A land of Immigrants

Ken Burns’ latest documentary (with his co-directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein), “The U.S. and the Holocaust” is a well-timed reminder of Americans mixed views on immigration. As we all know, aside from the native Americans living here when Europeans began arriving, all of us, or our ancestors, are immigrants. But once here, many Americans decided that was enough and further immigration should be significantly curtailed.

The Burns’ documentary also reminds us of immigration seen from the perspective of those wanting to come.  Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, some of us will remember cheering as East Germans escaped from East Berlin in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). We were happy to see them escape their communist oppressors, but some were less happy to see them arrive in their own countries. But logically, if someone leaves one country, they must enter another. “Emigration and Immigration”

Immigrants fall into two broad categories: those fleeing persecution or mistreatment and those seeking better opportunities in new countries (America’s promised land). Some combine both motives. Not all asylum seekers desire to move to wealthier lands. Many Jews fleeing Germany hoped to return to their homeland after the era of Hitler. They chose to move temporarily to nearby countries such as the Netherlands, France, Poland, and Belgium. Otto Frank of the “Diary of Ann Frank” fame moved his family to Amsterdam.

“The U.S. foreign-born population reached a record 44.8 million in 2018.  Since 1965, when U.S. immigration laws replaced a national quota system, the number of immigrants living in the U.S. has more than quadrupled. Today those born abroad account for 13.7% of the U.S. population, nearly triple the share (4.8%) in 1970. However, today’s immigrant share remains below the record 14.8% share in 1890, when 9.2 million immigrants lived in the U.S…. More than 1 million immigrants now arrive in the U.S. each year….  New immigrant arrivals have fallen, mainly due to a decrease in the number of unauthorized immigrants coming to the U.S. The drop in the unauthorized immigrant population can primarily be attributed to more Mexican immigrants leaving the U.S. than coming in.” “Key findings about U.S. immigrants”

The American economy and the standard of living of the average household have benefited enormously from immigration. Those seeking better opportunities are disproportionately the best and the brightest from their home countries. The founders and heads of some of our best fintec companies were born abroad.  In fact, surprisingly, population growth in general in countries with free markets, property rights and rule of law has increased the standard of living enormously for almost everyone. From the emergence of humans individual living standards barely changed. The advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago created a small improvement. That changed with discovery of the “new world” and related expansion of trade 530 years ago and accelerated with the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution just 350 years ago. In the last 60 years per capita real incomes increased 2,414% in Ireland and 232% in Mexico (the least growth of those countries for which there was data). Over the last 40 years alone per capita real income in China doubled every 7.1 years. Between 1900 – 2018 the average real income of unskilled workers in the U.S. increased 1,473%. These and other amazing data can be found in “Superabundance” and extraordinary collection of very interesting income and resource data.

Accepting refugees has a different purpose and motivation. We accept immigrants for our benefit and we accept refugees for their benefit. Countries have an obligation to provide asylum to anyone who arrives at their territory with reason to fear persecution under the convention’s criteria. Ken Burns Holocaust documentary confronts us graphically with why this is necessary.   “Asylum in the United States”

Asylum seekers are a small fraction of total immigration each year. In FY 2019, the most recent pre-pandemic year with available data, 46,508 individuals were granted asylum.  Most immigrants entering the U.S. each year are joining family already here or looking for better opportunities (better lives).  As noted above they invariably contribute to raising incomes of those of us already here.  

There are many problems with our immigration rules and their administration. Congress has tried for decades to address them without success. But the recent political stunts by the governors of Texas and Florida reflect America at its ugliest.

“The group of 50 migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last week had nearly all recently arrived from Venezuela. Another group of 100 dropped outside the vice president’s Washington, D.C., residence this weekend also included those fleeing the country. And buses sent to Chicago by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) largely included Venezuelans. 

“The U.S. in recent weeks has seen an even greater shift in migration from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.”  “GOP stunts with migrants sweep up those fleeing regimes they denounce”

Governor DeSantis and Abbott where not helping these refugees await their court hearings in greater comfort. They did not alert the authorities in Martha’s Vineyard, Chicago, or DC to prepare for their arrival. Their purpose was to share the burden with (and punish) “sanctuary cities”. Their purpose was to make a political statement using the refugees as innocent pawns.

A “suit was filed in federal court in Massachusetts. It takes aim at DeSantis, Florida Secretary of Transportation Jared Perdue and the state of Florida.

“The core of the case is the allegation that the migrants were coaxed onto the flights by false promises — “fraudulent inducement” in legal terms — and that this means DeSantis and his allies infringed those migrants’ rights and committed fraud.

“It asserts that migrants were approached outside a shelter in San Antonio by mysterious people who won their trust by supplying them with minimal benefits such as McDonald’s vouchers.”   “What you need to know about the complex legal challenges to DeSantis’s migrant flights”

Nunca from Texas provides important information on who these refugees are and understanding those facts is important: 

“I volunteer as a translator with asylees coming through the Texas border and I wanted to make a thread on who these migrants are, what help is actually needed and why what DeSantis and Abbott are doing is so needlessly cruel….

“The first and most important thing you should understand, these are LEGAL asylum seekers. They are not illegals. They are not undocumented.

“They have been given permission by our government to enter the US pending their official court date. The law ONLY requires that asylum seekers be present on US soil and that they present themselves to officials to request asylum.  That is it.

“Anyone who calls them illegal immigrants is really telling on themselves and deliberately trying to confuse the issue. 

“Once they present themselves to border officials, they are processed and then given a court date to officially plead their case.  This court date is almost always a year away and in a major city far from the border, like Boston, NY, Miami, Chicago, etc. 

“You can always spot the asylum seekers coming out of detention facilities because they don’t have shoelaces (story for another day) and they have court papers in one hand.

“Another thing I would note, the Biden admin is STILL immediately deporting the vast majority of asylees. The folks that make it through come from the most harrowing conditions you can imagine. I have met whole families who had to flee El Salvador on foot because gangs threatened to kill them if their son did not join.

“I met a man who was attacked by police for leading a protest. In almost every case, these are smart, hard working CHRISTIAN refugees. Their ability to assimilate into America and thrive is limitless. They love America. They just want a chance to live and thrive in peace. 

“WHAT HELP DO THEY NEED?

“Because these groups already have court dates and in almost every case, they have family they can stay with, they only really need two things: short term food and shelter and transportation. And I mean short term. Usually less than 12 hours. 

“In most cases, these asylees only need help getting to the bus station and maybe a bite to eat while they wait. Sometimes they need to stay overnight until the next bus leaves and sometimes they need help buying a ticket, though family usually buys the ticket for them. 

Border towns and local non profits have been dealing with this for 4 years. This did not start with Biden. It was actually worse under Trump.

“But these areas already know what to do with these transient asylees and they already have the resource networks in place to manage them. In most cases, an asylee will leave detention and organizations like Catholic Charities are right there to greet them and figure out if they can go straight to the bus station or if they need temporary shelter. Local municipalities & non profits here have gotten real good at it 

“WHY IS “BUSSING” ASYLEES AROUND THE COUNTRY SO BAD?

“Initially, I didn’t complain too much about Abbott’s decision to bus immigrants because it actually helped them. It gave them a free ticket to get closer to family. And they weren’t being forced to go.

“But…. The problem with Abbott’s approach is that they are often lying to the migrants about where they are going and what will be waiting for them. And even worse, when they get to NY or DC, Abbott is deliberately choosing to drop them off far away from the resources they need.  Abbott could easily notify DC that they are coming and then he could drop the migrants off right at the doorstep of the bus station or non-profit ready to greet them. It would cost him nothing.

“But he is choosing to dump them where it harms the City and migrants the most. 

By dumping them in front of the VPs house, like he did this week, now local officials have to figure out, without any notice, how to get 50 people in the heart of the City out to where the resources are ready to receive them. 

“And what DeSantis did yesterday takes it up another notch. He deliberately lied to immigrants in Texas who were already being managed by non-profits and shipped them into MV where no one was ready to help them. It was deliberately cruel and created to maximize pain. 

“Credit to the people of Martha’s Vineyard who stepped up in a huge way and responded. They did exactly what they were supposed to: they took care of their immediate needs and helped them get on their way. What folks here in Texas have been doing for years. 

