The Sources of Prosperity

I am an economist so I can’t help writing about the virtues of trade in the (futile?) hope that what is obvious to economists might be better understood and appreciated by the general public.,,,

So please bear with me one more time. If you join with ten, or a hundred, or a thousand others to cooperatively produce things, you can jointly produce much more than ten times, or one hundred or one thousand times as much as you could all produce individually as one person factories. But that huge increase in productivity and output is not possible unless you can sell your joint output to others for the many other things you need and want to consume that they produce. In short, none of this is possible without trade. The wider the area over which we can trade the greater are the possible gains in productivity from the specialization of labor and capital that a larger market makes possible. The American constitution recognized this when it prohibited restraints on trade between the states (across state lines).  The ultimate limit in the size of the market is given by the world itself.

But markets—the “places” or the arrangements through which trade deals (purchase and sales agreements) occur—require trust that deals will be honored.  The rule of law, which protects private property and the enforcement of contracts, provides the certainty needed for a manufacturer or other service provider to invest in the productive capacity and facilities needed to generate the promised supply of products that is the foundation of our relative affluence. When trade extends beyond national boundaries the rule of law takes the form of international agreements to rules of the game.  Bilateral, multilateral and global trade agreements establish the rule of law within their domains.  The World Trade Organization (WTO) was created to oversee this process. The astonishing skyrocketing of the standard of living of the average (even the poorest) earthling rest on, i.e. would not have been possible without, trade.

The uneven but persistent history of trade has seen the protection of less efficient and uncompetitive firms and industries reduced over time via trade agreements that reciprocally reduced the taxation of imports (i.e. tariffs).  Starting with President Trump’s misguided withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade liberalization has been thrown into reverse. Trump vs Adam Smith  TPP modernized and further liberalized existing trade agreements between the U.S. and a number of Pacific countries.  The agreement was to be between 12 Asian Pacific countries until the U.S. withdrew.  It would have provided a strong magnet to further draw China into the global system of rules for increasingly free trade. It was ultimately signed by 11 countries without the U.S. and renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The US withdrawal from the agreement was a serious mistake.

The United States as well as much of the rest of the world is beginning to pay the costs of Trump’s trade wars. In January of this year Deutsche Bank estimated that Trump’s trade wars have cost the U.S. stock market $5 trillion in forgone returns so far. Costs of trade war  “Bloomberg economists Dan Hanson and Tom Orlik have… concluded: If tariffs expand to cover all U.S.-China trade, and markets slump in response, global GDP will take a $600 billion hit in 2021, the year of peak impact.” US China trade war-economic fallout  “The import tariffs proposed by President Trump could wipe out the income gains provided by the Republican tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners, Jim Tankersley of The New York Times reported Monday.”  ”Trump-Tariffs-Could-Wipe-Out-Tax-Cuts-Most-Americans”

Are Trump’s import taxes old fashioned protectionism (protecting relatively inefficient domestic industries from foreign competition), a legitimate response to national security concerns, or a reflection of Trump’s “famed” negotiating style?


For starters Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs of 25% and 10% respectively (following his earlier imposition of tariffs on solar panels of 30% and washing machines of 50%) are clearly protectionist and reflect an alarming over reach of executive authority. Using the “authority” given the President under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, U.S. Department of Commerce found that imports of steel and aluminum “threaten to impair the national security” of the United States.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the claim that reliance on Canadian steel could be considered a national security risk “absurd”.  Trump removed these tariffs on Canada and Mexico last month, but they remain in effect on our other friends (e.g., EU) and enemies. On several occasions Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on car’s imported from Europe on the same phony national security grounds.

The patters of trade that minimize costs of production and maximize labor productivity can be complex. While protecting a few inefficient American steel producers and their related jobs might be good for those few firms, it is bad for American consumers and the economy at large. Workers in less productive protected industries are thus not available to work in more productive activities. Moreover, more jobs were lost than saved as the result of high prices and lost sales by steel importing manufactures.  One study estimated that these tariffs could result in the loss of 146,000 jobs.[1]

Peterson Institute for International Economics study estimated that American businesses and consumers paid more than $900,000 a year for each job that was created or saved as a result of the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum. The cost for each job saved as a result of the administration’s tariffs on washing machines was $815,000.[2]

