Save Trade

I have written about the importance of trade to our standard of living many times because it seems to be under attack. The graph below, which reflects Angus Maddison’s data showing a massive increase in income throughout the world over the last two centuries and which is reproduced, courtesy of Human Progress, provides a dramatic visual depiction of the impact of Trade.

Once households were able to trade what they produced for what they needed, the increase in their output as they specialized in what they were best at was truly staggering. But it is not surprising when you reflect on how limiting it would be if you had to be self sufficient in everything.

Following the disastrous imposition of high tariffs by the U.S. in 1930 (Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) to save American jobs and the great depression and world war that followed, representatives of all 44 Allied nations came together under U.S. leadership at Bretton Woods in 1944 anticipating the end of World War II. They established the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and what is now the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to establish, protect, and further a liberal international economic order (i.e., to protect and promote free markets globally).  Trade again flourished, as it had previously at the end of the nineteenth century, leading a resumption of dramatic growth in wealth and income across the globe.

The United States was the natural (indispensable) leader in promoting this liberal order for several reasons. By the end of WWII the U.S. was the largest economy in the world. And while the size of the United States and the guarantee of free trade within its boarders provided in the U.S. Constitution assured substantial trade within the U.S., opening the rest of the world to trade was very beneficial to all countries (win-win). The Boeing Company, for example, sells more of its planes abroad than domestically because the world market is larger than the U.S. market. So the U.S. is the natural leader because it is the largest trader. But more than that, most other countries respect the commitment of the U.S. to the rule of law and a level playing field for commerce. Thus they gladly accept our leadership.

The world is far from the ideal level playing field for trade but is much closer to that model than it was at the end of WWII. The WTO (the successor of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs – GATT) and regional and bilateral trade agreements keep moving us closer and closer to such a world. It is a very desirable goal for the United States and for the rest of the world (look at the above graph again). As with technical progress and the increasing productivity it brings, some capital and labor (workers) will need to move to new activities and we need to insure that displaced workers do not suffer in the process (we seem to care less about the displaced capitalists assuming, I guess, that they can take care of themselves).

While it is still early, President-elect Trump seems uncommitted to the U.S. leadership of our increasingly liberal (freer) international economic order. In fact, he is threatening to throw it away by unilaterally imposing tariffs on imports and behaving like a bully internationally. We need to recall the terrible consequences of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and resist any moves in that direction.

It is true that following WWII the U.S. often gave favorable terms to Europe (the Marshall Plan) and less developed countries in order to promote their reconstruction and development (“Trade not Aid” we used to say). The world’s economies are now growing into better balance and the U.S. is no longer as dominant as it once was. The international rules of the game (trade agreements) can and should seek a better balance of mutual benefits. But we would be making a very serious mistake to give up our leadership of the world order and abandon our commitment to free and fair global commerce.

The Market vs. the State

It is in our natures to serve our personal interests first and those of others second. The interests of others include not only those around us in need but also our children and future generations in general, which are served by far sighted policies that might entail short-run and immediate sacrifices. Communities and societies that have instilled in each generation the values that promote and serve such longer-run interests will flourish relative to those with more narrowly “selfish” values.

Adam Smith famously explained in The Wealth of Nations how an individual’s pursuit of his personal gain benefits society at large. In the marketplace the fruits of our labors enjoy the greatest profit the better they meet the desires and needs of our customers at the lowest possible cost. While we might like to cut corners and raise our prices if we could get away with it, competition in the market prevents us from doing so.

Free trade and the international agreements that promote it is an example of the trade off between personal and community or national interests that I am raising. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will further extend the freedom to trade among the countries signing up to them while raising the standards for working conditions, intellectual property protection, and conflict resolution.

I began an article on free trade written a year and a half ago with: “World per capita income didn’t change much from the time of Christ to the founding of the United States ($444 to $650 in 1990 dollars), a period of 1,790 years. But in the following 320 years it jumped to $8,080. And about half of that jump came over the last 50 years. What explains this fairly recent explosion of well being? Many things, of course, but central to this explosion of wealth was trade.” free-markets-uber-alles As the most disheartening and distressing U.S. presidential campaign in my lifetime has made clear, the huge gains from freer trade as with the huge gains from technical advances have not been evenly shared thus highlighting the trade off between personal and community interests I am exploring.

We have long accepted that economic progress should not be stopped because it would make a particular set of skills or tools less valuable. When someone developed cheaper and better ways of providing us with music than the old 78 inch vinyl record—itself an amazing technological feat in its time—those producing the old records were forced to learn new skills. We should debate whether society (family, church, community governments, etc.) should help those adversely affected by technological progress and how best to do it, but few would want to prevent such progress from which almost everyone in the world has eventually benefited enormously.

Government, which represents an exercise of our collective will, is meant in part to give primacy to our concerns for the interests of others and/or the long run over our individual, immediate personal well being. The American constitution was all about trying to do that without the government becoming captive of the self-interest of those running it. Our natures, whether we operate as private individuals constrained by the market place or as public officials constrained by the law and a broadly agreed public purpose, remain a mix of self-interest and public interest. The fundamental difference between our behavior as private citizens or public servants is in the external constraints that impact our behavior. Our natures otherwise remain the same.