“If Abbott and DeSantis actually cared about helping relieve the burden created by asylum seekers, they could just as easily and far more cost-effectively funnel the millions they are spending on their cynical stunt and give it to the non profits already doing the job. 

“Do asylees create a burden on border communities? Sure. But it is a burden we have already learned how to manage and the only thing we really need is more resources. It would be far more effective to just buy migrants a sandwich and a bus ticket than a private plane to MV. This is the kind of deliberate misinformation Conservatives are being fed.

“These migrants SHOULDN’T stay in MV because they have family and court dates in other places. They were TRICKED into being there.”

***********  

In an interview with the Washington Post about his new documentary, Ken Burns said:  I made a comment about the [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis play in Martha’s Vineyard as being a kind of an authoritarian response, just as it was when Disney says we don’t agree with you, he punishes them. When a state employee doesn’t do what he says, he fires them. That’s the authoritarian thing. It’s not the democratic way that you handle it. But the right-wing media has said that I’ve equated what DeSantis did with the Holocaust, which is obscene. I mean, literally obscene to do that. But it is also classic authoritarian playbook to sort of lie about what somebody just said in order to make it so outrageous that then you can deny the complexity of what’s being presented.”  “Ken Burns holocaust documentary”

What DeSantis and Abbott are guilty of is fraud. They lied to those sent to Martha’s Vineyard and Washington DC about where they were being sent and what they would receive when they got there. Fortunately, most of us still believe in the rule of law where fraud is punished.

“’The Republicans are so quick to bash the Venezuelan government and to say, ‘But we love the Venezuelans.’ And then the minute that vulnerable populations from Venezuela arrive in our country, they then use them as political pawns. It’s really beyond reprehensible. It’s a really repugnant motivation,’ Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) told The Hill.”   “GOP stunts with migrants sweep up those fleeing regimes they denounce”

“Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), a Boston-based legal advocacy group, filed the lawsuit on Tuesday challenging what it called the “fraudulent and discriminatory” scheme to charter private planes to transport almost 50 vulnerable people, including children as young as two, from San Antonio, Texas, via Florida, to Martha’s Vineyard last week without liaising to arrange shelter and other resources.

“The two charter flights cost about $615,000 – $12,300 per person – of taxpayers’ money, according to the legal filing….

“’This cowardly political stunt has placed our clients in peril. Numerous laws were brazenly violated to secure media headlines,’ said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for LRC.” “Martha’s Vineyard immigration lawsuit”

Immigration is a very complicated and fluid issue and what I have pointed out above is just one part of many parts of the problem. Racial and religious discrimination is another avenue of contention in the immigration debate. One wonders whether deSantis (or anyone opposed to immigration in general) would behave differently if these asylum seekers where of a different color and from a different country. My Afghan friends unable to escape from Kabul look enviously at the Western welcome of Ukrainian refugees. But that’s a discussion for another article.

May justice be done.  “Immigrants from hell”

Econ 101:  Oil Price Cap

Among U.S. (and E.U. and some other primarily Northern countries) objectives in reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is to diminish its capacity to continue this war, in part by reducing its export (largely oil and gas) income with minimum damage to the U.S. and other embargo supporters and to pressure it to the bargaining table sooner rather than later (we are trying to do that aren’t we??). As you can see from the previous sentence, this is not a particularly simple issue.

One measure being promoted by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is to cap the price at which we are willing to buy Russian oil.  If we just stop buying Russian oil all together (effectively a price of zero), global oil supply would presumably fall, and oil prices would rise. We know, of course that Russia will redirect its sales to countries not participating in the embargo, such as China and India, to the extent it can and the oil these countries would have purchased from Saudi Arabia and other suppliers would then be available to us and global oil supply would not fall as much as we might have expected nor would prices increase as much as otherwise. Much could be written about this (the limited potential of embargoes if not everyone participates), but I won’t.

The idea of Secretary Yellen’s cap is that rather than buying no Russia oil we (and all embargo participants) would continue to buy it but at an agreed price that is below normal market prices in normal time (the price cap). Thus, hopefully, Russia would still sell its oil to the West but would earn less foreign exchange from it and the West would have more oil than with a total blockage and thus avoid sharp market price increases.

“There are several outstanding issues to settle on the price-cap idea. Those include figuring out exactly how to enforce it, convincing other nations to subscribe to it and deciding the sales price at which Western countries would permit the purchase of Russian oil. Looming over the proposal is also the presumption that Russia would continue to sell oil at a price mandated by the U.S. and its allies.”  “WSJ: Janet Yellen begins Asia trip to win support for cap on Russian oil price”

“Some economists and oil industry experts are skeptical that the plan will work, either as a way to reduce revenues for the Kremlin or to push down prices at the pump. They warn the plan could mostly enrich oil refiners and could be ripe for evasion by Russia and its allies. Moscow could refuse to sell at the capped price…. 

“Mr. Biden… moved swiftly to ban imports of Russian oil to the United States and coordinate similar bans among allies. In some ways, the price-cap proposal is an acknowledgment that those penalties have not worked as intended: Russia has continued to sell oil at elevated prices — even accounting for the discounts it is giving to buyers like India and China, which did not join in the oil sanctions — while Western drivers pay a premium….

“The cap plan seeks to keep the Russian oil moving to market, but only if it is steeply discounted. Russia could still ship its oil with Western backing if that oil is sold for no more than a price set by the cap.”  “NYT Biden gas price cap Russia”

John Bolton, whose view I don’t generally share, said about Yellen’s oil price cap: “The proposal, academic and untried, faces multiple practical obstacles and uncertainties. Widespread sanctions violations by Russian maritime cargoes already exist, with no reason to think the oil-price cap is more enforceable.” “WP: Biden oil price cap-Russia Sanctions”

Such efforts to “hurt” Russia cannot avoid also hurting us. What other approaches might the Biden administration consider?

“The White House… has held off for months on backing a gas tax holiday, amid divisions within the Democratic Party and skepticism a roughly 18.4 cent-per-gallon discount would be passed on to consumers….  In private meetings with senior Energy Department officials to discuss ideas for boosting supply and lowering prices, some industry representatives have instead used the sessions to push for longer-term priorities like building pipelines and easing environmental restrictions.”  “Politico: White House-Biden-gas prices”

“Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash.,… called it “infuriating” that spikes in gas prices were “happening at the same time that gas and oil companies are making record profits and taking advantage of international crises to make a profit. This must stop.″ “PBS: House approves bill to combat gasoline price gouging”

When the supply of a product falls short of its demand, the gap can be closed in one of two ways. Both involve rationing a scarce commodity as is required for anything in limited supply which is virtually everything. The first approach—the market approach of price rationing—allocates the product to those who want it the most, i.e. those who are willing to pay the most for it. The second approach—the administrative allocation approach—allocates the product to those the government agency responsible for choosing who gets it, determine are most worthy or in most need of it based on the criteria the agency sets (which in practice invariably includes friends and relatives). History has clearly documented which of these methods of allocation works best.  Some of you will remember the long lines at gas stations when President Richard Nixon capped gasoline prices (another form of rationing).

That leaves measures that encourage increased supply from everywhere except Russia or that facilitate reducing demand. “Biden officials are openly pleading with Big Oil to pump more, not less. ‘We want them to get their rig counts up. We want them to increase production so that people are not hurting,’ [Energy Secretary Jennifer] Granholm said.”  “CNN: Gas prices-Biden-inflation” A higher price at the pump provides the market a strong incentive to increase supply, but that generally takes years to achieve much of an increase. In the interim profits of the suppliers will be higher than usual.

Some months back policy sought to reduce the consumption of carbon omitting products as part of our effort to slow global warming. For that objective an increase in gasoline prices would be a good thing, whether from a gas tax or restrictions on finding and pumping more oil out of the ground.

For the moment, encouraging more production by Saudi Arabia and other (non Russian) members of OPEC would be helpful. Finally rejoining the JCPOA (Iran deal), Trump’s withdrawal from which Max Boot called the “single worst diplomatic blunder in U.S. history” “WP: Trump-Biden Iran nuclear deal dead with no alternative”, would, among other important things, increase an important source of oil supply, as would dropping sanctions on Venezuela. If we can make deals with Saudi Arabia, given all it has done, deals with Iran and Venezuela should be no brainers.

