For an excellent review of these points see Peter Morici’s: “Bitcoin-investors-have-reason-to-worry”.

Even if bitcoin had a well-behaved value and was widely accepted, the engine for maintaining and delivering it, a permissionless distributed public ledger of all bitcoin transactions linked together in blocks attached to an ever growing chain (blockchain), is deeply flawed. Records of who owns bitcoins and all transactions involving them are maintained in a database (ledger) copied to everyone with a bitcoin address (account). The system is open to everyone (permissionless) and not dependent on trusting any participants. Each bitcoin transaction is directly between the seller (or payer) and the buyer (payee) peer-to-peer without passing through a central registry such as would be maintained by a bank. Given the ease with which electronic data can be copied, preventing the spending of the same money multiple times when it openly exists in thousands of copies one as official as the other (the so-called double spending problem) in an environment where no one is trusted by design is the main challenge that blockchain ledgers need to overcome.

The majority of payments today are made by digitally transferring the ownership of digital records of money, i.e. electronic transfers of bank deposits. Our deposits of money with banks, which are a bit over half of so-called narrow money in the U.S. (M1= Currency outside of banks + demand deposits in banks), exist as digital records in each bank’s central deposit registry. Banks are so called trusted third parties responsible for insuring that our deposits are not touched and moved without our permission and are responsible for resolving any disputes or problems with regard to our deposits.

If we are paying money to someone who has their account in the same bank, we can go on line and transfer the money from our account to theirs in a millisecond without a service charge. These central registries are fortified with very robust protocols that insure their safety. The process is a bit more complicated if we are making a payment to someone whose account is in a different bank and there is scope for the speed, efficiency and cost of such interbank payments to be improved.

Blockchain’s claim to eliminate the need for trusted third parties by transferring ownership (e.g. of bank balances) directly peer to peer and publishing copies of the ledger containing the record of our transactions and resulting ownership in hundreds of nodes (our computers) around the world. The objective of a system that eliminates the need to trust anyone to safeguard your money from double spending necessitates some very complex and costly operations to substitute for a trusted third party.

For bitcoin, so called, miners are given increasingly difficult mathematical problems to solve to establish that the latest blockchain transaction is unique rather than a copy. The first miner to solve the problem cryptographically stamps the digital transaction record as genuine (in effect notarizes it) adding a new block of transactions to the chain and distributes it publically to all nodes. The winning miner is rewarded with new bitcoin (for as long as they continue to be created). Not only is the manpower and computer capacity required for this competition enormous, but the electricity consumed in bitcoin mining is now greater than is consumed in all of Ireland. https://powercompare.co.uk/bitcoin/

It takes around ten minutes to confirm the authenticity of a bitcoin transaction on average. Ten minutes standing at the check out counter waiting for your payment to be confirmed is an unacceptable eternity. “A familiar critique of Bitcoin is that “it does not scale” in the sense that, as it is currently implemented, the network is not capable of supporting a global payments system that requires many thousands of transactions per second. At the moment, this is true; Bitcoin can support up to 7 transactions per second as compared to the 2,000 transactions per second typically processed by Visa (with the potential to scale to an estimated 56,000 per second).” “The-bitcoin-scaling-debate”

Moreover, most bitcoin users don’t have the IT sophistication to operate and manage their own copy of the blockchain and thus deposit their bitcoins (or other cyptocurrencies) with exchanges that manage transactions for them. These trusted third parties in all but name are in effect banks (though they do not lend your bitcoins to others while waiting for you to use them). “Every-disadvantage-has-its-advantage-reviewing-blockchain”

To participate in the bitcoin system (to buy, use or sell bitcoin, to take the example of the best known cybercurrency) you must register to obtain an address (account). It is a closed system in that you can only deal in bitcoin with other registrants (account holders). If a central bank, for example, issued a digital version of its currency, it would also be a closed system in the same way. Participants would need to be registered with it (i.e. open accounts with it) in order to participate and could only use this Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) with other account holders.

When problems arise or views differ on whether and what changes might be desirable in the permissionless blockchain world, there is no one responsible to address it. There is no trusted third party to take responsibility. The bitter disputes among bitcoin “leaders” and its several hard forks (breaking off different versions of bitcoins) illustrate the seriousness of this problem.

