Tariff Abuse

The U.S. constitution gives Congress the authority to enact and control tariffs (taxes on American consumers of imported goods and services).  Over the years Congress has increasingly delegated that authority to the executive branch (the President) under certain specified circumstances. Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 gives the President the authority to restrict (impose tariffs on) imports that threaten national security without the need for congressional approval.

Last year President Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum on the grounds, confirmed upon the President’s prompting by the Commerce Department, that relying on steel from Canada and the EU (fellow NATO members) was a threat to our national security.  If this were a skit on “Saturday Night Live” we would have a good laugh, but unfortunately it is for real.  It is the launching of a very ill-advised trade war by a President who had promised when campaigning for office to reign in executive overreach.  Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican from Nebraska, called Trump’s decision “dumb.”

Trump’s stated motive was to restore American jobs to an industry in which we are relatively inefficient. The few additional workers in steel and aluminum resulting from these tariffs were outweighed by the loss of jobs in industries dependent on these now more expensive metals as inputs. Bestowing financial favors on a selected group to the detriment of the rest of us can rightly be called corruption. https://wcoats.blog/2018/09/28/trade-protection-and-corruption/  Such policies do not reflect America First. They reflect My Friends First.

Trump has apparently asked the Commerce Department to “evaluate” whether importing cars is a national security threat that would allow him to impose tariffs on them without Congressional consent. So much for rolling back executive overreach and any consideration of the national interest.

Both Republicans and Democrats may have had enough of this.  “While the Trump Administration ponders whether to claim that imported Volkswagens threaten national security, some on Capitol Hill are trying again to rein in the President’s tariff powers.”  WSJ: “Two-bills-to-defend-free-trade”

Two bills have been introduced in the House that would shift the responsibility of determining if an import is a national security risk from the Commerce Department, which naturally leans toward protecting American commerce, to the Defense Department, which should better understand real security risks. “The stronger bill was introduced last week by Senator Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican….  Mr. Toomey’s bill would require Congress’s blessing. Once a tariff is proposed, lawmakers have 60 days to pass a privileged resolution—no Senate filibuster to block consideration—authorizing it. No approval, no tariff.” WSJ 2/9/2019  A somewhat weaker bill has been introduced by Senator Rob Portman, Republican from Ohio, on the grounds that it has a better chance of passing over a Presidential veto.

Please write your congressional representatives to support one of these bills (preferably the Toomey bill) before this President fights another war that we all lose.

Trade protection and corruption

Starting with the repeal of the Corn Laws in England (tariffs on grain imports) in 1846, cross border trade and incomes blossomed. “Global life expectancy in the past 175 years has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80% to 8% . . . . Literacy rates are up more than fivefold, to over 80%. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than . . . only a few decades ago.” From The Economist’s 175 anniversary issue September 13, 2018: “A-manifesto-for-renewing-liberalism”

Post World War II trade agreements reflected a process of progressive reductions in tariffs and other impediments to trade. Unfortunately and misguidedly, President Trump has reversed this trend by introducing new tariffs and raising old ones. Import tariffs are taxes on American consumers. Why is Trump doing this? He says that he wants to bring manufacturing jobs that have moved off shore back to the U.S. by making their output cheaper than taxed imports.

As the U.S. economy is fully employed (there are currently more job openings than people looking for work), increasing employment in one area can only occur by reducing it in one or more other areas. Starting with Trump’s 25% and 10% tariffs on steel and aluminum, the shift from imported steel and aluminum to domestically produced steel and aluminum as a result of tariff protection is only possible by shifting workers from other more productive activities lowering the value of over all output. Given that these products are inputs into some American exports, which are thereby made more expensive, it is estimated that more jobs will be lost than created. “Econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms”

The U.S. has already imposed steep tariffs on China’s steel and aluminum to offset Chinese government subsidies to its steel and aluminum industries and thus we import almost no steel and aluminum from China. Trump has justified his new steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds thus bypassing usual World Trade Organization (WTO) rules for justifying tariffs. It stretches credibility, to say the least, to claim that depending on Canada and Mexico for steel is a security risk, not to mention that existing domestic production by itself exceeds our military needs. “Trump-says-steel-imports-are-a-threat-to-national-security-the-defense-industry-disagrees”

Some claim that Trump’s tariffs and threatened tariffs are just part of his negotiating strategy to achieve fairer trade agreements by a free traders at heart. This is belied by the fact that steel and aluminum tariffs remain on Mexico even after tentative agreement on a NAFTA replacement/update with Mexico. The question is why would someone benefit one small sector of the economy while imposing much larger harm on the economy more generally? The short answer is corruption.

Corruption in this context refers to bestowing benefits on a few at the expense of others in exchange for something else. In government, corruption generally takes the form of vote buying, though sometimes it is for personal financial gain. My bottom line here is that in addition to reducing an economy’s output and thus its resident’s incomes by protecting inefficient or less competitive industries, tariffs and other forms of economic protection reflect, or at the least open the door for and encourage, corruption.