Ending the war in Ukraine promptly is the most important measure for addressing the shortage of oil (and food more generally). “End the war in Ukraine”

The Empire and the Dollar

Committee for the Republic Salon

March 24, 2022

Warren Coats[1]

In our multicurrency world, the U.S. dollar is widely used for pricing internationally traded goods, for international payments, and for denominating the assets governments and companies hold as reserves. Why is that and what are its implications for U.S. behavior? What would a better system look like?

In a world of many different national currencies, the payment for international trade has found economy in using an intermediate, so-called vehicle currency to facilitate the exchange of the buyer’s currency into and delivery of the seller’s currency. Following the collapse in 1971 of the dollar-based gold exchange standard overseen by the International Monetary Fund, the dollar continues to dominate in this role. This role has given the United States important political power and financial benefits.

I will quickly review these benefits, and how they have come to encourage the U.S. to exploit them in exercising its international power, the forces that are building to seek an alternative, and the potential for the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to provide an alternative.

The Dollar’s International Reserve Status

Cross border commerce and investments require a common currency to price and denominate them and the mechanisms for cross border payments. While modern technologies continue to increase the speed and ease and lower the cost of domestic payments of domestic currencies, cross border payments remain relatively slow and costly.

The payment and receipt of a currency is ultimately reflected/settled on the books of that currency’s issuer. If I pay you for something and your account is in a different bank than mine, the transfer of funds from my bank to your bank and to you will pass through a Federal Reserve Bank. My bank’s account at the Fed will be debited and yours will be credited.  A fundamental difference between national and international currencies is that the central bank issuers of national currencies only hold deposits for banks that are domestically licensed, while the issuers of international currencies, such as the Special Drawing Right (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund, hold deposits from banks almost anywhere in the world, enabling the settlement of their payments to enjoy the efficiencies of domestic payments in domestic currencies.

The older gold standard functioned more like an international central bank issuer of currencies but without such an international central bank. Instead, national currencies were tied to gold by virtue of the commitment of central banks on the gold standard to redeem their currency for gold at a fixed price. Thus, any net flow of payments from one country to another was ultimately settled by transferring the ownership of the gold it was fixed to from the deficit to the surplus country. This could occur by debiting the deficit country’s gold account at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and crediting the surplus country’s gold account at the same place or by physically shipping the gold.

In today’s world, cross border payments generally involve the need to exchange one currency for another at exchange rates that fluctuate. To facilitate the comparison of prices of globally traded goods (e.g., oil, gold, copper, and other commodities) they are generally priced in one common currency. The U.S. dollar is the currency most widely used for this purpose (79%). This contributes to the use of the dollar for cross boarder payments as well even when the buyer’s currency differs from the seller’s ultimate currency (the currency paid to its workers, etc.). https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/the-international-role-of-the-u-s-dollar-20211006.htm

Some economy is brought to the markets for foreign exchange needed for cross boarder payments by using a common so called vehicle currency as a common go between. The adoption by airlines of a hub and spoke model for connecting all airports in a country or the world illustrates the economy of a single or small number of vehicle currencies (hubs) to exchange currency X for currency Y. The U.S. dollar is the most widely used vehicle currency for this purpose. This is supported by and reflected in the dominance of the dollar in invoicing internationally traded goods and in the foreign exchange reserves of banks (central and commercial) around the world. The Euro is the second most used currency in these ways.

In 2021 40.5% of international payments were made in US dollars.  The use of Euros in international payments and in reserves has moved up to second place behind the dollar at 36.7% of payments.  The Pound sterling is a distant third at 5.9%. Having passed the Japanese yen a few years back for fourth place the Chinese RMB achieved 3.2% of international payments in January of this year from almost zero a decade ago. “China’s currency scores a win during the Olympics”  The Federal Reserve has constructed an “aggregate index of international currency usage.” The dollar has remained in the neighborhood of 70% for the last two decades. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/the-international-role-of-the-u-s-dollar-20211006.htm

To pay for things with a currency, one must hold some amount of that currency. It is this demand for dollar reserves resulting from the widespread international invoicing and payments in dollars, that underlies foreign financing of US debt. For starters, about half of dollar currency (actual banknotes) are held abroad. That is the extent to which we pay for imports with cash and the sellers just hold the cash. Foreign central banks hold almost 13 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves of which over 7 trillion is in U.S. dollars (much of that is held in the form of US government debt). About 60% of the foreign currency claims of banks are dollar claims.

The dollar grew into its vehicle and reserve currency roles because of the size of the U.S. economy and its extensive trade with the rest of the world, the size and liquidity of financial assets denominated in dollars, public confidence in the stability of the dollar’s purchasing power, and in its trusted contract enforcement (rule of law).

U.S. Benefits from reserve currency status

The so-called exorbitant privilege of a reserve currency–the ability to borrow abroad in your own currency–makes it easier for the U.S. government to finance its military and other expenditures with debt. For countries to accumulate dollar reserves they must have a balance of payments surplus, i.e., they must sell more to the U.S. than they buy from the U.S.. As a result, American’s enjoy cheaper imports and the excess of dollars paid for such imports over those paid back for US exports are held in foreign reserves (generally in the form of US treasury debt).

As an aside, it is simply wrong to attribute much of the so-called offshoring of our manufacturing to the above phenomenon. The somewhat lower exchange rate for the dollar needed to generate the surplus China and other countries need for the trade surplus with which they buy American debt, does make imports somewhat cheaper. However, even if the dollar was totally replaced in foreign reserves and trade balanced, we would continue to be better off producing what we export and importing what China and the others produce and sell to us. Freely pursuing our comparative advantages increases our incomes and the incomes of the Chinese and others selling to us. Free trade is win-win. Contrary to the myth, U.S. manufacturing is at an all-time high. (Manufacturing employment is lower because of increased labor productivity). https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/manufacturing-output

The U.S. dollar’s dominance in global trade and finance contributes to the existence of the American Empire in two ways. It attracts foreign financing of the U.S. government and its military industrial complex thus reducing the burden of the empire on the American taxpayer and it provides a tool by which the U.S. can impose its will on other countries or individuals in managing its empire. Borrowing to pay our government’s bills is politically easier than raising taxes and avoids (or delays) a debate over guns versus butter. 

Three factors now challenge the dollars reserve currency role. 1) Cumbersome payment technology: Existing arrangements for cross border payments via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) are technically crude and outmoded. 2) Weaponization of the dollar: The U.S. has abused the importance of its currency for cross border payments to force compliance with its policy preferences not always shared by other countries, by threatening to block the use of the dollar. 3) Growing risk of a decline in the dollar’s value: The growing expectation of dollar inflation and the skyrocketing increase in the U.S. fiscal deficit are increasing the risk of holding and dealing in dollars.

The first factor–payment technology–is temporary. It is being modernized. While payment technology (ease, speed, security, and cost of making cross border payments) is important, it is not as important as the features of the currency being paid. As a currency, the dollar excels for the reasons given earlier.

The second factor–weaponization of the dollar–has been growing in importance as the U.S. has increasingly sanctioned trade and dollar payments without broad international support–Iran, etc.  The EU has sought work arounds in Euros. China and Russia are building alternative payment arrangement using China’s Renminbi. Even with the dramatic increase in coordinated sanctions against Russia, restricting the use of dollars is less effective than directly blocking trade. https://wcoats.blog/2022/03/04/how-to-stop-russia-in-ukraine/  The broad support for sanctions on Russia more likely increases support from the dollar as the dominant international currency rather than reducing it. On the other hand, those on the other side (e.g., Russia and China) will work harder to find alternatives. The balance of these contradictory forces is difficult to assess.