National Security

The distinction between legitimate security concerns and protectionism is not always obvious. Trump’s approach is often more protectionist and bargaining chips than concerns for security.  An early indication of this was the U.S.’s treatment of ZTE Corp, China’s second largest telecoms gear maker.  In April 2018 the U.S. band U.S. companies from selling their products to ZTE in connection with its violation on U.S. restrictions on trade with Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Syria and Cuba.  “That means no Qualcomm chips or Android software for its phones, and no American chips or other components for its cellular gear.” NYT The company was effectively shut down and heading for bankruptcy when in early June of 2018 Trump ordered these restrictions lifted to save Chinese jobs!!  According to the NYT: “The Trump administration is pressuring China to make trade concessions. It may also need Beijing’s help to strike a deal with North Korea as Washington and Pyongyang plan a high-profile meeting on June 12 in Singapore.  Mr. Trump appears to be using ZTE’s punishment as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China, rather than a matter of law enforcement.” What is ZTE–A Chinese Geopolitical Pawn

Trump’s more recent banishment of Huawei, a Chinese tech company leading the world in 5G development, from the American market and efforts to convinces our once British and EU friends to do the same provides another example. In some applications security concerns when dealing with a Chinese company may be justified, but these areas are limited and Huawei has gone to great lengths to allay those concerns. “Google has been arguing that by stopping it from dealing with Huawei, the US risks creating two kinds of Android operating system: the genuine version and a hybrid one. The hybrid one is likely to have more bugs in it than the Google one, and so could put Huawei phones more at risk of being hacked, not least by China.”  “Google warns of US national security risk of Huawei ban” FT June 6, 2019

The Trump administration has expressed its anger with the refusal of many other countries to follow its lead thus incurring a diplomatic cost as well as the economic one of restricting access to the best and/or most cost-effective products. The dangers and potential damage of using trade threats for other objections are clearly express by seven former US Ambassadors to Mexico in a joint letter published June 5: Ex US Mexico Ambassadors-Tariffs would destroy partnership we built

Moreover, the US’s exploitation of the importance of the dollar as a reserve and payment currency in forcing its political agenda on the rest of the world has incentivized the EU, Russian, China and others to look for alternatives. As another example of the growing risks of relying on American markets, Alibaba, China’s national champion internet giant whose share are currently only listed on the New York Stock Exchange, will raise its next round of capital on the Hong Kong exchange.


But some of Trump’s threats of tariffs no doubt reflect his approach to a trade negotiation. While it is not the usual approach to a trade negotiation, in which the parties should be looking for win-win reductions in tariffs and other impediments to freer trade, it could occasionally work to achieve greater concessions from the other side than otherwise. There is really little evidence that it has, however. The renegotiated NAFTA, given the new name United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA, is no better than a normal review and updating of the existing NAFTA would have been expected to produce. It incorporates most of the updated provisions of the TPP, as was expected. But Trump started the NAFT review and update, by tearing up the old agreement and threatening to revert to the bad old days. Trump’s threated 5% tariff on imports from Mexico if it doesn’t do more to reduce or deal with the flow of refugees across the US Mexican border seems to be a counter example of a threat that worked.


Donald J. Trump‏Verified account @realDonaldTrump

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On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied,..

4:30 PM – 30 May 2019


What if Trump doesn’t back down as China matches each of Trump’s escalations with new tariff increases of their own? Such a true trade war was not a necessary approach to the negotiations and could be terribly detrimental to both economies as well as those of our trading partners. Some of China’s behavior should be challenged. Its theft of intellectual property, state aid to some of its companies, and restrictions on foreign companies operating in China violate the spirit of the competitive deployment of resources to their most productive uses. But these criticisms are shared by most other countries (UK, EU, Japan, Korea, India, etc.). The US should negotiate with China together with these allies. It should use and strengthen the mechanisms of the World Trade Organization rather than ignoring and weakening it.

Even if Trump does backdown, as he generally has in the past, considerable damage has already been done that could take years to undo. The development of the cost saving, productivity enhancing global supply chains took time and were built with confidence in the rules that would apply—the rule of law. These very much included the maximum taxes (tariffs) and other regulations that would apply. The trust in that framework of rules has now been badly damaged.

