Category Archive for: International Trade [Return to Main]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

'A Better Way to Think About Trade'

Simon Johnson:

A Better Way to Think About Trade, by Simon Johnson, Commentary, NY Times: Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over many trade issues, proposed this week that the United States make a significant change in its approach to international trade. ...
Mr. Levin made three main proposals... The first point is that enforceable labor and environmental standards need to be given more emphasis in American trade agreements... Recent horrendous events in Bangladesh have driven home the unfortunate truth that if matters are left purely “to the market,” there will be ... dangerous working conditions. ...
When I discuss these matters with global business executives, almost without exception they are of the opinion that health and safety should be subject to minimum acceptable ... standards everywhere. Mr. Levin is pushing on an open door.
Mr. Levin’s second point is just as compelling. ... Many countries claim to engage in free trade. But some governments ... have become adept at ... engaging in unfair trade practices.
Mr. Levin is talking about removing government distortions, and this is why I expect he may receive a great deal of Republican support.
And this is also where Mr. Levin’s third proposal will really hit a nerve. There are countries that manipulate their exchange rate ... in order to gain a competitive advantage... Again, the issue is ... governments’ getting away with actions that distort markets on a grand scale. Here, too, I don’t know many Republicans who would feel good about this. ...
This is a targeted and responsible proposal. It should get support from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. ...

Short on time and it's late, so I'm going to turn this over to you. Here's a counterargument to one of the points:

Safety laws do workers more harm than good, by Jagdish Bhagwati and Amrita Narlikar

But I don't expect it will find a very receptive audience. Comments?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

'Economic Shocks Reverberate in World of Interconnected Trade Ties'

What determines international trade flows?

Economic Shocks Reverberate in World of Interconnected Trade Ties, by Matthieu Bussière, Alexander Chudik and Giulia Sestieri Vol. 8, No. 6, July 2013, FRB Dallas Economic Letter: Renewed debate about currency wars and the question of global trade imbalances are part of a longer-running economic discussion about what drives a country’s exports and imports.
More specifically, what determines international trade flows? ... Studies of the current account—the balance of goods and services traded internationally, plus net income from abroad and net cross-border transfer payments—have long emphasized the role of the exchange rate in adjusting to excessive current account surpluses and deficits. In the context of global imbalances, several efforts have been made to estimate the magnitude of the dollar depreciation needed to reduce the U.S. trade deficit, which reached around 6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the year preceding the 2008 financial crisis.[1] However, it’s also important to take into account the role of demand because its fluctuations at home and abroad can offset relative price movements.
Based on a global vector autoregression (GVAR) macroeconomic model of trade flows, it appears that world exports respond more to an unexpected event, or shock, affecting U.S. output than to a comparable unplanned event involving the dollar. Additionally, shocks abroad bring wide-ranging responses that tend to be felt among countries with strong trading relationships. A positive bump to German output would increase output and exports among other European economies. Surprisingly, perhaps, it would also increase exports and GDP in more distant countries such as Mexico. The effect of a positive shock to Chinese imports would be especially large among other Asian countries but less so in Europe. ...

Monday, May 27, 2013

Stiglitz: Globalization and Taxes

Joe Stiglitz on tax avoidance by companies such as Apple and Google:

Globalisation isn't just about profits. It's about taxes too: ... Apple, like Google, has benefited enormously from what the US and other western governments provide: highly educated workers trained in universities that are supported both directly by government and indirectly (through generous charitable deductions). The basic research on which their products rest was paid for by taxpayer-supported developments – the internet, without which they couldn't exist. Their prosperity depends in part on our legal system – including strong enforcement of intellectual property rights; they asked (and got) government to force countries around the world to adopt our standards, in some cases, at great costs to the lives and development of those in emerging markets and developing countries. Yes, they brought genius and organizational skills, for which they justly receive kudos. But while Newton was at least modest enough to note that he stood on the shoulders of giants, these titans of industry have no compunction about being free riders, taking generously from the benefits afforded by our system, but not willing to contribute commensurately. Without public support, the wellspring from which future innovation and growth will come will dry up – not to say what will happen to our increasingly divided society. ...
To say that Apple or Google simply took advantage of the current system is to let them off the hook too easily: the system didn't just come into being on its own. It was shaped from the start by lobbyists from large multinationals. Companies like General Electric lobbied for, and got, provisions that enabled them to avoid even more taxes. They lobbied for, and got, amnesty provisions that allowed them to bring their money back to the US at a special low rate, on the promise that the money would be invested in the country; and then they figured out how to comply with the letter of the law, while avoiding the spirit and intention. If Apple and Google stand for the opportunities afforded by globalization, their attitudes towards tax avoidance have made them emblematic of what can, and is, going wrong with that system.

Much more here.

Monday, April 01, 2013

'Unconventional Monetary Policy and the Dollar'

Reuven Glick and Sylvain Leduc examine the effectiveness of monetary policy when the policy rate is at the zero bound (i.e. they look at the ability of unconventional policy to change the exchange rate -- this is a highly condensed version of their argument):

Unconventional Monetary Policy and the Dollar, by Reuven Glick and Sylvain Leduc, Economic Letter, FRBSF: After the financial crisis began in 2007, the Federal Reserve reduced the federal funds rate, its main policy tool, close to zero, its lowest possible level. It has remained there since. Because the federal funds rate cannot be reduced further, the Fed has introduced unconventional policy measures to stimulate the economy. One of these unconventional measures is large-scale asset purchases, which are intended to lower long-term interest rates. Another measure is known as forward guidance, communication about the Fed’s expectations for future policy that is intended to guide market expectations and reduce policy uncertainty.
The effectiveness of these new policy tools is an open question. In particular, we don’t know whether the standard channel for transmitting monetary policy through financial markets works as well now as it did in the past. One way to measure the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy tools is through the U.S. dollar exchange rate. Although the Fed does not target the exchange rate specifically, monetary policy decisions ultimately affect the dollar’s value, which can have important effects on the economy. For example, before the crisis, the dollar typically depreciated following declines in the target for the federal funds rate. The lower value of the dollar in turn helped raise U.S. net exports, boosting output and employment in the United States. 
This Economic Letter examines how unconventional policy decisions have affected the value of the. dollar since the Fed lowered the federal funds rate close to zero in December 2008. We look at how the dollar’s value changed during the minutes immediately after Fed policy announcements. This helps isolate the response of the dollar to monetary announcements from other possible factors. In addition, because financial and currency markets may anticipate policy changes and build those expectations into prices, we account for those expectations and focus on the effects of surprise policy announcements.
Our analysis shows that unconventional monetary policy has affected the dollar exchange rate. In particular, surprise unconventional policy easing has pushed down the value of the dollar roughly as much as similar surprise downward moves in the federal funds rate did before the crisis. ...
It is more difficult to assess whether these changes in the dollar’s value stemming from unconventional monetary policy have similar effects on U.S. net exports as those stemming from conventional policy.  The recent boost to net exports from a weaker dollar may have been obscured by other factors, such as reductions in foreign demand stemming from uncertainty about Europe’s economic recovery.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

'Why Have Americans Become More Positive About Trade?'

Anyone have an answer?:

Why Have Americans Become More Positive About Trade?, by Erik Voten: A recent Gallup Poll has found that Americans have become remarkably more positive about foreign trade. Below is the key graph:


This is a pretty major shift that could bode well for President Obama’s announced plans for a new transatlantic trade deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So why such a big shift? ...
[T]here is also a partisan story to be told here. Back in 2009, 43% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans saw trade as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat to the economy. In 2013. this is 66% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans.  In other words, most of the change has come from Democrats following President Obama’s prominent endorsement of new trade deals in the State of the Union address. ... Democrats are now 15 points more favorable towards free trade than Republicans in this poll.
Another fascinating difference with 2009 lies in the income breakdowns. In 2009, 52% of those making more than $75,000 were positive about trade versus only 35% of those making less than 35%.  In 2013, these numbers were 57% and 54% respectively. ...
The patterns are pretty similar if you look at liberal/conservative rather than party identification and education rather than income. ... The question to ask is thus why so many Americans who identify as Democrats (and liberals) and so many Americans with low incomes and/or little education have become more positive about trade?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Jagdish Bhagwati Does Not Seem to Like Al Gore

Not sure where to start with this one other than to note that Jagdish Bhagwati does not seem to like Al Gore:

Futurama, by Jagdish Bhagwati: ...Al Gore ... surely succeeded beyond his wildest expectations as the author of An Inconvenient Truth. But his phenomenal success had little to do with science (which has remained somewhat controversial: many of us remember for instance the not-too-distant scare about global cooling, also from climate scientists) and much to do with the photographs of polar bears caught on drifting ice as glaciers melted. An image like that is what we all need when we push our pet agendas. Alas, none of us is so fortunate. Nor is Gore as he turns now to writing about our future. ...
The problem Gore faces in the bulk of this book therefore is that his identification of problems, and his proposed solutions, are not compelling. His erudition is considerable but is necessarily limited since he casts his net wide, and he is both unfamiliar with important issues pertinent to his analysis and also shallow in his prescriptions for remedial policies. ...
Given Gore’s justified reputation on climate change, a disappointing feature of Gore’s book is in the chapter titled “The Edge.” I agree with him that the evidence on climate change, and the contribution to it by man-made carbon emissions, is about as good as science can provide; and he is persuasive in his sketch of the scenario of the dangers that global warming, unchecked, hold for mankind. Where he fails is in the remedies that he discusses. To focus on just one issue: there is now agreement from the last meeting at Cancún on the attempted renewal of Kyoto Protocol that $100 billion be found annually to create new technologies of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. It is expected that a significant share of this will be public funds. We have the precedent that public monies should largely be used to create public good: thus the new seeds under the green revolution were publicly financed and they were available to everyone virtually for free. Should we then not expect the green technologies developed with public funds to be available for free to Mars, China, and India?
But, to my knowledge, Gore has not embraced this proposal, which would make, say, India accept more ambitious targets of carbon reduction because it would reduce the cost of doing so. I would not make the ferocious charges that Gore levels at the opponents of climate change (see page 283). But may I wonder whether the reason for Gore’s omission is that he is heavily invested in green-energy stocks and would like to see public funds to be used only for private payoffs by these firms?
The good in the book is therefore offset by the bad. But even the bad will produce good if it irritates us into thinking harder about the many issues that Gore correctly insists we must confront.