When the government has or takes the authority to tax or exempt from tax individual industries or firms, it invites, if not begs for, corruption. Read the story of the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil company and weep. “How-dixon-ticonderoga-has-blurred-lines-of-where-its-pencils-are-made”

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. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

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: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jul/30/the-united-states-is-doing-better-than-it-did-duri/

Trump and interest rates

There seems to be no norm or conventional wisdom that President Trump is not willing to overturn. Following Fed Chairman Powell’s congressional testimony Tuesday in which he confirmed the Fed’s intention to continue its gradual increase in its policy interest rate, Trump said: “I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up.”  The statement is wrong on multiple accounts.

The economy is now fully employed and interest rates probably should have been returned to normal some time ago.  The alarming current and projected fiscal deficits of the federal government will force interest rates and trade deficits still higher.  This is Trump’s fault– not Powell’s.  “Who pays uncle Sam’s deficits?”  The major policies threatening to undermine the economic boost from tax and regulatory reforms are Trump’s trade policies (pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, stalling and threatening U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, Steel and Aluminum tariffs (taxes) on our friends in Canada, Mexico and the EU, and a deepening trade war with China).  Leaving the TPP  Resisting the interest rate increases needed to keep inflation at 2% would increase the most regressive tax around (inflation).

But Presidential interference in implementing monetary policy, as is now being undertaken by President Erdoğan in Turkey, violates a long established principle and practice of central bank independence.  Historically, inflation, which falls heaviest on the poor and undermines economic efficiency and growth, has resulted primarily from governments turning to their central banks for financing in misguided and ultimately futile efforts to keep interest rates (government borrowing costs) low.

President Trump can save the economic benefits of his tax and regulatory reforms by rejoining the TPP, rapidly concluding amendments to NAFTA that improve productive efficiency and fairness, dropping the steel and aluminum tariffs, ending the trade war with China, joining with the EU, Canada, Japan and others to bring China into compliance with the rules of a strengthened WTO, and establishing a fiscal budget surplus primarily through entitlement reform.

Econ 101: Trade Deficits, another Bite

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

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

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

But two other factors might be even more important.

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

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

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

(M – X)   =   (I – S) +   (G – T),

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

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

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



Econ 101: Trade deficits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44707.pdf

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

Econ 101—Trade in very simple terms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Immigrants from Hell

What immigration policies best serve the national interests of the United States?

Every country on the face of the earth has citizens whose intelligence, enterprise, and moral character range from 0 to 10. In poorly governed countries, we might call them “hell hole” countries, their best and brightest (the 8, 9, and 10s) often immigrate to more promising environments. The United States, with our constitution of liberty, has attracted a disproportionally large number of them. This is a dominant factor in the economic success of America and our spirit of individualism and enterprise. https://wcoats.blog/2010/06/10/a-nation-of-immigrants/

Just as individuals and companies compete in the market place to maximize the reward for their efforts (those who serve the public best, profit the most), so do the countries of which they are a part. When and if individuals and companies are given the chance to protect themselves from and restrict such competition they generally take it. Free (i.e. competitive) markets rarely offer such opportunities but governments often do. Governments claim to restrict competition to protect consumers or protect jobs from cheap foreign labor, etc. But more often than not government measures to interfere in the market are the result of political pressure to serve and protect special interests, what most of us would call corruption. Examples of government measures to protect companies or individuals from competition include: import tariffs, teachers’ unions that protect the jobs of bad teachers, excessive product safety standards that foreign competitors as well as domestic start-ups find hard to meet, and restrictive professional licensing through which medical doctors (to name just one profession) have limited who and what medical services can be provided.

The government’s regulation of who may immigrate temporarily or permanently is another area heavily influenced by individuals and companies seeking to protect themselves from competition. Subjecting American firms and workers to competition from foreign firms and workers (either from “cheap” foreign labor making it there and exporting to us, or immigrating and making it here), promotes long run economic growth.

Immigrants don’t take existing jobs from Americans; they create new jobs needed to pay for the consumption they add to the economy. While it is true that a firm can profit more with a monopoly by charging more by supplying less, the income of the nation as a whole suffers when supply is monopolized. Thus while worker and firm monopolies (e.g. the United Auto Workers, and uncompetitive steel manufacturers protected by import tariffs on potential competitors) will increase worker and firm incomes in the short run, the country would be poorer than otherwise in the long run. If we closed the border to trade all together, the country’s income would suffer considerably in the long run.

In this note I review a few immigration issues from the perspective of what policies best serve the national interest. By national interest I generally mean policies that best promote broadly shared economic growth. The self-selection of the best and brightest from around the world to immigrate to the U.S. in our earlier history clearly helped make us the prosperous nation that we are today. Our poorest citizens live better than the average citizen in many of the world’s poorer countries.

Attract the best and the brightest. To continue our past history of attracting the best and the brightest from around the world, our immigration policy should favor admitting the most talented and those with the work skills most needed. If we do not continue to attract and admit them they will go elsewhere boosting the economic fortunes of other (competitive) countries. “Immigration-is-practically-a-free-lunch-for-America”

Of the approximately one million foreigners given permanent residency each year about 70% are extended family members of existing permanent residents. These are the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles of existing citizens or green card holders most of whom do not intent to work and/or do not have skills relevant to our labor markets. From a given total of immigrants the extended family preference crowds out workers. If we want to promote faster economic growth, we should pull the family preference back to the nuclear family (spouse and children) and keep or increase the total number of immigrants allowed each year thus increasing those coming to work.