Supply chains are already being restructured to reduce the risks of US policy shifts. While new arrangements may avoid or reduce these risks, they do so at the cost of efficiency.  Refusing to buy Russian booster rockets or Chinese semiconductors because of concerns that the Chinese or Russian government might exploit their companies’ products militarily or to steal our trade secrets, forces us into more expensive and/or inferior products and thus keeps us and the world poorer than otherwise. We had better be sure that the costs are necessary.

[1]  Timmons, Heather (March 5, 2018). “Five US jobs will be lost for every new one created by Trump’s steel tariffs”Quartz (publication).

[2] Long, Heather (2019). “Trump’s steel tariffs cost U.S. consumers $900,000 for every job created, experts say”The Washington Post.

Attorney General Barr’s News Conference

I, and everyone I know, want to know the facts of any collusion between Trump and his associates and Russia. I am confident that the Mueller investigation provides them as well as we could expect. Attorney General Barr’s news conference this morning summarizing that report was clear and transparent. He did an exemplary and impressive job. The complaints from some Democrats on the Hill that Barr should not have held this press conference until after they had read Mueller’s report were unfounded and frankly embarrassing. Please let’s move on.

My assessment of Trump’s administration today, which is what we should be debating, is very mixed. Adjusting and lightening the regulatory burdens that have been holding our economy back is largely good in my view (though each must be judged individually) as are the tax reforms making the system simpler and fairer. While the tax reforms did not go far enough, they were a big improvement over the existing tax law.

Trump’s attitude toward trade and the protection of inefficient American firms is ill informed and damaging to American’s economy as a whole (as opposed to coal and steel producers). His bullying and unilateral approach is clumsy, amateurish, and counterproductive. The EU, Canada, Japan and others would be happy to join us in confronting China’s bad trade behavior, if Trump were willing to work together and not busy attacking them as well.

I supported Trump’s campaign promises of restraint in deploying American troops around the world, but he has not delivered. His message to the Senate accompanying his veto of the bill passed by both houses of Congress (54-46 in the Senate and 247-175 in the House) a few weeks ago invoking the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen reflects a truly shocking affront to our Constitution: “This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.”  The truth is just the opposite. The constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress and the almost blank check congress gave Presidents following 9/11 cannot meaningfully be stretched to include what we are doing in Yemen.

Trump continues to undercut and weaken American leadership in the international organizations and agreements that have contributed so much to post WWII peace and prosperity. This will be increasingly harmful to our and the world’s legitimate interests.

In his spare time, the President thoughtfully advised the French on fighting the fire in Notre Dame. What an embarrassment and fire experts say that his advice was wrong.

Please, let’s fight the real battles and stop wasting time on the phony ones.

Have we been taken advantage of?

For as long as I can remember I have purchased food and household items from Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods without any of them buying anything from me. Was I taken advantage of? Of course not. I voluntarily gave up part of my hard earned income in exchange for something I wanted more. I gained and was made better off by being able to make these trades just as they profited from providing them. In fact, I don’t know and I don’t care what those stores did with the money I paid them. Much of it, of course, was used to buy the goods they put on their shelves for me to buy.

These trades (my income for their goods) would only become a problem if I spent more at Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods than I earned selling my labor. To do so I would need to borrow money from someone and go into debt. That might be OK temporarily, but obviously not on a permanent basis. In the long run, my purchases (imports) can’t exceed my income (export of my labor).

If you change my name to the United States and the names of Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods to China, Japan and Germany (not necessarily in that order) nothing in this story changes fundamentally. Americans benefit from our purchases of Chinese goods and it doesn’t matter what they do with the money we paid to them (net of what they purchased from us—i.e., their trade surplus and our trade deficit). As I have explained in the following article, what they (all of them collectively) are largely doing with our money (our net global trade deficit) is finance our profligate government.

For some reason President Trump has trouble understanding these simple facts. He is upset by our trade deficit with China and Germany and others that his profligate, indebted government has caused. If the federal government balanced its budget (actually being at the top of the current business cycle it should be running a surplus in order to balance over the cycle), what would China and Germany do with their surplus of dollars? Rather than buying U.S. treasury securities, they might invest in the U.S. economy contributing to faster economic growth in the U.S. They might also choose to buy more goods and services from the U.S. thus reducing their dollar surpluses. In all likelihood they would do some of each. Given the resulting adjustments in their demand for dollars, the exchange rates of the dollar for Euros and RMB would adjust to produce the desired reduction in their surpluses.