Gore's sin is not embracing a particular proposal, and it must be because "he is heavily invested in green-energy stocks?" Pretty thin charge, and pretty speculative -- I expected a more compelling complaint. (Bhagwati agress with Gore on the science, says he's persuasive, etc., and acts like the know-it-all judge of all things related to climate change, yet he tosses out the global cooling thing? There's a reason this is called the "global cooling myth.")

In another part, I was surprised to hear a call for unions:

...The problem in this world of competition among similar products is that comparative advantage is now fragile: it has a “knife-edge” quality. One day you have it; the next day you do not. Almost every entrepreneur has a rival breathing down his neck; and this need not be from China or India, with their “low wages”—what Gore frets about—but may be Poland or France or Sweden. There are three implications.
First, firms need flexibility in firing if they are to hire.
Second, we can no longer assure economic security for workers by giving them lifetime employment. The security has to be for the worker herself, unrelated to specific occupation and employment.
Third, the volatility also means that we can no longer expect firms to provide training and hence “human capital” to blue-collar workers who can be expected to leave at the next sign of trouble at their plant or firm. We therefore have to provide this human capital through efforts by unions, employers, community colleges, etc.
Gore also accepts uncritically the notion that we are doomed to greater inequality in a globalized world of trade and multinational investment. The evidence is more mixed than he reports...

I think it would only be fair to note the incentives work the other way as well. With firms willing to fire workers at the drop of a hat -- older social obligations to retain workers through tough times are largely gone -- there's no incentive for workers to invest in themselves if the human capital is unique to the particular firm. Why bother if you are unlikely to be there for very long? (That is, I don't think the problem is workers who "leave at the next sign of trouble." f course they'll leave for another opportunity if they fear they'll be fired in the near future due to the "trouble.")

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Fed Watch: The Japan Story Continues to Evolve

Tim Duy:

The Japan Story Continues to Evolve, by Tim Duy: Evolving economic policy in Japan is an excellent distraction from the fiscal cliff story. From my perspective, the most interesting idea Abe floated was forcing the Bank of Japan to buy government debt to support additional fiscal stimulus. Noah Smith countered that Abe is unlikely to experiment with monetary policy and will simply fall back on a mercantilist policy. While I think it is too early to ignore the fiscal policy aspect, it is increasingly clear that Abe thinks the future of Japan is in its past. From Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:

Premier Shenzo Abe is to spend up to one trillion yen (£7.1bn) buying plant in the electronics, equipment, and carbon fibre industries to force the pace of investment, according to Nikkei news.

This on the back of:

The disclosure came just a day after Mr Abe vowed to revive Japan's nuclear industry with a fresh generation of reactors, insisting that they would be "completely different" from the Fukishima Daiichi technology.

I imagine that should advanced civilizations ever travel to the Earth, they would be amazed that we allow fission reactors on the surface of the planet. I am amazed after by this after the lessons of Chernobal and Fukishima.

I have trouble with this characterization:

The industrial shake–up shows the ferment of fresh thinking in the third–largest economy after years of paralysis.

I am not sure this is fresh thinking at all. It sounds as if Japan is trying to go backwards in time to the 1980's. Especially when combined with an obvious intent to devalue the Yen for mercantilist reasons:

He has set an implicit exchange range target of 90 yen to the dollar, instructing the Bank of Japan to drive down the yen with mass purchases of foreign bonds along lines pioneered by the Swiss.

Finance minister Taro Aso brushed aside warnings that naked intervention would anger trade partners and damage Japan's strategic alliance with the US. "Foreign countries have no right to lecture us," he said, accusing the West of failing to abide by a G20 pledge in 2009 to forgo competitive devaluations.

As I have said in the past, I think that a yen/dollar target of 90 will yield only minor economic benefits at the price undermining Japan's international relationships. The US and Europe will reply that their quantitative easing programs are primarily aimed at boosting domestic demand, whereas if Japan appears to be pursuing an obvious beggar-thy-neighbor strategy. Of course, Abe isn't too worried about offending the international community. From Reuters:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to replace a landmark 1995 apology for suffering caused in Asia during World War Two with an unspecified "forward-looking statement", a newspaper reported on Monday...

..Any hint that Japan is back-tracking from the 1995 apology, issued by then Prime Minister Tomic Murayama, is likely to outrage neighbours, particularly China and North and South Korea, which endured years of brutal Japanese rule.

This is shaping up as a year in which Japan moves to center-stage in the international arena.

Bottom Line: Explicit cooperation between fiscal and monetary authorities to dramatically support domestic demand in Japan would be a step forward, but everything else that seems to be coming from Abe is a step backwards.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Brad DeLong: Are Your Wages Set in Beijing?

Brad DeLong answers the question: Are Your Wages Set in Beijing?

This is I think an argument from my old teacher Richard Freeman, about how in the eighties and nineties effectively 2 billion workers were added to the potential global manufacturing work force. Developments in communication and trade, the coming of the container, the coming of the Deng Xiaoping policy reforms in China, reform in India, confidence these policy changes would persist--all these meant that businesses all around the world wondering where to locate manufacturing could be confident that they could if they wanted to, if it made sense, draw on a labor force that was 2 billion bigger than it had been in the 1970s.
In that context, the fact that the United States had a lot of highly-skilled manufacturing workers who had an immense productivity edge was no longer an effective factor in world production. Thus the claim is that an awful lot of the rise in inequality in the United States between 1980 and today is the result of this global pressure on the American economy.
Back in the mid 1990s when I was working for the Clinton Administration, I wrote a bunch of memos about how this was then nonsense--that is, it was simply too small to matter.
Since the mid 1990s, this factor has become significantly larger.
But I’d say it’s still in fourth place as far as the increase in U.S. inequality is concerned.
First place has been the education factor--the fact the United States is no longer clearly the most educated country in the world, and the education system is no longer is putting downward pressure on wage inequality.
Second place is the shift in the tax and transfer system--the fact that our tax and transfer system as a whole is less progressive than it was a generation ago, and that in fact it’s regarded as Kenyan Muslim socialism to even return taxes on the rich back to their levels of the Clinton Administration. ...
Third are the social structural and economic changes that allow the princes of Wall Street and the plutocrat CEOs to successfully charge what they do charge. ...
Global pressures are fourth. They are there, but they are ... more like ten percent of the process.
And with that ten percent we should in fact be willing to deal. We still are the most favored nation by luck in history. We thus have responsibility to manage the international system as a whole. We have a responsibility to be the importer of last resort for countries that are trying to develop by building up their own industries.
I place more weight on "social structural and economic changes" than he does (with the words "economic and political power" tossed into the mix somewhere).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fed Watch: Disappointing Trade Report

Tim Duy:

Disappointing Trade Report, by Tim Duy: Today's international trade report confirms that sluggish global growth is taking a toll on the US economy. Exports are now barely up compared to last year:


Calculated Risk notes the wider goods deficit with the Eurozone. I would add that this is clearly on the back of weaker exports (imports are up slightly). On the plus side, exports of services were up 4.3 percent, while goods exports were down slightly, a story consistent with the divergent ISM manufacturing and services surveys.
Also note the negative year-over-year growth around 1998, the time of the Asian Financial Crisis, which means that even a significant external shock does not necessarily induce a US recession. That said, the softer external sector does leave the economy more vulnerable to negative internal shocks. In the late 1990's, the US experienced a positive internal shock, mitigating the impact of the Asian Financial Crisis. In the near-term, such a positive shock does not look as likely this time around. 
I take little comfort from the import data:


Flat to negative numbers are typically consistent with recession as they reflect periods of negative domestic demand. We can't write off the slightly negative reading as simply a reflection of falling oil imports (down $625 million); non-petroleum imports (down $792 million) also fell slightly compared to a year ago. Unless the pace of import-substitution is happening very quickly, this data seems like something of a red flag.  Something to be cautious of as we head into 2013.
Bottom Line: While I do not believe the US economy is in recession by any stretch of the imagination, I am under no illusions about the lack of underlying momentum. Slow and steady, in my opinion. But slow also means more vulnerable; there was more room to absorb an external hit in the late 1990's than today. Which again leaves me wary about the impact of tighter fiscal policy, and I am not alone. I question the belief that the clarity-induced confidence of a deal will be sufficient to offset the impact of tighter policy. Just as the Federal Reserve has committed to asset purchases until labor markets are substantially and sustainably stronger, fiscal policymakers should commit to easy policy until those conditions are met as well. Instead, we are poised for another austerity experiment. For now, the plan is to squeeze through the choppy first part of 2013 to the restorative powers of improved private sector balance sheets at the end of 2013. Hopefully we make it there relatively unscathed.  