The claim is often made that even if blockchain-DLT systems are fatally flawed as the vehicle for making payments, the blockchain technology may have revolutionizing uses for other public records such as property ownership and its transfers. However, the blockchain has so many serious disadvantages that even this more limited claim is very doubtful. “Blockchain Demystified”

To address or minimize these serious drawbacks of Distributed Ledger Technology, cryptocurrencies (there haven’t been any other applications of blockchain after ten years talking about it) have been rapidly moving away from the purer, permissionless, Proof of Work version used by bitcoin to more restricted and limited permissioned, Proof of Stake approaches. None of these to date are as efficient and secure as centralized ledges of the sort used by our banks. “What-if-blockchain-is-useless?”  “Ten-years-in-nobody-has-come-up-with-a-use-case-for-blockchain”

This is not to say that exciting things aren’t happening in the ownership registry area. Digitizing ownership records introduces dramatic economies in tracking ownership and transfers of ownership. Automating many or all of the steps involved in real estate sales with the use of digitized smart contracts can significantly shorten the time and cost of the many steps (mortgage loan agreement and disbursement, collateral confirmation, settlement, title transfer, etc.). “A-pioneer-in-real-estate-blockchain-emerges-in-Europe.” In addition, a number of central banks are considering issuing digital versions of their currencies. These will probably use central registries rather than blockchains. “Central Bank Digital Currency: Bordo-Levin.” But does blockchain technology have any advantages to outweigh the many disadvantages that can’t be achieved quicker, cheaper and more securely with central registries operated by trusted third parties. Probably not. Project Jasper of the Bank of Canada concluded that: “the versions of distributed ledger currently available may not provide an overall net benefit when compared with existing centralized systems for interbank payments.  Core wholesale payment systems function quite efficiently.”  https://www.bankofcanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/fsr-june-2017-chapman.pdf    “SWIFT says blockchain not ready”

The shriveling of U.S. influence

Today in Chile 11 of the original 12 countries that had signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade agreement on February 4, 2016 are signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP-11 for short, i.e., the TPP minus the U.S.). Upon taking office President Trump promptly withdrew the United States from the agreement saying that it was “a bad deal”. In fact it modernized and raised the level toward U.S. standards in the areas of e-commerce, intellectual property protection, and dispute resolution. Though the agreement provided significant benefits to the U.S. and despite the U.S. withdrawal, the remaining participants (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) preserved the basic provisions of the original agreement while freezing 22 provisions of particular interest to the United State to facilitate its rejoining at a latter time should it return to its senses.  China and other Pacific Rim countries are also welcome to join if and when they meet the agreement’s high standards. This will not be easy for China should it chose to return to its earlier efforts to integrate into the rules of the world trading system.

The U.S. Congressional Research Service summarized the key provisions of the TPP as follows:

“The TPP would provide several principal trade liberalization and rules based outcomes for the United States. These include the following:

  • lower tariff and non tariff barriers on U.S. goods through eventual elimination of all tariffs on industrial products and most tariffs and quotas on agricultural products;
  • greater service sector liberalization with enhanced disciplines, such as nondiscriminatory and minimum standard of treatment, along with certain exceptions;
  • additional intellectual property rights protections in patent, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets; first specific data protection provisions for biologic drugs and new criminal penalties for cybertheft of trade secrets;
  • investment protections that guarantee nondiscriminatory treatment, minimum standard of treatment and other provisions to protect foreign investment, balanced by provisions to protect a state’s right to regulate in the public interest;
  • enforceable provisions designed to provide minimum standards of labor and environmental protection in TPP countries;
  • commitments, without an enforcement mechanism, to avoid currency manipulation, provide transparency and reporting concerning monetary policy, and engage in regulatory dialogue among TPP parties;
  • digital trade commitments to promote the free flow of data and to prevent data localization, except for data localization in financial services, alongside commitments on privacy and exceptions for legitimate public policy purposes;
  • enhanced regulatory transparency and due process provisions in standards setting; and
  • the most expansive disciplines on state owned enterprises ever in a U.S. FTA or the WTO, albeit with exceptions, to advance fair competition with private firms based on commercial considerations.”

No trade agreement (yet) is perfect and the TPP represented a significant improvement for the U.S. and its trading partners of existing agreements.