Attacking China with tariffs and demanding a reduction in their trade surplus with the U.S. is counterproductive and wrong headed. But it does not follow that China is playing by the rules (WTO rules that we should be trying to strengthen rather than weaken). The EU, Japan, Canada, Mexico and others share this assessment and Trump would be much smarter to seek their cooperation in pressuring China to behave better rather than attacking them with tariffs and tariff threats as well. With the recent agreement with Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, to deescalate the trade war with the EU and resume the negotiations over further trade liberalization started a few years ago (TTIP), perhaps Trump is changing tactics in a more promising direction. This should include concluding the updating of NAFTA and rejoining the TPP now the CPATPP.  We should all hope so.

Richard Rahn makes similar arguments in his Washington Times article today:

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)

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


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”

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.

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.

The Balance of Trade

President Trump has regularly called for bilateral trade balances with our trading partners. Though he prudently gave up his campaign promise to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office because of China’s large trade surpluses with the U.S., he more recently criticized Germany’s even larger surplus. The Trump administration’s objectives in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) published July 17th also call for reducing U.S. bilateral trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. Economists recognize these objectives as nonsensical, but it might be worthwhile to spell out to the broader public (if not to Trump’s protectionist White House wing) why that is so.

Let’s start with the U.S. trade balance with the rest of the world. As we pay for what we import with what we export, we would generally expect a balance between imports and exports over time, just as we expect a rough balance between our income and expenditures over time. But uniquely in the case of the U.S., we need to have a deficit (imports exceeding exports) paid for with U.S. dollars, because the rest of the world holds and uses our dollars to finance many international transactions. The dollar is the world’s primary international reserve currency and our trade deficit is the primary means by which we supply them to the rest of the world.

This is an over simplification, however, because dollars are also supplied to the rest of the world via our capital account, i.e. Americans investing abroad. At the end of 2016 Americans had invested about $24 trillion USD equivalent. However, the rest of the world had invested over $32 trillion USD in the U.S. Roughly $5 trillion of this net investment in the U.S. of $8 trillion represented official foreign exchange reserves held by foreign governments in U.S. dollars out of total foreign exchange reserves of about $8 trillion.

Something also needs to be said about the relationship between foreign holdings of dollars and changes in those holdings. Any increase in the demand for foreign exchange reserves by foreign governments, something that tends to happen naturally as economies grow, must be met by the balance of payments deficits of the countries supplying those reserves. Thus the U.S. trade deficit last year (2016) of about $500 billion USD more or less reflects the addition to the dollar reserves of foreign governments.

So the use of the U.S. dollar in foreign exchange reserves implies that the U.S. will have, and need to have, a balance of trade deficit of a similar amount. But let’s simplify and assume that U.S. trade with the rest of the world is balanced (zero trade balance as well as zero current and capital account balances), perhaps because the U.S. dollar is replaced in international reserves by the SDR as I have long recommended. See my: Real SDR Currency Board What about the trade balance with Mexico and Canada? Should we want and expect each bilateral trade relationship to be balanced?

The error of such thinking can be easily illustrated with a simple, hypothetical example. Assume that within NAFTA the U.S.’s comparative advantage is in manufacturing all the pieces that make up an automobile and growing wheat, Mexico’s comparative advantage is using its “cheap” labor to assemble those pieces into cars, and Canada’s is growing and milling lumber. Assume that that is all they do that crosses their borders. The U.S. sells its car parts to Mexico, which puts them together and sells the cars to the U.S. and Canada. The value of the parts sold to Mexico is less than the value of the cars (which incorporates the parts from the U.S.) Mexico sells to the U.S. so that on net the U.S. has a trade deficit with Mexico. The U.S. sells wheat to Canadians buying a lesser value of lumber in return and Canada sells its lumber to the U.S. and to Mexico buying a few cars but of less value. Looking at bilateral trade balances, Mexico has a surplus vs. the U.S. and a deficit vs. Canada. Canada has a surplus vs. Mexico just sufficient to cover its deficit vs. the U.S. These bilateral deficits and surpluses are not a problem because the U.S. has a trade balance vs. Mexico and Canada combined and indeed with all of the rest of the world. The same is true for Mexico and Canada. What really matters is whether the value of a country’s exports to the rest of the world match and thus pay for the value of its imports from the rest of the world. As someone noted, no one worries that you have a large trade deficit with the grocery store as long as your total spending everywhere is covered by your income (the sale of your labor to your employer).