Sunday, December 09, 2012

'Globalization is Not the Answer to the Lesser Depression'

Paul Krugman:

Dean Baker catches David Ignatius suggesting that trade liberalization can provide enough economic boost to offset the effects of austerity. As Dean says, the arithmetic is totally off — almost two orders of magnitude off. ...
First, there’s an especially strong tendency to mythologize the power of free trade. Not that open world markets are a bad thing; they’re definitely a force for good, especially for small, poor countries. But my experience is that the less somebody knows about international trade, the more likely he or she is to imagine that modest moves toward or away from protectionism will have huge effects. Trade economists, who have actually worked with the models, have a much less grandiose view.
Second, even to the extent that trade liberalization would raise the efficiency of the world economy, it is not, repeat not, a route to overall job creation. Yes, everyone would export more; they would also import more. There is no reason at all to assume that the jobs gained from export creation would exceed the jobs lost to import competition.
Globalization is not the answer to the Lesser Depression.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

'Manufacturing Fetishism'

John Kay:

Fetish for making things ignores real work, by John Kay, Commentary, Financial Times: ...The ... iPhone ... sells, in the absence of carrier subsidy, for about $700. Purchased components ... may account for as much as $200 of this. ... “Assembled in China” costs about $20. The balance represents the return to “designed in California”, which is why Apple is such a profitable company.
Manufacturing fetishism – the idea that manufacturing is the central economic activity and everything else is somehow subordinate – is deeply ingrained in human thinking..., probably formed in the days when economic activity was the constant search for food, fuel and shelter. ...
Most of what you pay reflects the style of the suit, the design of the iPhone,... the painstaking pharmaceutical research... Physical labor incorporated in manufactured goods is a cheap commodity in a globalised world. ... 
Manufacturing was once a principal source of low-skilled employment but this can no longer be true in advanced economies. Most unskilled jobs in developed countries are necessarily in personal services. Workers in China can assemble your iPhone but they cannot serve you lunch, collect your refuse or bathe your grandmother. Anyone who thinks these are not “real jobs” does not understand the labor they involve. ...
Where will exports come from, they ask? From exporting “designed in California” or “tailored in Savile Row.” Ask Apple, or your tailor, how they derive their earnings.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

'Changing Views of Globalization’s Impact'

Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations:

Changing Views of Globalization’s Impact, by Edward Allen, Commentary, NY Times: ...For decades, economists resisted the conclusion that trade – for all of its many benefits — has also played a significant role in job loss and the stagnation of middle-class incomes in the United States. ...
Rather than focusing on trade, economists argued that other factors – especially “skill-biased technical change,” technological innovation that puts an added premium on skilled workers – played the biggest role in holding down middle-class wages. But now economists are beginning to change their minds. Responding to The Times’s recent survey about the causes of income stagnation, many top economists have cited globalization as a leading cause.
While the evidence is still not conclusive, it is pretty strong. Trade’s effect on jobs and income, which was probably modest through the 1990’s, now seems to be growing much larger. [list and discussion of recent studies]...
The usual rebuttal to these findings is to argue that they stem mostly from manufacturing. And manufacturing, the argument goes, is facing a long-run, secular decline in employment that is largely technology-driven, not unlike the story of agriculture in the 20th century. The job losses in manufacturing may seem as if they have been caused by trade,... but they have actually been caused by technological change.
Through the 1990s, that story was largely plausible. But over the last decade it is not. ... There is no question that over the last decade United States manufacturing has declined, taking away jobs and driving down wages for those who are still employed. Robert Atkinson and colleagues have a useful paper on this topic, showing that the loss of more than five million jobs in manufacturing in a decade was not primarily a technology and productivity story.
The real-world evidence makes it surprising that it has taken economists so long to catch on...
I've expressed pro-trade views in the past, and I still have them. But it's not enough to say, as we do, that the gains from trade are such that (under fairly general conditions) we can make everyone better off and no one worse off. If the actual result is that all the gains go to the top of the income distribution, and all the costs go to the working class -- if the distribution of the gains results in a large class of losers -- then it is much harder to defend. We must find a way to ensure that trade realizes the promise of "lifting all boats" instead of just the yachts.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reich: The Problem Isn’t Outsourcing

On Twitter, Modeled Behavior says:

This should be default liberal position. Recommended RT @MarkThoma: The Problem Isn't Outsourcing... - Robert Reich

However, for my taste, Reich gives in too much to the idea that income flows over the last several decades have followed changes in productivity. But they haven't, increases in the productivity of labor have not translated into corresponding increases in real wages, the gains have gone to the top of the income distribution instead, and it's not clear to me how calling for more a more competitive, more productive workforce will change that. Of course we want labor to be more competitive and more productive, but we also want workers to be rewarded when this happens:

The Problem Isn’t Outsourcing. It’s that the Prosperity of Big Business Has Become Disconnected from the Well-Being of Most Americans, by Robert Reich: President Obama is slamming Mitt Romney for heading companies that were “pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs,” while Romney is accusing Obama of being “the real outsourcer-in-chief.”
These are the dog days of summer and the silly season of presidential campaigns. But can we get real, please? The American economy has moved way beyond outsourcing abroad or even “in-sourcing.” Most big companies headquartered in America don’t send jobs overseas and don’t bring jobs here from abroad. That’s because most are no longer really “American” companies. They’ve become global networks that design, make, buy, and sell things wherever around the world it’s most profitable for them to do so.
As an Apple executive told the New York Times, “we don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” ...
What’s going on? Put simply, America isn’t educating enough of our people well enough to get American-based companies to do more of their high-value added work here. ... Transportation and communication systems abroad are also becoming better and more reliable. In case you hadn’t noticed, American roads are congested, our bridges are in disrepair, and our ports are becoming outmoded.
So forget the debate over outsourcing. The way we get good jobs back is with a national strategy to make Americans more competitive — retooling our schools, getting more of our young people through college or giving them a first-class technical education, remaking our infrastructure, and thereby guaranteeing a large share of Americans add significant value to the global economy.
But big American-based companies aren’t pushing this agenda, despite their huge clout in Washington. They don’t care about making Americans more competitive. They say they have no obligation to solve America’s problems. ...
The core problem isn’t outsourcing. It’s that the prosperity of America’s big businesses – which are really global networks that happen to be headquartered here – has become disconnected from the well-being of most Americans.
Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital is no different from any other global corporation — which is exactly why Romney’s so-called “business experience” is irrelevant to the real problems facing most Americans.
Without a government that’s focused on more and better jobs, we’re left with global corporations that don’t give a damn.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mankiw on the US Olympic Uniforms Made in China

Pro-Growth Liberal:

Mankiw on the US Olympic Uniforms Made in China, Econospeak: Greg picks on Senator Reid:

Will some enterprising reporter please ask Senator Reid for the opportunity to inspect the senator's closet and check the labels of his clothing to make sure they are all American-made? I look forward to seeing Mr. Reid's bonfire. In the alternative, I would be happy to send the senator of copy of my favorite textbook. He should pay particular attention to Chapters 3 and 9.

Hey – I think we all get the point about comparative advantage. Larry Popelka made the case for Greg:

Garment manufacturing is a low-cost commodity business. Most of the value in the apparel industry comes from design, technology, sales, marketing, and distribution—not manufacturing. The successful players in apparel, such as Ralph Lauren and Nike (NKE), figured this out long ago

Look – we all understand that Ralph Lauren did what was best for Ralph Lauren and if the US Olympic Committee wanted these uniforms to be both designed by both Ralph Lauren and Made in America, maybe the contract with Ralph Lauren should have said so. But Larry also noted that politicians in BOTH parties are angry at Ralph Lauren. So why is Greg lecturing Senator Reid and not certain Republicans. For example, Donald Trump loves to China bash even though his clothing line is also Made in China. Of course, Trump is not the GOP Presidential candidate – that would be Mitt Romney:

On the campaign trail, Romney labels China’s leaders as “cheaters” and “currency manipulators.” His ads say the Republican nominee would be a president who “stands up to China on trade and demands they play by the rules.” He has vowed to issue, on his first day in office, an executive order labeling China a currency manipulator.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Economists Find Evidence for Famous Hypothesis of Comparative Advantage

Evidence for comparative advantage:

Economists find evidence for famous hypothesis of ‘comparative advantage’, MIT News: David Ricardo’s concept of “comparative advantage” is one of the most famous and venerable ideas in economics. Dating to 1817, Ricardo’s proposal is that countries will specialize in making the goods they can produce most efficiently — their areas of comparative advantage — and trade for goods they make less well, rather than making all kinds of products for themselves.

As a thought example, Ricardo proposed, consider cloth and wine production in England and Portugal. If English manufacturers are relatively better at making cloth than wine, and Portugal can produce wine more cheaply than England can, the two countries will specialize: England will concentrate on making cloth, Portugal will focus on making wine, and they will trade for the products they do not produce domestically.

Neat as this explanation may seem, it is by definition hard to prove. If England does not make wine, and Portugal does not make cloth, it is very hard to say how efficiently they could produce those goods. The same applies to any country not manufacturing any given product. So does Ricardo’s idea resemble reality?

