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.

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.