Attract the best and the brightest. Similarly we should replace the existing green card lottery with merit based selection criteria (i.e. with H-1B visas, which are currently limited to 85,000 per year). The green card lottery, which provides 50,000 immigrant visas per year from countries with a low number of immigrants over the preceding five years, is meant to increase the diversity of countries from which people immigrate. Such country quotas, even if immigrants from each country are accepted on merit rather than luck, diminish the average skill levels from a global total without diversified country quota. A case might be made, however, that America’s interests are served by the good will gained when citizens of a large number of countries have a better chance of immigrating to the United States.

Help those displaced. While increased worker productivity increases our standard of living, it also causes some workers to loose their old jobs and to acquire the new skills needed for the evolving work place. While some of these dislocations come from the competition of global trade, most is the result of improving technologies that increase labor productivity and from changes in consumer tastes. These costs, which fall on a few for the benefit of many, must not be minimized or ignored.

Many of us are no longer such big risk takers as were our ambitious ancestors. We prefer a bit more security at the expense of increases in income. In any event we need to provide an effective and efficient safety net for those of us whose skills are no longer appropriate in the labor market while retraining for the new jobs that replaced the old ones. Very importantly, a public – private partnership should improve the targeting of training of new entrance into the labor force for today’s and tomorrow’s needs and to better support the retraining of those already in the labor force but in no longer needed occupations. This is a reasonable price to pay by the rest of us who benefit from the raising living standards of improving productivity.

Restore the rule of law. There are 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. It is not in our national interest to go on ignoring the law. But it would be devastating to our economy (to the firms that employ them) and to the personal lives and welfare of these people to expel them even if we had the military/police capacity to do so. So the laws defining their status must be changed. There is almost unanimous agreement that the Dreamers (those brought into the country illegally as minors) should be given legal status (permanent residency) but less agreement about citizenship. In my opinion, all illegal immigrants who have been here for more than say five years and have not been convicted of a felony should be granted permanent legal residency. However, to become citizens they should be required to go through the same process and procedures as anyone else applying for citizenship (though from their American residence). https://wcoats.blog/2017/02/12/illegal-aliens/

A Basic Human Right

Hunter-gatherers freely traded what they produced (gathered) for what they needed but did not produce. The story is well known (except by Peter Navarro, an energy and environmental policy analyst masquerading as Trump’s trade expert). By specializing in what they did best (hunting) and trading their bounty with those better at producing the other things hunters needed, total output was greater and every one was better off. The right to sell what we produce for what we need/want but don’t produce is, or should be, a pretty fundamental right. It is called free trade.

Historically governments have interfered with this right to protect the markets of special groups otherwise unable to compete. These trade restrictions and tariffs reduced total output making everyone (except those protected) worse off. Recognizing the general harm done by trade restrictions, most countries have negotiated mutual reductions in these restrictions. These have taken the form of bilateral and regional and global multilateral trade agreements.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was one of the most recent efforts to expand trade and its income rising benefits. It was negotiated over an eight year period among 13 Pacific Rim countries and in addition to expanding trade would have deepened U.S. leadership in setting trade standards in the region. Steve Bannon rejoiced when President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, claiming that all future agreements would be bilateral. President Trump thereby potentially gave standard setting leadership in the area to China. Not very smart.

Candidate Trump had also promised to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, calling it the worst trade deal of all times (a rather crowded category). President Trump wisely decided to renegotiate it instead. It has been updated several times since it was originally signed and another round can potentially make it better still. In fact, many of the good features of the now discarded TPP are being incorporated.

If we remove existing restrictions on purchasing Canadian lumber and millwork products, for example, fewer trees will be cut down in Washington and Oregon. In exchange Canada will reduce its tariffs and other restrictions on American cars, equipment, and food product sales to Canada. Production will be more efficient and incomes will rise both here and there.

As competitive advantages shift with freer trade and product and manufacturing innovations, some workers will need to shift to new areas of work and may need new skills. Public policy should facilitate and ease the adjustment burdens of these shifts, but it is important to recognize that these shifts arise mainly from improving productivity and not from increases in cross border trade. Most of us export our labor to a domestic company (our employer) and import everything we need (paid for by our labor export). But most of those imports are from domestic companies and service providers not from so called foreign trade. The era of the self sufficient farm families ended long, long ago. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/the-balance-of-trade/

President Trump may well oversee the negotiation of a better NAFTA (better for all three countries involved). Unfortunately his style of leadership in this area—baseless claims of great harm to American workers from existing trade agreements—provides a very misleading message to the American worker and public in general. He creates a negative atmosphere around the right of each of us to sell what we make to whom ever we choose and to buy what we need from whomever we choose. The world has benefited enormously from freer trade and the increases in worker productivity it has made posible. This is a huge understatement. President Trump does us all a great disservice by characterizing trade in negative terms.