A recent paper by MIT economists Arnaud Costinot and Dave Donaldson uses a novel approach to suggest that Ricardo’s hypothesis is buttressed by real-world evidence. ...
Why nations specialize

To arrive at this conclusion, Costinot and Donaldson identified a data source that let them quantify nations’ potential productivity: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an arm of the United Nations, analyzes farming conditions globally, estimating potential agricultural productivity based on factors such as soil type, climate and water availability.

Costinot and Donaldson looked at the numbers from an FAO model of yields of 17 crops on 1.6 million plots of land in 55 countries to examine whether countries specialize in the way Ricardo believed. That is, if a country’s terrain allows it to grow wheat more productively than grapes, comparative advantage suggests that specialization will occur. So Costinot and Donaldson compared the predicted output of crops in each of the 55 countries (based on the FAO data and on prevailing prices) with the actual output of those crops.

The numbers show that Ricardo was right — to an extent, anyway. Costinot and Donaldson analyzed the results so that if the real world worked just as Ricardo supposed, the correlation between productivity and output would be 1.000. Instead, the logarithmic correlation they found was 0.212, with a margin for error of 0.057.

“We found a positive and statistically significant correlation,” Costinot says.

The paper, “Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage: Old Idea, New Evidence,” was published in the May issue of the American Economic Review. ...

Caveats and future directions

That said, Antras suggests a couple of caveats to the paper. One is that agricultural productivity is not purely a function of environmental factors; technical know-how and the availability of equipment also influence which crops are grown where. Secondly, Antras notes, the less-than-total correlation indicates that additional factors affect international trade as well. “The results suggest the theory is validated, but it is also quite clear that there are many other things that drive trade patterns,” Antras says.

For their part, Costinot and Donaldson acknowledge these qualifications...And the MIT economists add a third caveat: The data consist of productivity estimates made by agronomists; if those estimates are a bit off, it would affect the bottom-line findings as well.

Still, Donaldson says, “I was surprised at how, even with all the complexity in the real world, there was still this positive correlation between the theory and reality.

Monday, June 04, 2012

"Will Jobs Be Reshored from China?"

Timothy Taylor:

Will Jobs Be Reshored from China?, by Timothy Taylor: China is becoming a less attractive place for off-shoring of manufacturing. But the result isn't likely to be a large movement of jobs back to the United States. Instead, globally mobile manufacturers are likely to seek out alternative low-cost destinations. Michel Janssen, Erik Dorr, and Cort Jacoby of the Hackett Group discuss these issues in a report called "Reshoring Global Manufacturing: Myths and Realities." The subtitle is: "By next year, China’s cost advantage over manufacturers in industrialized nations and competing low-cost destinations will evaporate." The report is freely available here, with free registration.  ...

I was ... struck by some comments in the report about Apple's labor costs with the iPad and outsourcing to China. They emphasize that in some industries like furniture manufacturing, cost matters most. But in other industries, product quality, protection of intellectual property, time to market and ramp-up speed may matter more.

"The Chinese labor-cost component of an entry-level iPad retailing for $500 is estimated at $10, or 2% of revenue, while the profit margin is estimated at $150, or 30% of revenue. If Apple were to move production to the USA, and if one assumes that assembly costs would triple (to $30), it is conceivable that Apple could convince customers to pay for a large portion of the price increase based on the appeal of a “made in the USA” product. ... Furthermore, ...  such a move could substantially boost Apple’s corporate image. However, the U.S. lacks the sheer labor capacity that would be required in order to ramp up production of iPads at the speed needed to maintain the company’s edge in the hyper-competitive tablet and mobile device market. ... Thus one may assume that Apple’s manufacturing sourcing strategy is primarily motivated by scalability and supply chain risk, and only secondarily by total landed cost."

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

"Why a More Flexible Renminbi Still Matters"

A quick one while waiting for Bill Clinton to take the stage at the conference I'm attending. This is Ken Rogoff:

Why a More Flexible Renminbi Still Matters, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Project Syndicate: One of the most notable macroeconomic developments in recent years has been the sharp drop in China’s current-account surplus. The International Monetary Fund is now forecasting a 2012 surplus of just 2.3% of GDP, down from a pre-crisis peak of 10.1% of GDP in 2007, owing largely to a decline in China’s trade surplus – that is, the excess of the value of Chinese exports over that of its imports.
The drop has been a surprise to the many pundits and policy analysts who view China’s sustained massive trade surpluses as prima facie evidence that government intervention has been keeping the renminbi far below its unfettered “equilibrium” value. Does the dramatic fall in China’s surplus call that conventional wisdom into question? Should the United States, the IMF, and other players stop pressing China to move to a more flexible currency regime?
The short answer is “no.” China’s economy is still plagued by massive imbalances, and moving to a more flexible exchange-rate regime would serve as a safety valve and shock absorber. ...[continue reading]...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"What Should Trade Negotiators Negotiate About?"

Robert Skidelsky:

...The target of all versions of fair trade is “free trade,” and the most damaging attacks on FAIRTRADE have come from free traders. In Unfair Trade, a pamphlet published in 2008 by the Adam Smith Institute, Mark Sidwell argues that FAIRTRADE keeps uncompetitive farmers on the land, holding back diversification and mechanization. According to Sidwell, the FAIRTRADE scheme turns developing countries into low-profit, labor-intensive agrarian ghettos, denying future generations the chance of a better life.
This is without considering the effect that FAIRTRADE has on the poorest people in these countries – not farmers but casual laborers – who are excluded from the scheme by its expensive regulations and labor standards. In other words, FAIRTRADE protects farmers against their rivals and against agricultural laborers.
Consumers, Sidwell argues, are also being duped. Only a tiny proportion – as little as 1% – of the premium that we pay for a FAIRTRADE chocolate bar will ever make it to cocoa producers. Nor is FAIRTRADE necessarily a guarantee of quality: because producers get a minimum price for fair-trade goods, they sell the best of their crop on the open market.
But, despite its shaky economics, the fair-trade movement should not be despised. While cynics say that its only achievement is to make consumers feel better about their purchases – rather like buying indulgences in the old Catholic Church – this is to sell fair trade short. In fact, the movement represents a spark of protest against mindless consumerism, grass-roots resistance against an impersonal logic, and an expression of communal activism.
That justification will not convince economists, who prefer a dryer sort of reasoning. But it is not out of place to remind ourselves that economists and bureaucrats need not always have things their own way.

Not sure how much time I'll have -- I'm traveling today and have to meet a deadline along the way -- so let me turn the conversation over to someone who might know a bit about this topic, Paul Krugman:

What Should Trade Negotiators Negotiate About? A Review Essay, by Paul Krugman: If economists ruled the world, there would be no need for a World Trade Organization. The economist's case for free trade is essentially a unilateral case - that is, it says that a country serves its own interests by pursuing free trade regardless of what other countries may do. Or as Frederic Bastiat put it, it makes no more sense to be protectionist because other countries have tariffs than it would to block up our harbors because other countries have rocky coasts. So if our theories really held sway, there would be no need for trade treaties: global free trade would emerge spontaneously from the unrestricted pursuit of national interest. (Students of international trade theory know that there is actually a theoretical caveat to this statement: large countries have an incentive to limit imports - and exports - to improve their terms of trade, even if it is in their collective interest to refrain from doing so. This "optimal tariff" argument, however, plays almost no role in real-world disputes over trade policy.)
Fortunately or unfortunately, however, the world is not ruled by economists. The compelling economic case for unilateral free trade carries hardly any weight among people who really matter. If we nonetheless have a fairly liberal world trading system, it is only because countries have been persuaded to open their markets in return for comparable market-opening on the part of their trading partners. Never mind that the "concessions" trade negotiators are so proud of wresting from other nations are almost always actions these nations should have taken in their own interest anyway; in practice countries seem willing to do themselves good only if others promise to do the same.
But in that case why should the tits we demand in return for our tats consist only of trade liberalization? Why not demand that other countries match us, not only in what they do at the border, but in internal policies? This question has been asked with increasing force in the last few years. In particular, environmental advocates and supporters of the labor movement have sought with growing intensity to expand the obligations of WTO members beyond the conventional rules on trade policy, making adherence to international environmental and labor standards part of the required package; meanwhile, business groups have sought to require a "level playing field" in terms of competition policy and domestic taxation. Depending on your point of view, the idea that there must be global harmonization of standards on employment, environment, and taxation is either the logical next step in global trade negotiations or a dangerous overstepping of boundaries that threatens to undermine all the progress we have made so far.
In 1992 Columbia's Jagdish Bhagwati (one of the world's leading international trade economists) and Robert E. Hudec (an experienced trade lawyer and former official now teaching at Minnesota) brought together an impressive group of legal and economic experts in a three-year research project intended to address the new demands for an enlarged scope of trade negotiations. Fair Trade and Harmonization: Prerequisites for Free Trade? (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996) is the result of that project. This massive two-volume collection of papers is unavoidably a bit repetitious. One also wonders why only economists and lawyers were involved - what happened to the political scientists? (More on that later). But the volumes contain a number of first-rate papers and offer a valuable overview of the debate.
In this essay I will not try to offer a comprehensive review of the papers; in particular I will give short shrift to those on competition and tax policy. Nor will I try to deal with the quite different question of how much coordination of technical standards - e.g. health regulations on food (remember the Eurosausage!), or safety regulations on consumer durables - is essential if countries are to achieve "deep integration". Instead, I will try to sort through what seem to be the main issues raised by new demands for international labor and environmental standards..
The economics and politics of free trade
In a way, the most interesting paper in the Bhagwati-Hudec volumes is interesting precisely because the author seems not to understand the logic of the economic case for free trade - and in his incomprehension reveals the dilemmas that practical free traders face. Brian Alexander Langille, a Canadian lawyer, points out correctly that domestic policies such as subsidies and regulations may influence a country's international trade just as surely as explicit trade policies such as tariffs and import quotas. Why then, he asks, should trade negotiations stop with policies explicitly applied at the border? He seems to view this as a deep problem with economic theory, referring repeatedly to the "rabbit hole" into which free traders have fallen.
But the problem free traders face is not that their theory has dropped them into Wonderland, but that political pragmatism requires them to imagine themselves on the wrong side of the looking glass. There is no inconsistency or ambiguity in the economic case for free trade; but policy-oriented economists must deal with a world that does not understand or accept that case. Anyone who has tried to make sense of international trade negotiations eventually realizes that they can only be understood by realizing that they are a game scored according to mercantilist rules, in which an increase in exports - no matter how expensive to produce in terms of other opportunities foregone - is a victory, and an increase in imports - no matter how many resources it releases for other uses - is a defeat. The implicit mercantilist theory that underlies trade negotiations does not make sense on any level, indeed is inconsistent with simple adding-up constraints; but it nonetheless governs actual policy. The economist who wants to influence that policy, as opposed to merely jeering at its foolishness, must not forget that the economic theory underlying trade negotiations is nonsense - but he must also be willing to think as the negotiators think, accepting for the sake of argument their view of the world.
What Langille fails to understand, then, is that serious free-traders have never accepted as valid economics the demand that our trade liberalization be matched by comparable market-opening abroad; and so they are not being inconsistent in rejecting demands for an extension of such reciprocity to domestic standards. If economists are sometimes indulgent toward the mercantilist language of trade negotiations, it is not because they have accepted its intellectual legitimacy but either because they have grown weary of saying the obvious or because they have found that in practice this particular set of bad ideas has led to pretty good results.
One way to answer the demand for harmonization of standards, then, is to go back to basics. The fundamental logic of free trade can be stated a number of different ways, but one particularly useful version - the one that James Mill stated even before Ricardo - is to say that international trade is really just a production technique, a way to produce importables indirectly by first producing exportables, then exchanging them. There will be gains to be had from this technique as long as world relative prices differ from domestic opportunity costs - regardless of the source of that difference. That is, it does not matter from the point of view of the national gains from trade whether other countries have different relative prices because they have different resources, different technologies, different tastes, different labor laws, or different environmental standards. All that matters is that they be different - then we can gain from trading with them.
This way of looking at things, among its other virtues, offers an en passant refutation of the instinctive feeling of most non-economists that a country that imposes strong environmental or labor standards will necessarily experience difficulties when it trades with other countries that are not equally high-minded. The point is that all that matters for the gains from trade are the prices at which you trade - it makes absolutely no difference what forces lie behind those prices. Suppose your country has been cheerfully exporting airplanes and importing clothing in return, believing that the comparative advantage of your trading partners in clothing is "fairly" earned through exceptional productive efficiency. Then one day an investigative journalist, hot in pursuit of Kathie Lee Gifford, reveals that the clothing is actually produced in 60-cent-an-hour sweatshops that foul the local air and water. (If they hurt the global environment, say by damaging the ozone layer, that is another matter - but that is not the issue).You may be outraged; but the beneficial trade you thought you had yesterday has not become any less economically beneficial to your country now that you know that it is based on these objectionable practices. Perhaps you want to impose your standards on these matters, but this has nothing to do with trade per se - and there are worse things in the world than low wages and local pollution to excite our moral indignation.
This back-to-basics case for rejecting calls for harmonization of standards is elaborated in two of the papers in Volume 1 of Bhagwati-Hudec: a discussion of environmental standards by Bhagwati and T.N. Srinivasan, and a discussion of labor standards by Drusilla Brown, Alan Deardorff, and Robert Stern. In each case the central theme is that neither the ability of a country to impose such standards nor its benefits from so doing depend in any important way on whether other countries do the same; so why not leave countries free to choose?
Bhagwati and Srinivasan also raise two other arguments on behalf of a laissez-faire approach to standards, arguments echoed by several other authors in the volume. The first is that nations may legitimately have different ideas about what is a reasonable standard. (The authors quote one environmentalist who asserts that "geopolitical boundaries should not override the word of God who directed Noah" to preserve all species, then drily note that "as two Hindus .. we find this moral argument culture-specific"). Moreover, even nations that share the same values will typically choose different standards if they have different incomes: advanced-country standards for environmental quality and labor relations may look like expensive luxuries to a very poor nation. Second, to the extent that nations for whatever reason choose different environmental standards, this difference, like any difference in preferences, actually offers not a reason to shun international trade but an extra opportunity to gain from such trade. It is very difficult to be more explicit about this without being misrepresented as an enemy of the environment - an excerpt from the entirely sensible memo along these lines that Lawrence Summers signed but did not write at the World Bank a few years ago is reprinted in my copy of The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said - so it is left as an exercise for readers.
The back-to-basics argument against harmonization of standards, then, is completely consistent and persuasive. And yet it is also somehow unsatisfying. Perhaps the problem is that we know all too well how little success economists have had in convincing policymakers of the case for unilateral free trade. Why, then, should we imagine that restating that case yet again will be an effective argument against the advocates of international harmonization of standards? Confronted with the failure of the public to buy the classical case for free trade, and unwilling simply to preach the truth to each other, trade economists have traditionally followed one of two paths. Some try to give the skeptics the benefit of the doubt, attempting to find coherent models that make sense of their concerns. Others try to make sense not of the skeptics' ideas but their motives, attempting to seek guidance from models of political economy. The same two paths are followed in these volumes, with several papers following each approach.
Second-best considerations and the "race to the bottom"
The general theory of the second best tells us that if incentives are distorted in some markets, and for some reason these distortions cannot be directly addressed, policies in other markets should in principle take the distortions into account. For example, environmental economists have become sensitized to the likely interactions between pollution fees - designed to correct one distortion of incentives - with other taxes, which have nothing to do with environmental issues but which, because they distort incentives to work, save, and invest may crucially affect the welfare evaluation of any given environmental policy.
There is a long history of protectionist arguments along second-best lines. (Among Jagdish Bhagwati's seminal contributions to international trade theory was, in fact, his work showing that many critiques of free trade are really second-best arguments - and that the first-best response rarely involves protection). Here's an easy one: suppose that an industry generates negative environmental externalities that are not properly priced, and that international trade leads to an expansion of that industry in your country. Then that trade may indeed reduce national welfare (although of course trade may equally well have the opposite effect: it may cause your country to move out of "dirty" into "clean" industries, and thereby lead to large welfare gains). However, the advocates of international environmental and labor standards seem to be offering a more subtle argument. They seem to be claiming that an environmental (or labor) policy that would raise welfare in a closed economy - or that would raise world welfare if implemented by all countries simultaneously - will reduce national welfare if implemented unilaterally. Thus the independent actions of national governments in the absence of international standards on these issues can lead to a "race to the bottom", with global standards far too lax.
What sort of model might justify this fear? In an extremely clear paper in Volume 1, John D. Wilson gives the issue his (second) best shot, showing that international competition for capital - in a world in which the social return to capital exceeds its private return, for example due to capital taxation - could do the trick. Other things being the same, tighter environmental or labor regulation will presumably decrease the rate of return on investments, and thus any country which has a pre-existing tendency to attract too little capital will have an incentive to avoid such regulations; whereas a collective, international decision to impose higher standards would not lead to capital flight, since the capital would have nowhere to go.
Is this a clinching argument? Not necessarily. For one thing, like all second-best arguments it is very sensitive to tweaking of its assumptions. As Wilson points out, capital importation may have adverse as well as positive effects, especially from the point of view of an environment-conscious country. In that case a positive rate of taxation is appropriate - and if the actual rate of taxation is too low, countries may adopt excessively strong environmental standards in a "race to the top". If this seems implausible, Wilson reminds us of the NIMBY (not in my backyard) phenomenon in which no local jurisdiction is willing to be the site for facilities the public collectively needs to locate somewhere.
Even if you regard a race to the bottom as more likely than one to the top, there is still the question of whether such second-best arguments are really very important. This is doubtful, especially where environmental standards are concerned. The alleged impact of such standards on firms' location decisions looms large in the demands of activists who want these standards harmonized. But the chapter by Arik Levinson, surveying the evidence, finds little reason to think that international differences in these standards actually have much effect on the global allocation of capital.
So while it is possible to devise second-best models that offer some justification for demands for harmonization of standards, these models - on the evidence of this collection, at any rate - do not seem particularly convincing. The classical case for laissez-faire on national economic policies is surely not precisely right, but it does not seem wrong enough to warrant the heat now being generated over the issue of harmonization. Simply pointing this out, however, while important, does not make the phenomenon go away. So it is at least equally important to try to understand the political impulse behind demands for harmonization, and in particular to ask whether the political economy of standard-setting offers some indirect rationale for insisting on harmonization of such standards.
The political economy of standards
Consider - as Brown, Deardorff, and Stern do - a single industry, small enough to be analyzed using partial equilibrium, in which a country is considering imposing a new environmental or labor regulation that will raise production costs. As they point out, if the costs of the regulation are less than the social costs imposed by the industry in its absence, then it is worth doing regardless of whether other countries follow suit. But the distribution of gains between producers and consumers does depend on whether the action is unilateral or coordinated. If one country imposes a costly regulation while others do not, the world price will remain unchanged and all of the burden will fall on producers; if many countries impose the regulation, world prices will rise and some of the burden will be shifted to consumers.
So what? Well, it is a fact of life, presumably rooted in the public-goods character of political action, that trade policy tends to place a much higher weight on producers than on consumers. So even though the national welfare case for the regulation is not weakened at all by the fact that the good is traded, the practical political calculus of getting the regulation implemented could quite possibly depend on whether other countries agree to do the same. This suggests an alternative version of the "race to the bottom" story. The problem, one might argue, is not that countries have an incentive to set standards too low in a trading world. Rather, it is that politicians, who respond to the demands of special-interest groups, have such an incentive. And one might argue that this failure of the political market, rather than distortions in goods or factor markets, is what justifies demands for international harmonization of standards.
An environmentalist or defender of workers' rights might also make a related argument. He or she might say "You know that countries aren't in a zero-sum competition, and I know that they aren't, but the public and the politicians think they are - and industry lobbies consistently use that misconception as an argument against standards that we ought to have. So we need to set those standards internationally in order to neutralize that bogus but effective political ploy". It is very difficult for trade economists to reject this line of argument on principle. After all, it is very close to the reason why free-traders who know that the economic case for liberal trade is essentially unilateral are nonetheless usually staunch defenders of the GATT: trade negotiations may be based on a false theory, but by setting exporters as counterweights to producers facing import competition they nonetheless are politically crucial to maintaining more or less free trade. That is, the true purpose of international negotiations is arguably not to protect us from unfair foreign competition, but to protect us from ourselves. (When the United States recently imposed utterly indefensible restrictions on Mexican tomato exports, an Administration official remarked off the record that Florida has a lot of electoral votes while Mexico has none. The economically correct rebuttal to this sort of thing is to point out that the other 49 states contain a lot of pizza lovers; the politically effective answer is to subject US-Mexican trade to a set of rules and arbitration procedures in which the Mexicans do too have a vote).
While one cannot dismiss such political-economy arguments as foolish, however, the problem is to know where to stop. Here is where it would have been useful to hear from some political scientists, who might be able to tell us more about when international negotiations over standards are likely to improve domestic policies, and when they are likely simply to serve as a cover for protectionist motives. But while I would have liked to see an analysis from that point of view, much of the legal analysis that occupies Volume 2 of the Bhagwati-Hudec books does shed light on the problem.
Standards and the rule of law
Economists pronounce on legal matters at their peril: law, even international trade law, is a discipline all its own, with a jargon just as impenetrable to us as ours is to them. Let me therefore tread cautiously in interpreting the arguments here. As I understand it, the problem involved in defining the limits of fair trade is not too different from that of defining the limits of free speech. Take it as a given that countries can do things that are perceived to be economically harmful to other countries - it does not necessarily matter whether this perception is correct. Which of these things can realistically be prohibited, and which should be tolerated? The answer is a matter of degree. The fellow at the next table who insists on talking loudly to his partner about marketing is annoying, but one cannot reasonably ask the law to do anything about him; the person who shouts "Fire" in a crowded theater is something else again.
Where does one draw the line in international economic relations? The prevailing principle of international law derives from the 17th-century Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War by establishing the rule that states may do whatever they like (such as imposing the sovereign's religion) within their borders - only external relations are the proper concern of the international community. By this principle labor law, or environmental policies that do not spill across borders, should be off limits.
Now in practice we do not always honor the principle of the hard-shell Westphalian state. We are sometimes willing to impose sanctions or even invade to protect human rights. Even in trade negotiations it is an understood principle that if a country de facto undoes its trade concessions with domestic policies - for example, offsetting a tariff cut with an equal production subsidy - it is considered to have failed to honor its agreement. But while borders are fuzzier in legal practice than they are on a map, the basic structure of trade negotiations is still basically Westphalian. The demand for harmonization of standards is, in effect, a demand that this should change.
We have seen that the strictly economic case for that demand is fairly weak, but there may be a stronger case on grounds of political economy. But what do the legal experts say? The general answer, as I understand it, is that they don't think it is a good idea. A lucid chapter by Frieder Rousseler grants that the political argument for harmonization has some force, but concludes that to give in to it would open up too wide a range of potential complaints, much the same as would happen if I were allowed to sue people whose words annoy rather than actually slander me. Other authors, such as Virginia Leary and Robert Hudec himself, seem to have a similar point of view, suggesting only that nations might want to enter into specific environmental and labor agreements that would then be enforced by the same institutions that enforce trade agreements. (One essay, however, a piece by Daniel Gifford and Mitsuo Matsushita on competition policy, seems more economistic than the economists: it argues that the international acceptability of competition policies should be judged on whether they seem likely, or at least motivated by the desire, to enhance efficiency).
To an economist, at least, the legal case here seems fairly similar to the economic case for trade negotiations. We have a purist principle: unilateral free trade, the Westphalian state. We recognize based on experience that it is useful to compromise that principle a bit, so that we work with mercantilists rather than simply castigating them and allow a bit of international meddling in internal affairs. But while a bit of pragmatism is allowed, the principle remains there; and it is not a good idea to stray too far. On the evidence of these volumes, then, the demand for harmonization is by and large ill-founded both in economics and in law; realistic political economy requires that we give it some credence, but not too much. Unfortunately, that will surely not make the issue go away. Expect many more, equally massive volumes to come.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Rodrik: Free-Trade Blinders