The third factor has never been taken very seriously until now. At the end of February (2022) the US national debt was over 30.1 trillion dollars or 125% of US output (GDP). Federal government interest payments on its net debt were $426 billion per annum. But with the increase in inflation, interest rates are rising. Uncle Sam’s debt service payments are likely to double or triple over the next five to ten years, rising to 15% to 20% of the Federal budget. The world still expects the US to regain control of its spending, but the risks of default are creeping up. Paul “Samuelson stated in 2005 that at some uncertain future period these pressures would precipitate a run against the U.S. dollar with serious global financial consequences.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_use_of_the_U.S._dollar

It is the second factor, US abuse of its ability to sanction the use of the dollar that is most threatening to push the dollar over the cliff.

The Alternative to the dollar

An internationally defined and issued currency would have a number of advantages over the use of a national currency for cross border payments.

While the value of the dollar has been quite stable for many years, using a basket of major currencies for pricing internationally traded goods and financial instruments would be even more stable. This is what the International Monetary Fund’s unit of account–the Special Drawing Rights (SDR)– offers. The value of one SDR is equal to the current market value of fixed amounts of the US Dollar, Euro, British pound, Japanese yen, and Chinese yuan. Thus, its widespread use for pricing internationally traded goods and financial instruments would provide even greater stability than would any one of these currencies. Every morning when I check movements in the price of oil, I must ask myself whether it was really a change in the price of oil or in the exchange rate of the dollar. See my: “Why the World Needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor”

The IMF’s SDR can only be held and used by member central banks and a few international bodies. Thus, private SDRs–so called Market SDRs–are needed for payments by the private sector (perhaps issued by the IMF or the BIS). Being issued by an international body, such Market SDRs would have the equivalent of a central bank for settling cross boarder payments allowing the simplifications and economy increasingly available for domestic payments in the domestic currency. `

Moreover, as an internationally issued currency the SDR would be far better protected from the political abuse increasingly experienced with the US dollar and might be expected with the Chinese RMB or other national currencies.

Getting from here to there

But first things first. Before considering the reform of the international monetary system, let’s consider the reform of the dollar–the reform of U.S. monetary policy. The price of the dollar should be fixed to a hard anchor and issued according to currency board rules.

During the heydays of the gold standard (1820-1913) international trade flourished dramatically increasing global incomes and reducing poverty. According to Antoni Estevadeordal, Brian Frantz and Alan M. Taylor “Until 1913 the rise of the gold standard and the fall in transport costs were the main trade-creating forces.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/25053910  However, to cope with WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, the gold standard failed and was abandoned because of weaknesses in banking systems and because the countries that fixed the value of their currencies to gold did not fully play by the gold standard’s rules.

Under a strict gold standard, the central bank would issue and redeem its currency whenever anyone bought it for gold at the official price of gold. In fact, however, by actively buying and selling (or lending) its currency for other assets whenever it thought appropriate, the Federal Reserve’s monetary liabilities (base money) were partially backed by U.S. treasury bills and other assets. In addition, the fractional reserve banking system allowed banks to create deposit money that was also not backed by gold. The market’s ability to redeem dollars for gold kept the market value of gold close to its official dollar value. However, the gap between the Fed’s monetary liabilities and its gold backing grew until the market (most conspicuously, France) lost confidence in the Fed’s ability to honor its redemption commitment and President Nixon closed the “gold window” in 1971 rather than tighten monetary policy.

Currency Board Rules

A reformed monetary system that returns to a hard anchor (firmly fixed price of the currency for gold or some other asset) should require the Fed to adhere strictly to currency board rules. Such rules oblige a central bank to buy and sell its currency at a set price in response to public demand. Under the Gold Standard, the price of the currency was set as an amount of gold (a gold anchor). For existing currency boards, the price is typically an amount of another currency or basket of currencies. See my book on the establishment of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina (“One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”).    The Fed would provide the amount of dollars demanded by the market by passively buying and selling them at the dollar’s officially fixed price for its anchor. All traditional open market operations by the Fed in the forms of active purchases and sales of T-bills or other assets would be forbidden.

The Anchor

Another weakness of the historical gold standard was that the price of the anchor, based on one single commodity, varied relative to other goods, services and wages. While the purchasing power of the gold dollar was relatively stable over long periods of time, gold did not prove a stable anchor over shorter periods relevant for investment.

Expanding the anchor from one commodity to a basket of 5 to 10 commodities with greater collective stability relative to the goods and services people actually buy (as measured by, e.g., the CPI index), would reduce this volatility. The basket would consist of fixed amounts of each of these commodities and their collective market value would define the value of one dollar.  There have been similar proposals in the past, but the high transaction and storage costs of dealing with all the goods in the valuation basket doomed them. However, with indirect redeemability discussed next, the valuation basket would not suffer from this problem.

Indirect redeemability

Historically, gold and silver standards obliged the monetary authority to buy and sell its currency for actual gold or silver. If the dollar price of gold in the market was higher than its official price, people would buy gold at the central bank increasing its market supply and reducing the money supply until the market price came down again. These precious metals had to be stored and guarded at considerable cost. More importantly, taking large amounts of gold and silver off the market distorted their price by creating an artificial demand for them. A new gold standard would see the relative price of gold rising over time due to the increasing cost of discovery and extraction. The fixed dollar price of gold means that the dollar prices of everything else would fall (deflation). While the predictability of the value of money is one of its most important qualities, stability of its value, such as approximately zero inflation, is also desirable.

Indirect redeemability eliminates these shortcomings of the traditional gold standard. Indirect redeemability means that currency is issued or redeemed for assets of equal market value rather than the actual anchor commodities.  Market actors would still have an arbitrage profit incentive to keep the supply of money appropriate for its official value.  As the economy grows and the demand for money increases, this mechanism would increase the money supply as people sell their T-bills to the Fed for additional dollars at its official (gold or whatever) price.

Towards a global anchor

The United States could easily amend its monetary policy to incorporate the above features – adopting a government defined value of the dollar as called for in Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and a market determined supply. The Federal Reserve would be restricted by law to passive currency board rules. Additional financial sector stability would be achieved by also adopting the Chicago Plan of 100% reserve requirements against demand deposits. This would be a natural byproduct of the Fed creating a two-tier Central Bank Digital Currency (CBCD) now under consideration.

The gold standard was an international system for regulating the supply of money and thus prices in each country and between countries and provided a single world currency (via fixed exchange rates). Balance of trade and payments between countries was maintained (when central banks played by the rules) because deficit countries lost money (gold) to surplus countries, reducing prices in the former and increasing them in the latter. This led to a flourishing of trade between countries. This was a highly desirable feature for liberal market economies.

The United States could adopt the hard anchor currency board system described above on its own and others might follow by fixing their currencies to the dollar as in the past. The amendments to the historic gold standard system proposed above would significantly tighten the rules under which it would operate and strengthen the prospects of its survival.

However, there would be significant benefits to developing such a standard internationally. One way or the other, replacing the fluctuating exchange rates between the dollar and other currencies with the equivalent of a single currency would be a significant boon to world trade and world prosperity.  Replacing the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency with an international unit would have additional benefits for the smooth functioning of the global trading and payments system.  

In a small step to create an internationally issued currency the IMF created its Special Drawing Right (SDR) in 1969 in the expectation of supplementing the gold-based US dollar. But in today’s world of fiat currencies with floating exchange rates the SDR has several limitations as a reserve currency, most of which can be lived with for a while. The SDR allocated by the IMF can only be held and used by the central banks of IMF member countries and a few international organizations such as the World Bank and BIS. The SDR falls short as a challenger to the US dollar because of the absence of widespread private market use of the unit.

To become a serious supplement to, if not replacement for, the US dollar in the international monetary system the SDR would need to be usable for payments by private sector parties. This would require the creation of private or Market SDRs. This could be done in much the same way banks now create dollar deposits.

Digital SDR currency

As with national currencies, the internationally issued SDR needs a central issuer of the base money version of market SDRs (M-SDRs). The IMF should oversee the develop of a procedure for issuing M-SDRs following currency board rules and backed 100% by official SDRs or by an appropriate mix of sovereign debt of the five basket currencies.

The IMF might establish an IMF trust fund that would issue M-SDRs to AAA or AA international banks upon their request and payment of the equivalent value of one or more of the five basket currencies (and would redeem them under similar arrangements). As with other IMF trusts, the IMF might approach the BIS to operationally manage the issuance and redemption of M-SDRs and the maintenance of the official SDR asset backing (or its equivalent in the five currencies in the valuation basket).