The power of government can be exploited to thwart the discipline of competitive markets on the dominance of self-interest over the common interest. Preventing government from being captured by the self-interest of those running it or those who seek special privileges from it is no easy task. To that end our constitution strictly limited what government could do (the enumerated powers) and encumbered it with checks and balances. The dangers of such capture posed by the military industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned, is well known and real (e.g. $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that few believe we need), but the same is true of most other intrusions of government into private affairs, such as all of our many wars (on drugs, terror, poverty, etc.) as well.

Sadly our government has expanded well beyond its necessary functions into every nook and cranny of our personal lives with increasingly pernicious and alarming results. The abuses of its ever-expanding powers for personal and partisan benefits are exemplified by the scandal of asset forfeiture,the-abuse-of-civil-forfeiture/, which alarmingly continues, the long and bipartisan history of political abuse of the IRS, irs-tea-party-political, and most recently the legal attack on companies questioning the climate change forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by the AGs United for Clean Power using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act in an effort to silence criticisms of UN climate studies. prosecuting-climate-chaos-skeptics-with-rico. Such a blatant government attack on free speech is truly shocking. These are but a few examples of growing government tyranny and corruption.

The most effective defenses against such corruption are to limit the scope of government as much as possible (i.e. subject individual actions to the discipline of the market as much as possible) and to strengthen public insistence on adherence to the rule of generally applicable law. As trade has moved beyond the village and nation, so must the rule of law.

Following World War II the United States led the establishment of international arrangements and laws governing trade (WTO) and financial (IMF and WB) and diplomatic (UN, NATO) relations among nations. The U.S. was the natural leader of this globalized world not only because it had the largest economy and the largest military, but because it was generally respected for its commitment to the rule of law. More than any other country the U.S. was seen as committed to the longer run prosperity of the world above short run tactical benefits for itself.

In an April 12, 2016 interview by Steve Clemons in The Atlantic, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew observed that “In the 21st century, the world needs the United States to be a North Star. The world wants us to be the North Star. I really do believe that. I am amazed at how other countries want to hear our advice and what we think makes sense. Sometimes we may have the habit of lecturing too much. We have to be careful not to do that.”

In recent years American leadership has been slipping. Rather than draw China more tightly into the global rule based trading system, we have pushed them away. After the United States convinced the IMF’s European members to accept a reduction in their share of votes in the IMF in order to bring the voting shares of China, India, and some other emerging economies more in line with their economic size, it took the U.S. Congress more than five years before it approved the amendments to the IMF Articles of Agreement needed to implement this agreement. In the mean time China set up its own international lending organization. US-leadership-and-the-Asian-Infrastructure-Investment-Bank

Rather than strengthen cooperative, diplomacy based relationships the U.S. has launched a series of generally failed wars to promote “democracy,” (Gulf War 1990-91, Somalia 1992-5, Haiti 1994-5, Bosnia 1994-5, Kosovo 1998-99, Afghanistan 2001 – to date, Iraq 2003-11, Libya 2011). These have weakened respect for American leadership.

On the economic front the United States has imposed hugely costly anti-money laundering (AML) and global tax reporting (FACTA) requirements on the rest of the world without regard for their cost and despite the lack of any evidence of benefits.  Operation Choke Point   These are serious abuses of American leadership that will produce a growing backlash. But it is not just misguided arrogance that is undermining our role in the world, it is the growing perception that our leadership is increasingly motivated by the selfish personal interests of crony capitalists rather than the high principles that have serviced us and world so well in the past.

Consider the example of the FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). Badly designed corporate and income tax laws in the United States have pushed an increasing number of companies and wealthy people out of the U.S. Rather than clean up its tax laws, the U.S. attempts to tax the income of Americans where ever they earn it and where ever they might live. The only escape is to renounce U.S. citizenship. The Obama administration is now proposing an exit wealth tax for American’s giving up their citizenship. It reminds me of the measures the Soviet Union took to prevent its citizens from leaving. Have we really fallen so low?

The use of off shore, tax minimizing structures by American companies and individuals (i.e. legal tax planning measures) as well as illegal efforts to hide income have been met by increasingly intrusive efforts by the U.S. to find and tax such income. Quoting from the introduction of the Wikipedia article on FATCA: “The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) is a 2010 United States federal law to enforce the requirement for United States persons including those living outside the U.S. to file yearly reports on their non-U.S. financial accounts to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN). It requires all non-U.S. (foreign) financial institutions (FFI’s) to search their records for indicia indicating U.S. person-status and to report the assets and identities of such persons to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.”

As the world attempts to comply with American extra territorial demands, the United States itself is not. Such reporting requires knowledge of the beneficial owners of companies. Most companies established in the United States, such as those incorporated in Delaware, are not required to provide the identities of beneficial owners. The U.S. seems to have no intention of requiring its companies to comply with what it demands from other countries.

The decline and fall of the “American Empire” seems to be underway. It doesn’t need to be.

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.

Background

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.