Dani Rodrik on free trade and the distribution of income:

Free-Trade Blinders, by Dani Rodrik, Commentary, Project Syndicate: I was recently invited by two Harvard colleagues to make a guest appearance in their course on globalization. “I have to tell you,” one of them warned me beforehand, “this is a pretty pro-globalization crowd.” ...
[M]aybe they did not understand how trade really works. After all, when I met with them, I posed the same question in a different guise, emphasizing the likely distributional effects of trade. This time, the free-trade consensus evaporated...
I began the class by asking students whether they would approve of my carrying out a particular magic experiment. I picked two volunteers, Nicholas and John, and told them that I was capable of making $200 disappear from Nicholas’s bank account – poof! – while adding $300 to John’s.  This feat of social engineering would leave the class as a whole better off by $100. Would they allow me to carry out this magic trick?
Those who voted affirmatively were only a tiny minority. ... Clearly the students were uncomfortable about condoning a significant redistribution of income, even if the economic pie grew as a result. How is it possible, I asked, that almost all of them had instinctively favored free trade, which entails a similar – in fact, most likely greater – redistribution from losers to winners? They appeared taken aback. ...

Too many economists ... attribute concerns about globalization to crass protectionist motives or ignorance, even when there are genuine ethical issues at stake. By ignoring ... redistributive outcomes that we would consider problematic at home, they fail to engage the public debate properly. They also miss the opportunity to mount a more robust defense of trade when ethical concerns are less warranted.

While globalization occasionally raises difficult questions about the legitimacy of its redistributive effects, we should not respond automatically by restricting trade. ... But democracies owe themselves a proper debate, so that they make such choices consciously and deliberately. Fetishizing globalization simply because it expands the economic pie is the surest way to delegitimize it in the long run.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Autor, Dorn, and Hanson: When (and Where) Work Disappears

The loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas producers has large negative impacts on workers and their communities. I'm with David Autor, one of the authors of the study described below, when he says "policymakers need new responses to the loss of manufacturing jobs: 'I’m not anti-trade, but it is important to realize that there are reasons why people worry about this issue.' ... Trade may raise GDP, but it does make some people worse off. Almost all of us share in the gains. We could readily assist the minority of citizens who bear a disproportionate share of the costs and still be better off in the aggregate":