Banks offering M-SDR deposits/currency to their customers would hold an M-SDR reserve backing with the IMF SDR trust fund. The base money M-SDRs issued by the IMF trust fund would perform the same payment settlement function as do central banks for the base money they issue, with the critical difference that its depositors/participants would be global rather than national. This would enable virtually instantaneous final settlement of M-SDR payments globally.

An M-SDR would facilitate and be facilitated by invoicing internationally traded goods and financial instruments in SDRs. More, if not most, internationally traded commodities could and should be priced in SDRs. Cross border borrowing can and should be denominated in SDR starting with bond issues and lending by international development institutions (as is now the case with the IMF, and to a very limited extent the World Bank).  https://www.brettonwoods.org/article/proposal-for-an-imf-staff-executive-board-paper-on-promoting-market-sdrs

To go all the way with SDRs, the IMF’s Articles of Agreement would need to be amended to replace the allocation of SDRs with issuing them according to currency board rules as discussed earlier. Furthermore, the valuation basket that now consists of key currencies would need to be replaced with a commodity basket as outlined in my Real SDR Currency Board proposal: (http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/).

The shift from dollar to SDR international reserves, payments, and invoicing would give the world a more stable currency for all of these purposes. This would further promote trade because of more efficient cross boarder payments thus further lifting incomes around the world. Being an internationally issued and controlled currency, the potential for its political abuse by the U.S. would be greatly reduced. But eliminating the seigniorage that the U.S. now enjoys supplying its currency to the rest of the world, i.e., the foreign financing of some of its debt, would remain without further measures.

As central banks and foreign firms shifted from dollars to SDRs they might simply transfer the US treasury bills (and other US investments) that they now hold to the issuers of the M-SDRs. In that case the U.S. would continue to enjoy its exorbitant privilege of foreign financing in exchange for holding its currency. In this case M-SDRs rather than USD would also be backed by US debt. Thus, rules are need for what currency or assets must be paid to buy M-SDRs and/or what assets M-SDRs are backed by. This could take the form of buying M-SDRs with USD but the issuer exchanging the dollars for a more balanced portfolio of assets. While the SDR value continues to be defined by a basket of currencies, the assets backing issued SDR might reflect the same proportions of the same currencies.

The reduction in this way of the role of the dollar as a reserve currency would be win win. It would provide for more stable and more efficient international trade and payments. It would help demilitarize money and it would modestly increase the cost of US debt finance, hopefully encouraging more careful spending.


[1] Dr. Coats retired from the IMF after 26 years of service in May 2003 to join the Board of Directors of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority. He was chief of the SDR division in the Finance Department of the IMF from 1982–88 and a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in 1979.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded him for his “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  His recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. He has a B.A. degree in Economics from U of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in economics from the U of Chicago. He is a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.

Russia: How should we fight back?

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has rightly outraged most of us. Leaving aside the history that brought us to this present conflict, Russia’s attack is totally unjustified. Our natural instincts are to help Ukraine resist its aggressor. As we watch the destruction of lives and property, it is natural to want to send in our boys or planes to help. Surely, we can stop this by using the might of our military and advanced weapons. Wars tend to look like that in the beginning. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq (I still can’t sort out what Bush/Cheney thought was America’s interest in attacking Iraq) looked like slam dunks going in. The realities were invariably very different by the end. How should we help Ukraine?

The U.S. and Ukraine’s NATO neighbors have been supplying Ukraine with weapons but left them to fight on their own. This was my assessment a month ago: “Ukraine-Russia-NATO”  As much as it strains against our impulse to help, President Biden is absolutely correct in ruling out our joining the war. For most of us, war, and the incredible pain it inflicts on those directly involved, is fought elsewhere by others. It is far too easy to say “sure, lets go to war.” “Ukraine-how should we help?”

But wars can be fought economically as well as militarily. Much of the West (the designation seems relevant again) has joined together to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia. But the objectives of these sanctions are not clear. They are too late to deter Russia from its invasion of Ukraine, though perhaps they provide an example of the potential cost to China if it decides to invade Taiwan. Are they meant to pressure Russia to come to the negotiating table? But it takes two to tango–Zelensky must be there as well. I have heard no statement of what Russia must do for the sanctions to be lifted.

The sanctions seem designed to cripple the Russian economy. Sadly, the pain will fall mainly on the Russia people rather than its government. Considerable pain will also fall on those imposing the sanctions. “The war in Ukraine and globalization”

Supply chains and financial channels will be disrupted for many years. But like military wars, the collateral damage an economic war is hard to predict. China and Russia and maybe India and much of Africa are being driven together to establish new trading relationships and non-dollar payment channels that don’t seem to serve American interests. If they are not explicitly linked to accelerating a negotiated peace, what are the sanctions for?  I don’t necessarily believe that our military industrial complex deliberately promotes the perpetuation of war, but as an economist I can’t ignore the fact that they have an economic incentive to do so.  

Missing from all of this seems to be the skillful deployment of diplomacy. The first priority, of course, is to end the fighting in Ukraine. But any peace agreement must look beyond the immediate war to the conditions that will promote peace and prosperity for Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the world well into the future. As is often the case Chas Freeman says it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vxufUeqnuc

The War in Ukraine and Globalization 

We will cripple the Russian economy by cutting off their access to world markets. They will have to buy Russian.

We will strengthen the American economy by cutting off our own access to world markets. Buy American!

Both sentiments are circulating in the U.S. at the same time. If you don’t see the contradiction, you should probably stop reading. Cutting Russia off from external markets will definitely make it poorer but it will also hurt its former trading partners.

Without specialization and trade, we would all (the 99% of us) be poorer than dirt. See my very elementary explanation: “Econ-101-Trade in Very Simple Terms” This is why reducing Russia’s access to trade beyond Russia’s borders (cross border trade) will punish Russia and make it poorer. But this is often not properly understood even by very smart people: “Tony Judt on trade”

Trade is win-win, meaning that both the seller and buyer are better off as a result of their trades (assuming that their transactions are voluntary). Obviously then, restricting trade is lose-lose. Both sellers and buys are worse off as a result of restricting trade. I note this fact in my discussion of restricting trade with Russia: “How to Stop Russia in Ukraine” However, the rest of the world will have to scramble to replace Russian oil, gas, Ukrainian wheat, etc, and will pay higher prices for the substitutes.

Countries that impose trade restrictions on themselves (e.g., via tariffs) are often indulging in a form of corruption by enriching (“protecting”) favored industries or firms by reducing the competition they face from abroad (so called cheap Chinese labor, etc.). But trade policies and decisions can be more complicated than that.

Trade creates interdependencies. If a truck strike, or bad weather, or a cow disease, prevents the yogurt you no longer produce yourself from reaching your market (the local Safeway), you will go without it for a while. If semiconductors produced in Taiwan can’t reach American auto manufacturers on time and in sufficient numbers, car production is slowed. In short, supply chains that generally lower the cost of producing whatever, thus benefiting consumers, also increase the risks of supply chain interruptions. Businesses must (and do) evaluate the cost-risk trade off seeking a reasonable (profit maximizing) balance.  

Some products, e.g., those related to our national defense, are sufficiently critical that the government forces producers to forgo the economic efficiencies of importing them in order to minimize the risks of supply interruptions, especially in war time. While this is often justified, the line between risk reduction for national defense and corruption to buy votes or benefit friends is sometimes fuzzy. But no one can believe that buying steel from Canada is a national security risk as Trump claimed and as I note here: “Econ-101- Trade Deficits”  Buy American policies are more often in the corruption rather than the national interest category.

There is also an interesting political dimension to trade currently in our faces. The dramatic growth in trade in goods and services (from $63 billion in 1950 to $17,249 billion in 2020 “Worldwide export volume in trade since 1950”), has produced a dramatic reduction in poverty around the world (from 76% of the global population in extreme poverty in 1820 to 10% in 2018 “Extreme poverty in brief”’). It has also created significant interdependence between countries. This has positive and potentially negative aspects. While depending on Russia, China, Mexico, etc. for many of the things we enjoy (and sometimes even need) creates economic incentives to retain peaceful relationships, it also (the other side of the same coin) creates vulnerabilities and thus economic weapons to punish bad behavior. If the trade didn’t exist in the first place, cutting it off couldn’t be used to punish Russia. While we can inflict economic pain on Russia for its war on Ukraine by cutting off its access to our goods and services, Russia can and is inflicting pain on those of us who invested in Russia and who depend on Russian oil and enjoy Russian caviar.  