Being the eternal optimist, I trust that there are enough people in the Trump administration that understand that seeking bilateral trade balances with each and every country would be a terrible mistake to keep him from trying to do so.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the SDR

By Warren Coats and Dongsheng Di

Jin Liqun, President of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) announced on January 17, 2016 that all of its loans would be in U.S. dollars, “signaling that Beijing will not use the development bank as a platform to promote renminbi internationalization.”[1] In this note we argue that the AIIB should make all of its loans in SDRs. Doing so would make a major contribution to promoting the replacement/supplementation of the U.S. dollar for international payments that was called for by People’s Bank of China’s Governor, Zhou Xiaochuan in 2009.[2] As the SDR valuation basket will include the Chinese renminbi after October 1, 2016[3] it will also contribute, but more modestly, to the international use of the renmimbi.[4]

As the AIIB is a Chinese initiative and is headquartered in China, it was initially thought by some that its operations would be denominated in RMB. However, denominating its loans in RMB and actually disbursing RMB would suffer several disadvantages for the AIIB and for its loan recipients. There was concern by some that the use of the RMB might further strain the already complicated US-China bilateral relationship. In might also force the pace of China’s financial and capital account liberalization faster than other conditions warrant. Moreover, with greater exchange rate volatility of late, loan recipients would be exposed to greater exchange rate risk. The AIIB’s choice of the U.S. dollar avoids these risks but continues to subject its borrows to exchange risks associate with the dollar, which has varied considerably over the years. For these reasons the IMF, for example, denominates its loans and other financial operations in its Special Drawing Right (SDR), whose value is based on the market value of specific amounts of the five freely useable currencies in its valuation basket.[5] Thus for most countries, the international value of the SDR is more stabile than is the value of the dollar or another of the other currencies in its valuation basket. This logic applies fully to the operations of the AIIB and other development banks. The case for creating “private” SDRs to disburse to AIIB loan recipients rests on the contribution it would make toward developing the SDR issued by the IMF into a global reserve asset to supplement or replace the U.S. dollar, Euro and other national currencies in countries foreign exchange reserves.

The development and use of private SDRs, SDR denominated bank liabilities, is described in detail in an article one of us wrote over thirty four years ago in the IMF Staff Papers.[6] The AIIB would establish SDR denominated deposits with its bank (e.g., the BIS) and instruct its loan recipients to establish SDR accounts with their banks. AIIB loans would be disbursed by transferring the appropriate amounts of its SDR balances at the BIS to the recipients’ account at its banks. The dollar value of these SDRs would be determined in the same way as is the IMF’s official SDR. Following the procedures used by the IMF when disbursing its SDR denominated loans, recipients could request to receive their loans in the equivalent value of a freely usable currency of their choice (or in any or all of the five currencies in the valuation basket). In the first instance, AIIB loan recipients are likely to be governments with accounts in their central banks. Thus these central banks would need, in addition to their SDR accounts with the IMF, to establish (private) SDR accounts for their governments and commercial banks. If the loan recipient is able to spend these SDRs (pay its contractors and suppliers) directly it would do so, but most often it would need to exchange them for the currency wanted the ultimate recipients. This exchange would most likely be executed by its bank providing the SDR deposit.

Cross border private SDRs payments would be cleared and settled in the same general way as are U.S. dollar payments. Net outflows of SDRs from the banks of one country via their central bank to another country via its central bank, would be settled by the transfer of official SDRs on the books of the SDR Department of the IMF. Alternative clearinghouse arrangements are also possible has suggested by Peter Kennan in his comments on the 1982 IMF Staff Papers article. When such loans are repaid, if the repaying government (or other loan recipient) doesn’t have sufficient balances in its private SDR account with its central bank to transfer to the AIIB’s account with the BIS it would use other currencies to buy additional private SDRs. It might also use its official IMF allocated SDRs to either buy private ones or to transfer directly to the AIIB (assuming that like most other development banks and the BIS it has become an “other holder” of official SDRs). Private and official SDRs would have essentially the same relationship with each other as do base money and bank money in national currencies.