When (and where) work disappears, MIT News: ...A new study co-authored by MIT economist David Autor shows that the rapid rise in low-wage manufacturing industries overseas has ... had a significant impact on the United States. The disappearance of U.S. manufacturing jobs frequently leaves former manufacturing workers unemployed for years, if not permanently, while creating a drag on local economies and raising the amount of taxpayer-borne social insurance necessary to keep workers and their families afloat.
Geographically, the research shows, foreign competition has hurt many U.S. metropolitan areas — not necessarily the ones built around heavy manufacturing in the industrial Midwest, but many areas in the South, the West and the Northeast, which once had abundant manual-labor manufacturing jobs, often involving the production of clothing, footwear, luggage, furniture and other household consumer items. Many of these jobs were held by workers without college degrees, who have since found it hard to gain new employment.
“The effects are very concentrated and very visible locally,” says Autor... “People drop out of the labor force, and the data strongly suggest that it takes some people a long time to get back on their feet, if they do at all.” Moreover, Autor notes, when a large manufacturer closes its doors, “it does not simply affect an industry, but affects a whole locality.” ...
The findings highlight the complex effects of globalization on the United States. “Trade tends to create diffuse beneficiaries and a concentration of losers,” Autor says. “All of us get slightly cheaper goods, and we’re each a couple hundred dollars a year richer for that.” But those losing jobs, he notes, are “a lot worse off.” For this reason, Autor adds, policymakers need new responses to the loss of manufacturing jobs: “I’m not anti-trade, but it is important to realize that there are reasons why people worry about this issue.” ...
Double trouble: businesses, consumers both spend less when industry leaves
In the paper, Autor, Dorn (of the Center for Monetary and Fiscal Studies in Madrid, Spain) and Hanson (of the University of California at San Diego) specifically study the effects of rising manufacturing competition from China, looking at the years 1990 to 2007. ...
The types of manufacturing for export that grew most rapidly in China during that time included the production of textiles, clothes, shoes, leather goods, rubber products — and one notable high-tech area, computer assembly. Most of these production activities involve soft materials and hands-on finishing work. “These are labor-intensive, low-value-added [forms of] production,” Autor says. “Certainly the Chinese are moving up the value chain, but basically China has been most active in low-end goods.”
In conducting the study, the researchers found more pronounced economic problems in cities most vulnerable to the rise of low-wage Chinese manufacturing; these include San Jose, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; Manchester, N.H.; and a raft of urban areas below the Mason-Dixon line — the leading example being Raleigh, N.C. “The areas that are most exposed to China trade are not the Rust Belt industries,” Autor says. “They are places like the South, where manufacturing was rising, not falling, through the 1980s.” ...
And as the study shows, when businesses shut down, it hurts the local economy because of two related but distinct “spillover effects,” as economists say: The shuttered businesses no longer need goods and services from local non-manufacturing firms, and their former workers have less money to spend locally as well. ... “People like to think that workers flow freely across sectors, but in reality, they don’t,” Autor says. ...
New policies for a new era?
In Autor’s view, the findings mean the United States needs to improve its policy response to the problem of disappearing jobs. “We do not have a good set of policies at present for helping workers adjust to trade or, for that matter, to any kind of technological change,” he says.
For one thing, Autor says, “We could have much better adjustment assistance — programs that are less fragmented, and less stingy.” The federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program provides temporary benefits to Americans who have lost jobs as a result of foreign trade. But as Autor, Dorn and Hanson estimate in the paper, in areas affected by new Chinese manufacturing, the increase in disability payments is a whopping 30 times as great as the increase in TAA benefits.
Therefore, Autor thinks, well-designed job-training programs would help the government’s assistance efforts become “directed toward helping people reintegrate into the labor market and acquire skills, rather than helping them exit the labor market.”
Still, it will likely take more research to get a better idea of what the post-employment experience is like for most people. ...
“Trade may raise GDP,” Autor says, “but it does make some people worse off. Almost all of us share in the gains. We could readily assist the minority of citizens who bear a disproportionate share of the costs and still be better off in the aggregate.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

NBER Research Summary: Offshoring, International Trade, and American Workers

Here's a description of recent academic work on offshoring and US workers:

Offshoring, International Trade, and American Workers, by Ann Harrison and Margaret McMillan, NBER Reporter 2011 Number 4: Research Summary: In 1982, only one out of four employees of U.S. multinationals was located offshore, and over 90 percent of those employees were in industrial countries. By 2007, the share of offshore employment had reached 44 percent, and the majority of those jobs were in low-income countries. These trends in offshoring are mirrored in the statistics on international trade: over the past two decades imports from low-wage countries have more than doubled.1
Over this same time period, U.S. employment in the manufacturing sector fell sharply and income inequality increased. ... Our research is motivated by these parallel developments and seeks to understand the implications for American workers.
Are U.S. Based Multinationals Exporting Jobs?
This question has always been of interest to policymakers and is arguably more important now than ever before. Accordingly, there is no shortage of academic research on this topic.2 The problem is that the answer to the question seems to change depending on the study. ... Our research examines this seemingly contradictory evidence in an attempt to bring closure to this debate. ...
Interpreting the Results on Multinational Employment Abroad
Our results indicate that whether the offshoring of jobs by U.S. multinationals leads to a decline in U.S. based employment depends on both the location of the investment abroad and the motive for the investment. In general, the expansion of employment in low-income countries has been associated with a contraction in employment in the United States... However, when American workers and workers in low-income countries perform different tasks, the expansion of multinational employment abroad can lead to increases in domestic employment. Taken together, these results go a long way toward explaining why previous researchers have found seemingly contradictory results. ...
Economy-wide Trends in Employment, Wages and Inequality
Using data from the CPS, we show that between 1982 and 2002, total manufacturing employment fell from 22 to 17 million, with rapid declines at the beginning of the 1980s and in recent years. However, the effects were uneven across different types of workers. For workers without a college degree, there were significant declines in manufacturing employment over the entire period. The opposite was true for workers with a college degree. Within manufacturing, the labor force has become increasingly well educated, as college graduates replace workers with high school degrees.
Wage trends mirror the shifts in employment. While wages fell for the least educated workers, they increased for workers with at least some years of college. The biggest wage gains were for manufacturing workers with an advanced degree. The decline in wages for high school dropouts and the steep wage increases at the upper end of the income distribution indicate a sharp increase in wage inequality.
Are Trade and Offshoring Responsible for Growing Wage Inequality?
... We focus on ... the movement of workers across sectors and occupations. To the extent that trade leads workers to switch industries (for example from manufacturing to services) or occupations (for example from machine tool operator to burger flipper), studies that focus on the impact of trade liberalization on within-sector inequality miss an important part of the story.
... We begin by showing that trade and offshoring are associated with a contraction in the manufacturing workforce. Then,... we demonstrate that workers who switch industries within manufacturing experience almost no decline in wages. However, when workers relocate to the service sector, they experience a significant wage loss. The negative wage impact is particularly large among displaced workers who also switch occupations. ... These effects are most pronounced for workers who perform routine tasks. This downward pressure on wages because of import competition and offshoring has been overlooked since it operates between and not within sectors. ...
Implications for American Workers
The trends in offshoring and international trade that we have described are likely to accelerate. China currently employs around 120 million people in the manufacturing sector and, although some reports indicate that wages are rising in China, those wages are still only a tiny fraction of wages in the United States. Moreover, China is expanding its manufacturing base to low-wage countries across the globe through a series of overseas economic zones11 . The implication for American workers is that in order to regain ground, they will need to find jobs outside of manufacturing where wages are comparable to those in manufacturing.
This is a tall order. ... This state of affairs has led some economists, including one of us, to reconsider the role of industrial policy. ...

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"America’s European Exposure"

Paul Krugman says we may not be as exposed to trouble in Europe as you have been led to believe:

America’s European Exposure, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: It’s now conventional wisdom that the fate of the U.S. economy over the next three quarters — and hence, also, Obama’s reelection chances — depend on events in Europe. So maybe this is a good time to express some skepticism.
[This] map... — taken from here — tells us that overall, exports to Europe are just 2 percent of GDP..., even a sharp fall in exports to Europe would be only a small direct hit to demand.
OK, caveats: this only measures goods exports, and we should mark the numbers up maybe 25 percent to take account of services. Also, exports aren’t the only channel: if European events cause a Lehman-type event, disrupting financial markets world-wide, all bets are off.
And I should say that there is a long-standing puzzle concerning world business cycles: economies move in synch more than can easily be explained via concrete linkages in the form of exports.
With all that, however, it’s still very questionable whether Europe’s looming recession will actually have that much negative impact here. Decoupling didn’t hold in 2008-2009, but that was an epochal disaster. This time might be different.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Should The U.S. Take A Harder Stance On China's Currency?"

Joe Gagnon says the "best way to discourage currency manipulation is to tax it heavily":

Should The U.S. Take A Harder Stance On China's Currency?, by Joe Gagnon, Planet Money: ...Ben Bernanke recently said that Chinese currency manipulation "is blocking what might be a more normal recovery process." In fact, the problem goes beyond China to include many other emerging economies and even a few advanced economies. ... The evidence suggests that currency manipulators jointly have increased their trade balances by about $1 trillion relative to where they would have been in the absence of manipulation. Europe and the United States have suffered the corresponding decline in trade balances. ...
Based on estimates of the International Monetary Fund, the $1 trillion boost to European and US net exports from the ending of currency manipulation would return these economies to nearly full employment.
The best way to discourage currency manipulation is to tax it heavily. The taxes should apply to all purchases of European and US assets, including bank deposits, by governments that engage in currency manipulation. Unlike trade sanctions, such taxation is allowed under international law, and it also does not cause the economic distortions that trade sanctions cause. As I outlined recently with my colleague Gary Hufbauer, anti-money-laundering procedures now in place can prevent currency manipulators from hiding their investments through third parties.
One consequence of a reduction in currency manipulation would be a sharp drop in the values of the dollar and the euro in terms of the currencies of the manipulators. It is this exchange rate adjustment that would boost US and European exports, thereby generating jobs. ...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is President Obama a Mercantilist?

I think this is right. As I've said, I have doubts about relying upon increasing exports as our growth policy for the future, but what the president proposed in his State of the Union address is not what I think of as Mercantilism:

The mercantilist impulse, The Economist: Matthew Ygesias, writing at Slate, is perplexed by Barack Obama's plan to "boost the economy by hindering trade". He argues that in his state-of-the-union address, the president evinced "a strikingly retrograde, self-contradictory, and confused agenda of reviving American prosperity through mercantilism". ...

