Econ 101—Trade in very simple terms

Trade allows people and firms to specialize in what they produce. This enables them to be more productive. This raises the income (standard of living) of both the seller and the buyer (who must also sell something in order to buy something)—i.e. both the exporter and importer.

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

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

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

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

Only 2.2% of our steel and aluminum imports come from China while Canada (hardly a security threat to the U.S.) provides 16.1% of our imports of these products: The rest of the world will not roll over and play dead. The EU is already preparing counter measures to punish American exporters to Europe. “EU-vows-to-hit-back-against-trump-in-trade-war”

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

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


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.

President Trump and manufacturing jobs

President Trump intends to bring back manufacturing jobs. How might he do that and what would it mean for our economy and our workers?

Keeping in mind that our manufacturing output has steadily increased over the years and is now at an all time high, though the number of manufacturing jobs has steadily declined. Bringing back manufacturing jobs means rolling back and undoing the technical advances that made manufacturing workings more productive. But if we increase the number of workers in manufacturing by making each worker less productive (shelving some of the productivity enhancing technical advances), where will these workers come from? Presumably not from Mexico. They will have to give up what they were producing before in order to take the new manufacturing jobs.

Looking more carefully at such a policy reveals that it would make us poorer. Without Trump’s arm twisting (carrots and sticks—tax breaks, i.e., bribes, and/or tax or other penalties), the workers in question would be employed doing things that were more profitable (i.e. more productive and contributed more to our income) than in manufacturing. Trump would have those workers move from where they are more productive to where they would be less productive. I assume that such a policy reflects ignorance rather than malice, but what ever his motivation, the result of Trump’s protectionist threats would be to lower our standard of living.

If President Trump intends to return power from the government to the people, as he claimed in his inauguration speech, he will have to stop threatening companies to produce things in the U.S. when they would otherwise find it more profitable (cheaper) to produce them abroad and import them. Anything and everything that adds to our economy’s productivity (specializing in what we are best at and exporting it to pay for imports that other countries are better at making) increases our incomes. Trump should stop interfering with our private economic decisions and get on with the other aspects of his promises (tax and regulatory reform) that will increase our well-being.