China and the AIIB are in a strong position, working through the IMF or bilateral discussions, to urge central banks to open private SDR accounts for their governments and their commercial banks toward the fulfillment of their obligation under the IMF’s Articles of Agreement to make the SDR “the principal reserve asset in the international monetary system” (IMF Article XXII). Through their representatives at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and their New BRICS Development Bank they could press these institutions to disburse in SDRs (private and/or official) as well. As an important purchaser of oil and other globally traded commodities they could encourage their pricing in SDRs. In the first instance, many loan recipients would choose to convert their SDRs into one or more of its basket currencies. But as private SDRs and supporting clearing and settlement arrangements proliferated, holding and using SDRs for international transactions would become more convenient and would potentially grow rapidly. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.


Coats, Warren, 1982   “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982) (reprinted in Spanish in Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos Boletin, Vol. XXIX, Numero 4, Julio–Agosto de 1983).

1983, “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).

2009, “Time for a New Global Currency?” New Global Studies: Vol. 3: Issue.1, Article 5. (2009).

2011, “Real SDR Currency Board”, Central Banking Journal XXII.2 (2011), also available at

2014, “Implementing a Real SDR Currency Board”

_____. Dongsheng Di, and Yuxaun Zhao, 2016, Why the World needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor,


Dr. Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 where he led technical assistance missions to more than twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Serbia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe). He was Chief of the SDR Division of the Finance Department from 1982-88. His PhD from the University of Chicago was supervised by Milton Friedman. He was part of the IMF’s program team for Afghanistan from 2010-2013 and is a U.S. citizen.

Dr. Dongsheng DI is an associate professor of International Political Economy with School of International Studies, Renmin University of China and also a Research fellow with International Monetary Institute of RUC. In 2015 he is a visiting researcher at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. His research interests include the political economy of global monetary affairs, RMB internationalization, and Chinese Domestic Reforms. He is also a policy advisor to NDRC and China Development Bank and is a citizen of the People’s Republic of China.

[1] China’s New Asia Development Bank will lend in US dollars, Financial Times Jan 17, 2016

[2] Zhou Xiaochuan, “Reform the International Monetary System”, Website of the People’s Bank of China, March 23, 2009;

[3] The amount of the China currency in the SDR valuation basket will be determined on September 30, 2016 such that its weight in the basket on that day is 10.92% of the total value of one SDR.

[4] Banks offering SDR denominated deposits will generally balance them with SDR denominated assets or assets in the five currencies in the SDR’s valuation basket similarly weighted.

[5] The RMB will be added to the existing basket of four currencies—USD, Euro, GBP, JPY—from October 1, 2016.

[6] Warren Coats, “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982); “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).

US Global Leadership – More on AIIB

Following the end of the second of two devastating World Wars within three decades, the world came together to establish international institutions and norms meant to prevent another world war and to promote the shared economic and political interests of all peace loving countries. The United States led this effort and has dominated the resulting global governance structure (the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO to name a few of the best known). The one-country-one-vote structure of the UN has limited its effectiveness. The International Financial Institutions like the IMF, on the other hand, are governed on the basis of votes and financial contributions proportional to their economic importance. Their effectiveness and legitimacy depend, in part, on maintaining such relative voting strength as countries’ economies grow.

Resolving conflicts without world war has been a magnificent achievement. But the opening of the world to freer trade and finance with broadly agreed rules under which it is conducted are dramatically important achievements as well. Economic growth is not a zero sum game. Every country has benefited from global financial cooperation. Estimates (by Bradford DeLong and the World Bank) of Global World Product rose from $1.1 trillion dollars in 1900 to 4.1 trillion in 1950 but exploded there after reaching $41.1 trillion in 2010 (all in 1990 US dollars). According to the World Bank, global poverty has been cut in half in the last twenty years.

The dominant role of the US in International Financial Institutions reflects its economic size and military strength but equally the perception of the rest of the world that the liberal, free markets and trade model promoted by the US was indeed the right one for each country’s growth and prosperity. The world’s continued acceptance of the US’s leadership rests on the general belief that the US is an honest broker, fairly promoting rules that serve the general good rather than seeking special advantage for its own people and industries. The US cannot expect other countries to abide by such international norms of behavior if it is not willing to conform to them itself (i.e. subjugate its sovereignty to international agreements in these areas).