The pain some in the West have inflected on themselves (and the rest of us) out of their anger at Putin by canceling our enjoyment of Russia’s rich culture, is beyond comprehension coming from so called adults. “Russian musicians, artists, athletes and other cultural figures are facing broad backlash as Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to press his relentless and increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine.” “Ukraine war-be careful canceling Russia”

Among the tragedies of the physical and human losses in Ukraine, and the disruption of the lives of millions of Ukrainian refugees, are the damage to trading relationships and the global order. See my commons in:  “Ukraine-Russia-Nato”  We failed to deal properly with Russia and its concerns the first time around after the USSR was dissolved. It will take a long time to repair the damage done to the international order by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. We need to do a better job next time around.  “Western sanctions on Russia are like none the world has seen” We also need to better address the costs to those who must seek out new jobs and skills as a result of new technology and greater labor productivity, to which trade contributes. “Our Social Safety Net”

Econ 101: Erdogan’s Turkey

President Erdogan believes that by cutting interest rates on the Turkish lira the resulting depreciation of its exchange rate will cheapen Turkish goods and thus increase their exports and promote growth (the China model, he thinks). Accordingly, he has replaced four central bank governors who could not bring themselves to accede to his demands. “Revolving door-Turkeys-last-four-central-bank-chiefs”

In an earlier disastrous cycle, the Central Bank of Turkey (CBT) reduced its policy rate from 24% in 2019 in steps to 8.5% in mid 2020 only to raise it again to 19% in March 2021 until the latest cuts started in September of this years. In November, “The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has decided to reduce the policy rate (one-week repo auction rate) from 15 percent to 14 percent.” “Press Releases/2021/ANO2021-59”  

When I was part of the IMF team in 2000-1 working with the Turkish authorities to regain control of inflation (which ranged from 60 and 100 percent between 1980 and 1999) and clean up the banking sector (they closed 13 banks in 2000), the CBT policy interest rate was briefly raised to 100% (ala Paul Volcker in the US). Inflation declined rapidly to single digit levels (until the last four years) with interest rates quickly following.

The dollar price of the Turkish lira has fallen in half since February of this year (i.e., a dollar will buy twice as many lira–one lira cost 0.14 dollars in February and 0.061 dollar on December 17).  Erdogan seems to think he is choosing to benefit workers (exporters) over consumers (importer), though they are generally the same people.  If the lira depreciates, the rest of the world can buy lira more cheaply and thus (according to Erdogan) will buy more cheaper Turkish exports. This should increase the demand for Turkish good and the jobs that produce them and increase the growth of the Turkish economy.

As any economist can explain to Mr. Erdogan, depreciating the exchange rate with lower interest rates in Turkey than in the rest of the world is achieved by printing more money with which to buy foreign currencies. Broad money (M2) increased almost 48% in November 2020 from a year earlier and 24% from a year earlier this November. But such a rapid increase in the money supply will increase prices in Turkey over and above the increase in the price of imports from the lira’s depreciation. “Turkey-central bank-Erdogan”

Inflation in Turkey has risen from single digits between 2004 to 2016 to “21.3%” in November 2021 (annual rate from a year earlier). According to the Central Banking Journal “Official figures show Turkish inflation reached 21.31% year-on-year in November, but there is considerable controversy over whether these figures are accurate. Several well-informed observers, have told Central Banking that they believe the official figures understate actual inflation.”  “Turkey’s currency hits new low after further rate cut”  Steve Hanke reports the actual rate at around 100%  “Steve Hanke’s estimate of Turkey’s inflation rate”

In short, Mr. Erdogan’s crazy policy of reducing interest rates has not made Turkish goods cheaper for the rest of the world. As the lira became cheaper for foreigners (depreciation), the lira price of those goods became more expensive (inflation). The real effective exchange rate (which takes account of both) is not being significantly reduced because Turkey is experiencing higher and higher inflation along with the lira’s depreciation. Monetary policy works in Turkey the same way as in every other place.  The CBT’s inflation target, by the way, is 5%. “Turkey-Erdogan currency crisis”

China and the United States

“Biden describes the China challenge as a global, ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies…. Any event from the pandemic to the Olympics will occasion commentary, particularly in the United States, of who “won,” China or America, and what it means for the epic struggle for global supremacy.” “There is no unified front against China”

I am not sure what it is that we want to win. We don’t seem to mind selling planes and bombs to other autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.). Anything to keep the defense industry’s profits flowing short of yet another war seems a (relatively) good deal. And why might “global supremacy” matter?

Winning things sounds to me like rooting for our own basketball team and cheering when it wins the championship. How do we go about striving to have the best basketball team? First, we recruit the best basketball players we can find and hire the best coach to train them. Everyone must play by the agreed rules, and we win by playing the best game. In short, our efforts go into being the best team possible, not into poisoning the drinking water of the other teams.

But sporting contests are zero sum. One side wins and the other losses. Global cooperation and trade is win–win. The goods we produce and sell (for example) to China, with which to pay for the goods we buy from China make us and China both richer. The citizens of both countries benefit from this exchange. Win–win. Sharing information on the source, nature, and potential cure of a virus (which knows no borders) benefits all of us. Win–win.

The world’s output is maximized when our productive assets (labor and capital) are allocated to their most productive uses globally. That requires that market prices reflect the true productivity and value of each activity. Thus, the world as a whole benefits from rules governing government interferences in market prices and allocations. The World Trade Organization is the forum for agreeing on these rules of fair trade and enforcing them. “Econ 101- Trade in very simple terms”

The airplanes built by Boeing and Airbus benefit from government support of one sort or another. For years they have fought one another over whether this support conformed to fair trade rules. A settlement has finally been reached. “Boeing – Airbus settlement”

Trade restriction in the name of national security, while potentially legitimate, can easily cross the line into wealth reducing protectionism. Does the use of Huawei 5G equipment really threaten U.S. national security or U.S. business interests (protectionism). Some of these cases are hard to call but we must look carefully at narrow business interests in protecting their markets to the detriment of the rest of us. “Huawei ban could crush US aid efforts”

Global supremacy suggests that we would set these rules. To be successful the rules of international trade must be very broadly followed. Thus, their formulation must be a collective undertaking. It is fine for the U.S. to exert influence in setting these rules, but unfortunately, we have a poor record of even following them. We have caused the demise of the WTO dispute resolution body. We have strangely and counterproductively withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was then replaced by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). These set high standards for more open trade that China will hopefully have to meet to join. The self-image of supremacy has corrupted U.S. behavior. Former President Trump’s protectionist tariffs on trade with China, EU, Canada, etc., which President Biden has so far failed to remove, have further reduced U.S. and world income. “Trade protection and corruption”

So, what should our policy be toward China? China has no intention or interest in attacking the United States. They care about their own economies and their own neighborhoods. We should keep our nose and military home to look after our own neighborhood. We should work with China (and Russia and others) to formulate win-win rules for international interactions and behavior. We should apply the mechanisms of the WTO and other international bodies, and diplomacy more generally, to hold China (and others) to the agreed rules. But we must abide by them as well. The rule of law is not just for others.

We should fix the problems in our own economy. We should work to make our domestic rules of commerce fair and efficient so that our economy will be the best in the world. We should work with other countries, including China, to maximize the productivity of their resources because we and everyone else will benefit (win-win).

The United States was founded on principles that have served us well providing a model that the rest of the world would do well to follow. The idea that we should (or can) impose our principles on others rather than provide an example like “a shining city on a hill,” is a violation of those very principles. We have repeatedly failed to uphold those principles, but we keep trying. We must continue trying and must try harder.

Econ 101: Tony Judt on Trade

I just finished listening to the Audible version of Thinking the Twentieth Century, a discussion between Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, recorded just before Judt died in 2010. Judt was a British-American historian, essayist and university professor who specialized in European history. Snyder is an American author and historian specializing in the history of  Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.