The 11 signers, in addition to embracing standards that will promote economic growth in their own countries in the long run also sought originally to enhance America’s role and leadership in the Asian Pacific area (i.e., as a counterbalance to the rising strength of China). With or without the U.S. more countries are expected to join the CPTPP after the governments of the current 11 have ratified it. At the top of this list are Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

President Trump has chosen to retreat from American leadership in setting and helping to oversee the rules of international cooperation and trade. It seems unlikely that Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro will give up their fixation on protecting a hand full of inefficient, uncompetitive American industries, so Congress should take back its constitutionally given authority over trade policy delegated to the President in the Trade Act of 1974. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44707.pdf

China’s misbehavior can be better addressed using the rules and provision of the WTO in ways that would strengthen the rule based international order rather than weakening it as Trump is now doing with the use of the national security provision. If China is selling its aluminum below cost, i.e., dumping it, we should impose a tariff on China under WTO rules against dumping. The use of the national security provision of the WTO is laughable on the face of it and would weaken rather than strengthen the rule of law in the trade area.

Econ 101—Trade in very simple terms

Trade allows people and firms to specialize in what they produce. This enables them to be more productive. This raises the income (standard of living) of both the seller and the buyer (who must also sell something in order to buy something)—i.e. both the exporter and importer. https://wcoats.blog/2017/09/15/a-basic-human-right/  https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/22/save-trade/

So what does Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff do?

The American economy is now fully employed (ok, maybe some of those who left the labor market in recent years, not all of whom are old, can be coaxed to return). Thus if high tariffs on steel and aluminum make previously non competitive and inefficient American steel and aluminum producers competitive again, where will the workers come from to do that work? They must be attracted away from what ever they are producing now—lets call it good A. So we will produce less of good A, which was competitive without taxpayer subsidies or regulatory favoritism, in order to produce more steel and aluminum, which was not competitive before given tariff protection. Add it up and our overall income goes down. The economy over all will be less efficient, less productive, and our overall incomes and standard of living will be reduced.

This reallocation of our resources from more productive to less productive products will make owners of steel and aluminum companies and property owners around closed foundries happy. Trump-may-prosper-from-tariffs-even-if-this-faded-port-town-doesnt/2018/03/02/. But what about those who buy steel and aluminum made more expensive by the tariffs? What about Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers who are the fourth largest American exporters, whose products will now be more expensive and less competitive with Airbus, etc.? When steel tariffs were imposed in the year 2002, 200,000 Americans in steel using industries lost their jobs. That is more than the total of around 150,000 workers in the steel industry! “If-the-US-steel-industry-employs-150000-people-then-how-can-imports-threaten-500,000-jobs?”

Subsidizing inefficient industries with tariffs hurts consumers, who will have to pay the higher prices of aluminum beer cans, etc., as well as exporters like Boeing. We will all (except steel and aluminum producers) pay the cost of this increased inefficiency. Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross thinks we should just get over these modest increases in the costs of our purchase of goods that include steel and aluminum for the greater good of American steel and aluminum producers and the 150,000 people who work for them. In case there are children listening I am withholding what I would like to say to Mr. Ross.

Only 2.2% of our steel and aluminum imports come from China while Canada (hardly a security threat to the U.S.) provides 16.1% of our imports of these products: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/canada-top-exporter-of-steel-and-aluminum-to-us-flabbergasted-by-trumps-tariff-proposals/2018/03/02/7c906c2a-1e22-11e8-98f5-ceecfa8741b6_story.html?undefined=&utm_term=.294884487749&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1. The rest of the world will not roll over and play dead. The EU is already preparing counter measures to punish American exporters to Europe. “EU-vows-to-hit-back-against-trump-in-trade-war”

Following the end of WWII the world, lead by the U.S., has built up mechanisms for promoting fair trade (first the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs—GATT—now called the World Trade Organization—WTO). Where countries violate these rules, and China frequently does, they should be addressed via the WTO. American interests, and the world’s interests more generally, are served by strengthening the WTO not weakening it. Trump’s unilateral tariffs do not serve our interests. Not only has he persistently undermined free markets with his misplaced attack on bilateral trade deficits https://wcoats.blog/2017/07/23/the-balance-of-trade/ but he has systematically undermined the WTO and the international rule of law. Please, Mr. President, stop this nonsense before it gets even worse.

Trade wars are never good, and no one wins in the end. Instead we should be enforcing and improving the rules of trade via the WTO, which has helped left millions of people out of poverty and raised the standard of living of the average person.