America’s record is not pure by any means. The increasing crony capitalist nature of our military industrial complex, about which we were so presciently warned by President Eisenhower, is hardly a model of competitive market capitalism. But the political structures established after WWII have generally worked well to coordinate national cross boarder activities peacefully and without wars. To cite one example, the International Telecommunications Union has developed rules and procedures for allocating radio spectrum, satellite orbits and technical telecommunications standards that have made possible efficient and interconnected global communications systems. You could not telephone anyone you want any where in the world from anywhere in the world (not to mention the Internet) without them.

The International Monetary Fund is another example of an international cooperative agreement, in this case for facilitating the financing of trade and capital movements (cross border investments). It has played an important role in removing economic restrictions on global trade and finance, though that role has been undermined to some extent and made more complex by the US abandonment of its obligations to redeem its currency for gold under the gold exchange standard imbedded in the IMF’s Articles of Agreement when President Nixon killed what was left of the gold standard.

Few countries want the leadership provided by the US replaced by China or anyone else, but as China and many other country’s economies and trade have grown relative to the US and especially to Europe, they rightly expect to have a larger role in organizations that act for the entire world. The US congress has very shortsightedly and foolishly refused to approve the adjustments in the governance of the IMF that would accomplish that. As a result it is undermining the foundation of the US’s leadership role. “Indeed, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew made this point implicitly in testimony this week in which he also restated U.S. reservations about the AIIB: Our continued failure to approve the IMF quota and governance reforms is causing other countries, including some of our allies, to question our commitment to the IMF and other multilateral institutions that we worked to create and that advance important US and global economic and security interests.

…The IMF reforms will help convince emerging economies to remain anchored in the multilateral system that the United States helped design and continues to lead.”

While there are legitimate arguments over whether an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is a good thing or whether such funds would be better spent through the Asian Development Bank (China, which would lead the new AIIB, doesn’t have such a great record with the quality of its own infrastructure spending), the real issue is whether the world will remain united in the post WWII international order and presumably under US leadership of the International Financial Institutions it helped establish. The principles of inclusiveness and a level playing field that have always been the foundation of US promoted institutions clearly call for and would be promoted by supporting the expanded role of China in these institutions in keeping with its increasing involvement in the world economy. US opposition to the IMF governance reforms and its reaction against the AIIB appear duplicitous and are undermining the foundations of its leadership. “The decision by the UK, and subsequently, France, Germany, and Italy, to participate is therefore significant not only because they will be major shareholders, but also because the decision by traditional U.S. allies signals that Washington is increasingly isolated.”

Everyone has a strong interest in having China join and work within the established liberal economic order rather than going its own way with a competing order. Recent US behavior hardly promotes that goal.

For my earlier comments on the AIIB see:

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – AIIB

Last evening CCTV, the China Central Television company, contacted me about an interview about the AIIB at 8:15 am the next morning (i.e., this morning). I have appeared on their Biz Asia show several times in the past. I agreed to the interview and they arranged for a car to pick me up at 7:15am. Due to a mistake in scheduling the car, it did not arrive in time to get to the studio. Rather than go back to bed I am writing this note to share with you what I would have said.


Frustrated with the slow pace of governance reform of the existing international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank) in which China was under-represented in relation to its economic size, China began discussing the establishment of alternative institutions. The first was the New Development Bank of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to be headquartered in Shanghai, China. The AIIB was launched with a signing ceremony in Beijing on October 24, 2014 that included, in addition to China, representatives from Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, India, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. It will focus on the development of infrastructure in developing countries in the Asian-Pacific region.

The United States, which has traditionally held the Presidency of the World Bank and on whose territory are housed the headquarters of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has been cool to these developments, which initially resulted in Australia, New Zealand, and European countries as well as the U.S. declining to join (as financiers). However, last week Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that the UK would join as a founding member and was quickly followed by Germany, France, and Italy. Australia and New Zealand are reconsidering their earlier lack of interest. If that weren’t embarrassing enough for the US, a US government official told the Financial Times, “We are wary about a trend toward constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power.”