I found Judt to be a very insightful in his area of political and social history expertise but generally off base on economic issues, which is not his field. I fear that his misunderstanding of trade is widely shared so I will set out some important basics as a contribution to better public understanding. “Science” doesn’t dictate policy, but a correct understanding of the economics of trade is essential if one’s value preferences are to lead to policies that produce your desired result.

Judt describes the increase in American wages for manufacturing workers along with their health and pension benefits over the past several decades leading manufacturing firms to outsource their production to the cheaper labor in (for example) China and thus hollowing out American manufacturing.  Almost everything about this description is wrong.

For starters manufacturing output in the U.S. is at an all-time high (prior to Covid shutdowns). Off shorting some of it has not hollowed out U.S. manufacturing.  Because manufacturing output has grown more slowly than the economy overall (the upper line below), its share of GDP has fallen (the lower line). Moreover, because of increased labor productivity in manufacturing, fewer workers are needed to produce this increased output (second chart) thus freeing labor to work in other areas and increasing our overall standard of living.

U.S. manufacturing output

Billions of US $ and Percent of GDP

Data Source: World Bank
MLA Citation: <a href=’https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/manufacturing-output’>U.S. Manufacturing Output 1997-2021</a>. http://www.macrotrends.net. Retrieved 2021-08-16.

But let’s take a closer look at Judt’s statement. If the U.S. shifts some manufacturing offshore, it must pay for it. Instead of paying American workers it must pay Chinese workers, and firms and shipping companies. Fundamentally, a country’s imports must be paid for by its exports (or by capital inflows from the exporting country). Let’s look carefully at each possibility. To simplify, let’s initially assume that there are no capital flows (cross border investments from one country in another) so that trade in goods and services must balance (i.e., pay for each other).

For starters whether labor is cheaper in China than in the U.S. cannot be determined without considering the exchange rate of the dollar for the Chinese Yuan. If exchange rates (not mentioned by Judt) are flexible (determined freely in the market) the fact of an increase in U.S. imports from China (i.e., the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing to China) will depreciate the dollar/Yuan exchange rate. As U.S. manufacturers sell dollars to buy Yuan with which to pay for the goods they now want to buy from China, Yuan will become more expensive (a depreciation of the exchange value of the dollar). The dollar’s depreciation will have two effects. It increases the cost of Chinese labor to U.S. companies and thus will reduce the cost advantage of Chinese labor and reduce the demand for it by U.S. firms. And it will lower the cost of U.S. exports thus making them more attractive in China. While the adjustments will take time, the dollar depreciation will continue until American exports increase and its imports from China moderate until trade balances–our increased exports pay for our increased imports.

If the exchange rates are fixed, as they were in gold standard days, the adjustment in the real effective exchange rate needed to balance trade takes a different form.  The initial increase in the demand for Chinese products (outsourcing to Chinese workers) are paid for with dollars. But to preserve the fixed exchange rate, the PBRC (Chinese central bank) must buy these dollars with newly created Chinese currency. This increase in the Chinese money supply will lift prices in China making Chinese exports more expensive in the U.S. and U.S. goods cheaper in China. In short, the real exchange rate adjustment needed to balance imports and exports in this case results from a higher inflation rate in China than in the U.S. while in the first case of flexible exchange rates it results from adjustments in the nominal exchanges rates themselves.

A third possibility is for China to take the extra dollars being spent in China and invest them in the U.S. (or elsewhere) This is the capital flow case in which trade itself does not balance.  This was the policy followed by China in the 2000s through 2014. The PBRC would buy the dollars being spent for outsourced Chinese labor (U.S. manufacturers payments to Chinese workers rather than to American ones for the goods they needed) and would invest them in the U.S. If the increase in the Chinese money supply resulting from those dollar purchases was more than was consistent with stable prices in China, the excess money would be sterilized–so called sterilized foreign exchange intervention (the PBRC would create Yuan to buy dollars and would repurchase some of those Yuan back with domestic Chinese securities owned by the PBRC).

To some extent this foreign exchange market intervention by the PBRC was the result of its desire to build up its FX reserves (a kind of insurance policy for exchange rate shocks). However, much of it was to prevent an appreciation of the Yuan that would reduce its exports (it was following an export led development strategy). This policy was much criticized abroad as currency manipulation and ended in 2013-4.  Thus, China has financed a significant part of the U.S. governments fiscal debt. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

Thus, when someone says that something is cheaper to make in China, remember that it must also be that from China’s perspective, something must be cheaper to make in the U.S. in order to pay for what China sends to us. Both sides benefit and the world grows richer.

Facebook and Immigration

December 3rs’s WSJ started an article on immigration as follows:

“The Trump administration has sued Facebook Inc., accusing the social-media company of illegally reserving high-paying jobs for immigrant workers it was sponsoring for permanent residence, rather than searching adequately for available U.S. workers who could fill the positions.

The lawsuit reflects a continuing Trump administration push to crack down on alleged displacement of American workers.”  “Trump administration claims Facebook improperly reserved jobs for H1-b workers”

Immigration policy is a complex issue with many aspects. The economic aspects, however, should be straight forward and simple. https://wcoats.blog/2018/03/03/econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms/  https://wcoats.blog/2018/03/24/econ-101-trade-deficits-another-bite/  https://wcoats.blog/2018/09/28/trade-protection-and-corruption/ A free market in goods and labor increases productivity and output making the world wealthier. The cost for this extraordinary benefit is that some firms may go out of business and some workers may lose their existing jobs when someone else does better what the firm or worker were doing. They will need to move on to other activities or jobs.  It is wise and appropriate social policy to help those displaced by competition find alternative uses of their resources and skills.

It might seem rather harmless to protect existing firms and jobs from competition (aside from its afront to our individual freedom) but overtime the cost in reduced income growth will become greater and greater. What if such policies had been imposed a hundred years ago? Where would we be now?

If there are American workers who can perform the same job for the same wage Facebook needs, it has every financial incentive to hire them over sponsoring foreign workers. They don’t need laws to push them to do so. The good old profit incentive works just fine. It is fortunate that the exercise of our individual freedom to invent, invest, and work where we please also produces the most efficient (i.e. productive, thus profitable) use of our talents and resources. Talk about win-win. Those displaced when I come up with a better idea (i.e., something the rest of you like better) should be discouraged from stopping such progress with an effective economic safety net. “Replacing Social Security with a Universal Basic Income”

The Rule of Law: China and the U.S.

The rule of law has been an essential and critical foundation of successful free market economies. It provides the certainty of property rights and contracts needed for entrepreneurs to risk their capital in business undertakings. But as our business and other activities cross borders, whose laws apply?

“Among the earliest examples of legal codes concerning maritime affairs is the Byzantine Lex Rhodia, promulgated between 600 and 800 C.E. to govern trade and navigation in the Mediterranean.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_sea  Leaping forward, international air travel, satellite communications, spectrum allocation for radio, TV, internet, and other telephonic transmission would be impossible without firm agreements among countries–the international rule of law.

Laws facilitate commerce–buying and selling–by establishing rules for doing so (e.g. contract enforcement rules) that are stable and applicable to all. They lower the costs and reduce the risks of trading. The United States Constitution recognizes the importance of this in the commerce clause of Article I Section 8, which is used to prevent individual states from taxing or otherwise interfering with interstate commerce. Achieving the same law-based freedom to trade across national borders is more difficult, requiring the negotiation of agreements and treaties that establish common rules between sovereign nations.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) develops and enforces the rule of law in the area of cross border trade. The difficulty of achieving global agreement on the rules of various aspects of trade is reflected in the fact that no new agreements have been reached since the establishment of the WTO (taking over the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs) on January 1, 1995. “The WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. They spell out the principles of liberalization, and the permitted exceptions. They include individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other trade barriers, and to open and keep open services markets. They set procedures for settling disputes.” the WTO – what is it?