CCTV Interview

Early this morning I received the following email from CCTV.

“Hello Warren,

“This is Qingzhao from China24 program, CCTVNEWS. Thanks for joining our studio AIIB discussion. You will discuss with two more guests in Beijing studio. They are Mr Ding Yifan, senior fellow of the Institute of World Development under the Development Research Center of the State Council. And John Ross, Senior Fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He is also the former adviser of ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone.  Question 3 and Question 5 are for you, please take a look.

“Q1: The first question is for you, Mr Ding. So far, the number of countries that have joined or are in the process of joining as a founding member have surpassed 30…Talk to us about the tangible benefits to Europe and Asia as more nations from the EU want to join the AIIB.

“Q2: John, the UK, Germany, France and Italy ALL applying to join as founding members of the AIIB. What’s the attraction for western countries to join in?

“Q3: Warren, following now FOUR western European nations wanting to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank…U.S. Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew is urging HIS country’s lawmakers to pass reforms of the International Monetary Fund. Will IMF reforms finally be pressured to pass and if so, impact on attractiveness of AIIB?

“Q4: Mr Ding, with more western countries applying to join the AIIB, some people have concerns that their participation will, to some extent, weaken China’s role in the system. What’s your take? What’s the possibility of some countries turning out to be a Trojan horse?

“Q5: Warren, Washington views the AIIB as a rival to the U.S. led World Bank and IMF, but China has said the AIIB will COMPLEMENT existing multilateral institutions. What’s your take on AIIB’s role?”

Had I made it to their studio I would have said the following:

Question 3: Secretary Lew has been trying to get the IMF reforms passed by the US Congress for several years. Ironically the US was very instrumental in pressuring European countries to reduce their representation on the IMF’s Executive Board in favor of increasing the representation of the BRICS and other emerging market countries, by bringing IMF member country quotas closer to those calculated on the bases of their economic size and share in world trade. Europe has long been over represented and the emerging market countries under-represented on this basis. The US voluntarily accepted a smaller quota than this formula would produce long ago (thus reducing its financial contribution as well as its vote) and the proposed new amendments would not further reduce the US quota share. Moreover, the proposed doubling of the IMF’s quota resources would not increase the US financial contribution. Rather it would convert the large loan from the US to the IMF made during the recent financial crises from a loan to a quota increase. Thus it is strange for the US now to hesitate to support these reforms. Given that the International Financial Institutions (World Trade Organization, IMF, and WB) that the US helped create are part of the new post World War II world order of global trade from which the US and other market economies have so benefited, this strange US behavior is extremely short sighted.

I would like to think that Congress would get around to approving these reforms independently from the threats posed by China’s new institutions. Virtually every other IMF member country has, but the US enjoys veto power by virtue of its large quota of 17.5% and the requirement that any amendments to the IMF Articles of Agreement must be adopted by members collectively with 85% of the quotas. The reality seems to be the other way around. China was pressured to create competing institutions because the US has failed so far to endorse governance reforms in the existing one.

Question 5: The AIIB is more of a rival to the Asian Development Bank than to the World Bank, and is no rival to the IMF, which does not make development loans, at all. China claims that the AIIB is a compliment rather than a rival to the other development banks. It will have the virtue of a clear and relatively narrow mandate; while the World Bank is all over the map. Voting membership by the UK, Germany, France, etc. should help ensure that its loans meet the standards set by the ADB and the WB. The US has maneuvered itself out of that possibility, not that Congress would ever approve the funds for it anyway. On the other hand, establishing a new institution will absorb a lot of time and other resources in developing its staff, procedures and facilities that would not have been necessary if China had contributed the same funds for the same purposes to the ADB. The traditional Japanese Presidency of the ADB, whose headquarters are in the Philippines, is likely to yield to new governance provisions in the future, giving China a shot at the Presidency, just as the American and European leadership of the WB and IMF are likely to yield in the future as well.

In short, this is all political and the US has played it poorly to say the least. In the past US leadership internationally, whether through the institutions it helped build or in other ways, has been welcomed and accepted because the US stood for principles others could embrace and promoted and applied them fairly. More recently, and I mean for the last decade or two, and certainly in the case of the IMF and AIIB, it is behaving more like the king on the mountain leading others to want to knock it off. This promotes neither the American nor the global community’s interests.