China was admitted to the WTO as a developing country on December 11, 2001. Chinese officials immediately expressed the desire to understand and conform to the international rules required by the WTO and requested technical assistant from the IMF for doing so. In July of 2002, the IMF sent me to Beijing to review their needs with them.  They were particularly keen to have an American banking supervisor to advise them. I had a perfect candidate who was just finishing a two-year posting to Hong Kong. Everyone I spoke to in Beijing, as well as my Chinese colleagues at the IMF, stated that virtually all Chinese officials agreed on where China wanted to go–full liberalization according to WTO rules. They only differed with regard to how fast they thought they should move to get there.

Our condition was that our resident banking supervision advisor had to have his office located with the other Chinese banking supervisors and that he would have an open door. This was enthusiastically accepted by the Deputy Governor who apparently had not informed the Governor of these details. Unfortunately, when the Governor was presented the contract of his signature, he killed the arrangement. I was, however, able to enjoy wonderful tours of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and dine on the best Peking Duck I have ever had.  

An economically rising China is lifting millions of people out of poverty. We rightly welcome its newly productive economy contributing to increasing world output and living standards. The challenge is to square China’s authoritarian political regime with an international free market trading system. The vehicle has been the WTO and other international rule setting bodies that exist to harmonize diverse economies in the direction of freer and more open trade. The rules were being set by the dominant, largely free market economies that China wanted to join.

Beyond an American led WTO itself, the multilateral trade agreement that established the highest standards yet for tariff reduction and the incorporation of more modern trade issues such as non-trade barriers, services, protection of intellectual property, minimum labor standards, and dispute resolution (the rule of law cannot meaningfully exist without credible dispute resolution procedures) was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated between 2006 and 2015. The TPP agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States was announced on October 5, 2015.

Three days later, on October 8, I spoke in New York City at a seminar hosted by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New York on the internationalization of China’s currency, the renminbi. All of the talk by the Chinese attending was about the TPP. Why was China excluded? Could they join? My reply was that China would be very welcomed to join when they were able to meet the treaty’s conditions. TPP was another powerful magnet pulling China into the liberal international trading order.  

A recent report from the Peterson Institute of International Economics (June 23, 2020) stated that: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was designed in 2016 to be almost China-proof, with stringent obligations requiring transparency and trade liberalization. As former US Trade Representative Michael Froman put it, Chinese participation would be welcomed only when China could meet TPP’s terms, which it was far from doing. The United States was not keeping China out; China was just not ready to come in.” “China and Trans Pacific Partnership-in or out”

Broadly speaking, the aim of the WTO is to increasingly move its member countries toward the freest trade possible with fair competition (a level playing field), thus promoting a more productive allocation of economic resources and lifting global incomes.  The organization is not without its problems. But rather than working to strengthen the WTO, President Trump turned to negotiating bilateral trade agreements and raising rather than lowering import tariffs. Clearly bilateral agreements are easier to conclude than are global or broad multilateral agreements. Trump focused on China and its large bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. out of the mistaken belief that its surplus (our deficit) was harmful to the U.S. and that reducing it would increase American jobs. “Who pays Uncle Sam’s deficits”

In one of his most short-sighted actions from a sadly long list, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP on January 23, 2017. In addition to tweaking a few existing trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by incorporated many of the newer provisions of the TPP and the United States-Japan Trade Agreement and the United States-Japan Digital Trade Agreement, and imposing protective tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel and aluminum imports in the name of national security and “America First,” the Trump administration has focused its trade war bilaterally on China (with occasional pot shots at our friends in Europe and elsewhere).  “Trade Office fact-sheets and-annual-report”   A Brookings Institution study assessed the result of all of this for the American economy and workers as follows: “American firms and consumers paid the vast majority of the cost of Trump’s tariffs. While tariffs benefited some workers in import-competing industries, they hurt workers in sectors that rely on imported inputs and those in exporting industries facing retaliation from trade partners. Trump’s tariffs did not help the U.S. negotiate better trade agreements or significantly improve national security.”  “Did-Trump’s-tariffs-benefit-American-workers-and-national-security”

The remaining eleven countries that had signed the TPP agreed in January 2018 on a revised treaty they renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” (CPTPP).  CPTPP is substantially the same as TPP, but omits 20 provisions that had been of particular interest to the U.S. These provisions can be relatively easily restored should the U.S. choose to rejoin. “Trade and Globalization”

With the increasing power of Xi Jinping, China’s President and the General Secretary/Chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (now for life), China has played an increasingly active role in the IMF, WB, WTO and other international bodies. In addition, it has launched several regional organizations that it leads (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank–BRICS, and the Belt and Road Initiative) “The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the SDR”  Xi Jinping claimed that the AIIB would adhere to the highest international standards. But as President Trump and others have noted, there are a number of important areas in which China does not abide by the WTO rules. The policy question is what should be done about it.

The Cato Institution began a recent review of China’s trade practices as follows: “There is a growing bipartisan sentiment in Washington that Chinese trade practices are a problem, since these practices are unfair to American companies in a number of ways. But there is disagreement about the appropriate response. Can multilateral institutions be of use here? Or is unilateralism the only way?” Their conclusion is that the WTO and other multilateral institutions would be the most effective way of continuing to pull China into compliance with the international rule-based system. “Disciplining China’s trade practices at the WTO-how -WTO complaints can help”

President Trump has unilaterally gone the other way. He has blocked Huawei, the world’s leading seller of 5G technology and smartphones, from U.S. 5G mobile phone systems and urged our European allies to do the same because of Huawei’s links with the Chinese government. He is attempting to block the sales of U.S. and other non-Chinese manufacturers of the semiconductor chips used in Huawei and other Chinese products to China.  “A-brewing-US-China-tech-cold-war-rattles-the-semiconductor-industry”  He is trying to ban TikTok, WeChat and other popular Chinese products from U.S. markets and raising tariffs on an increasing number of Chinese products imported into the U.S. Some of these measures might be justified on national security grounds but some seem more protectionist of U.S. companies that are not otherwise competitive.

We are basically forcing China to build its own alternative rules and approach to trade. It is even offering its own global tracking system in place of the GPS system the U.S. has given the world and they seem well along in dividing the World Wide Web and other Internet protocols into two worlds. https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/voa-news-china/chinas-rival-gps-navigation-carries-big-risks

A November 20, 2020 article by William Pesek highlights what Trump’s misguided trade war with China is producing: “On his presidential watch, Donald Trump did manage to make one thing great: economic cooperation within North Asia.

So chaotic and pernicious was the outgoing US president’s pivot away from Asia that China, Japan and South Korea are dropping the hatchet and joining hands. The unlikely union was formalized on November 15 with the signing of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, free trade agreement.”  “US sidelined as China Korea and Japan unite”  The RCEP is a lighter more limited trade agreement than was the TPP (now the CPTPP) but it is led by China rather than the U.S.  Rather than converging to WTO standards it creates an alternative. 

“President Xi Jinping’s Friday [Nov 20, 2020] announcement of China’s intent to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a high-standard mega regional trade pact, has been seen as a bold move to reassure the world of the country’s continuing commitment to reform and opening-up.” “News analysis: an uphill task for China to negotiate CPTPP accession agreement”  While Xi Jinping’s strategy for China’s ascension is to take over the leadership in forging the rules for the international order more to the liking of his regime, China’s younger and upcoming managerial and entrepreneurial class, many of whom studied in the U.S. and Europe, have seen and liked the freer and more open capitalist societies. Their patriotism and commitment to a rising China is informed by the knowledge that freer and more open economies thrive more than centrally controlled ones.  We should not overlook their potential for returning China to a path of liberalization and integration with the liberal international order enjoyed by the rest of us.

Xi Jinping and his government’s goal is to retain power by delivering rapid economic growth, which allows and requires a vibrant private sector, while overseeing tight political control. One example is provided by its Social Credit System.  “China’s social credit system-mark of progress or threat to privacy?”  This requires a different set of rules for cross border trade than set out by the WTO. But many of China’s world traveling citizens see China’s successful rise in more closely embracing free market capitalism. We should incentivize the later view.

President Trump’s trade policies have damaged the world’s rule-based trading system and hurt the American economy while turning China in a different direction. President elect Biden has indicated his interest in rejoining the TPP. He should give it and the rebuilding of the WTO and other multilateral bodies high priority.