Others also perceived a mercantilist undertone in the president's speech, and not for no reason. The president called for the creation of a new Trade Enforcement Unit, extolled the virtues of a tariff on Chinese tires, and said the country was on track to fulfill his promise, made in 2010, to double export growth by 2015.

But mercantilism is about more than promoting exports. It also carries an implication of protectionism.... And on this count, setting the trade complaints aside for a moment, the evidence doesn't fully support the charge. Over the past three years Mr Obama has made a number of moves that effectively facilitate trade, smoothing the way for imports as well as exports. Last year, for example, he ended a ban on Mexican trucks entering the United States—a NAFTA provision that had not been previously implemented. He also signed free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, which he cited in last night's speech.

My colleague at Free Exchange is also critical of the president's rhetoric on trade. He argues that it will bring us to a thankless zero-sum game, at best. The president said that "if the playing field is level, I promise you–America will always win." ... It's a sympathetic intuition on his part, but I interpreted the president's comment as a narrower critique of China's business practices. And that critique is widely shared; you hear it from Republicans, from Democrats, from business, from environmental and human-rights organisations, and so on. Mr Obama has arguably been on the dovish end of the spectrum when it comes to China. Just last month, his adminstration declined to accuse the country of manipulating its currency; Mitt Romney, by contrast, has repeatedly said that it is, and urged the president to take action.

On balance, then, I would say that Mr Obama's mercantilism is overstated, even if he has rhetorical impulses in that direction. ...

Here are what I think of as the "tenets of Mercantilism." I'll let you decide the extent to which they accord with the president's policies:

Mercantilists believed gold and silver are the most desirable forms of wealth. They also believed that the wealth of a nation depended upon the quantity of gold and silver in its possession. To maximize their holding of gold and silver, countries should maintain a positive balance of trade (with every country in the early years, but in later years they thought that an overall positive balance of payments was the goal, not a positive balance with every country you trade with).

They did not see lowering costs of production, or production in general, as creating wealth. This was a time when guilds produced most goods, and they were very inefficient. Thus, there was no notion of say, using division of labor and innovation to reduce costs and gain a competitive advantage over other producers (producers were not thought to add any value to production -- this was a big part of their beleif that economics was a zero-sum game -- when they looked at their society and history, they didn't see much in terms of productivity led growth, or much growth at all, the key was to maximize your share of the wealth that existed rather than try to gain wealth through productive innovations). The key to wealth was arbitrage and astute trading, not production. So trade -- and merchants who could win the trade battle -- were the focus of attention. Nations became strong by winning the zero-sum trade game.

They promoted nationalism. Since everyone cannot have a positive trade balance - they saw trade as a zero-sum game - a country needs to be powerful in order to compete effectively. This led to a desire for a strong military, a strong navy in particular (many advocated war on land and war at sea as ways to increase wealth).

They promoted protectionism in all its guises to maximize exports and minimize imports.

They supported colonization. This was a source of cheap raw materials, and a captive market to sell the finished goods. This essentially creates monopoly power since they did not let other countries trade with their colonies.

They believed in free trade within a country, but monopolies on external trade so as to be as powerful as possible in trade negotiations.

They favored a strong central government to enforce regulation of business (regulation was widespread and used to try to maintain the quality of goods so they would be in high demand on international markets --some regulations, e.g. for textiles, required stacks of books -- they controlled just about every aspect of production in their attempt to ensure quality and protect their reputations).

They believed a strong central government would also help with another goal, that of maintaining a large, hard-working, poorly paid labor force (e.g., they had maximum wage laws) . The point of focus was the nation, not the individual, and a productive, cheap labor force helped to keep goods cheap, made producers competitive, and hence helped with the accumulation of gold and silver. They did not tolerate idleness, and forced children into the workforce as soon as they were able (e.g. by age six or the family paid a penalty). If children (or anyone else, e.g. the unemployed) could produce something for export, then put them to work so they can help the country grow strong.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Are Persistent Trade Deficits a Bad Thing?

The Economist asks:

Are persistent trade deficits a bad thing? Under what conditions are trade deficits benign, and under what conditions might they be a problem?

My answer is rather text-bookish (I consulted Krugman and Obstfeld's International Economics text before answering):

Other responses:

[All responses here.]

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fulfilling Free Trade's Promise

Richard Green:

For free trade to fulfill its promise, the national government must redistribute income: As a card-carrying economist, I like trade--overall, it potentially enriches countries that engage in it. The problem is the meaning of enrichment.
Trade theory says that trade enlarges the pie that people share.  But among the most important contributions to trade theory is the Samuelson-Stolper Theorem, which says that relatively scarce factors of production see their returns fall when trade is introduced. In the context of an economy like the US, this means that low skilled workers see their wages fall in the presence of trade. The trajectory of wages in the US over the past 20 years or so are consistent with the predictions of Samuelson and Stolper.
NAFTA was sold to the US public as something that would make everyone better off. And it principle, it could have done so, had some of the gains to those who benefited from NAFTA been redistributed to those who lost as a result of it. Instead we got the NAFTA but not redistribution. This likely explains the widening disparity of incomes.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Paul Krugman: Holding China to Account

Improving our trade balance would help with the recovery:

Holding China to Account, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The dire state of the world economy reflects destructive actions on the part of many players. Still, the fact that so many have behaved badly shouldn’t stop us from holding individual bad actors to account.
And that’s what Senate leaders will be doing this week, as they take up legislation that would threaten sanctions against China and other currency manipulators.
Respectable opinion is aghast. But respectable opinion has been consistently wrong lately, and the currency issue is no exception.
Ask yourself: Why is it so hard to restore full employment? ... The answer is that we used to run much smaller trade deficits. A return to economic health would look much more achievable if we weren’t spending $500 billion more each year on imported goods and services than foreigners spent on our exports.
To get our trade deficit down, however, we need to make American products more competitive, which in practice means that we need the dollar’s value to fall in terms of other currencies. Yes, some people will shriek about “debasing” the dollar. But sensible policy makers have long known that sometimes a weaker currency means a stronger economy... Switzerland, for example, has intervened massively to keep the franc from getting too strong against the euro. ...
The United States, given its special global role, can’t and shouldn’t be equally aggressive. But given our economy’s desperate need for more jobs, a weaker dollar is very much in our national interest — and we can and should take action against countries that are keeping their currencies undervalued, and thereby standing in the way of a much-needed decline in our trade deficit.
That, above all, means China. ... And the reality of the unemployment disaster is also my answer to those who warn that getting tough with China might unleash a trade war or damage world commercial diplomacy. Those are real risks, although I think they’re exaggerated. But they need to be set against the fact — not the mere possibility — that high unemployment is inflicting tremendous cumulative damage as we speak.
Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said it clearly last week: unemployment is a “national crisis,” with so many workers now among the long-term unemployed that the economy is at risk of suffering long-run as well as short-run damage.
And we can’t afford to neglect any important means of alleviating that national crisis. Holding China accountable won’t solve our economic problems on its own, but it can contribute to a solution — and it’s an action that’s long overdue.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Globalization’s Government"

Jeff Sachs:

Globalization’s Government, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Commentary, Project Syndicate:  ...Economic globalization has, of course, produced some large benefits for the world, including the rapid spread of advanced technologies... It has also reduced poverty sharply in many emerging economies – indeed, for this reason alone, the world economy needs to remain open and interconnected.
Yet globalization has also created major problems that need to be addressed. First, it has increased the scope for tax evasion... Moreover, globalization has created losers as well as winners. In high-income countries, notably the US, Europe, and Japan, the biggest losers are workers who lack the education to compete effectively with low-paid workers in developing countries. ... Globalization has also fueled contagion. The 2008 financial crisis started on Wall Street, but quickly spread to the entire world... Climate change, infectious diseases, terrorism, and other ills that can easily cross borders demand a similar global response.
What globalization requires, therefore, are smart government policies. Governments should promote high-quality education, to ensure that young people are prepared to face global competition. They should raise productivity by building modern infrastructure and promoting science and technology. And governments should cooperate globally to regulate those parts of the economy – notably finance and the environment – in which problems in one country can spill over to other parts of the world. ...
The world’s most successful economies today are not in Asia, but in Scandinavia. By using high taxes to finance a high level of government services, these countries have balanced high prosperity with social justice and environmental sustainability. This is the key to well-being in today’s globalized economy. Perhaps more parts of the world – and especially the world’s young people – are beginning to recognize this new reality.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Would a Stronger Renminbi Narrow the US-China Trade Imbalance?"

The Liberty Street blog at the NY Fed says we should hope that China keeps growing:

Would a Stronger Renminbi Narrow the U.S.-China Trade Imbalance?, by Matthew Higgins and Thomas Klitgaard, Liberty Street Economics: The United States buys much more from China than it sells to China—an imbalance that accounts for almost half of our overall merchandise trade deficit. China's policy of keeping its exchange rate low is often cited as a key driver of that country's large overall trade surplus and of its bilateral surplus with the United States. ... In this post, we examine the thinking behind this view. We find that a stronger renminbi would have a relatively small near-term impact on the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China and an even more modest impact on the overall U.S. deficit. ... To close the gap between them, a stronger renminbi would need to markedly raise U.S. exports and/or lower U.S. imports. Although we do not believe that this adjustment is likely in the near term,... the bilateral balance can be expected to shrink over the long run—owing largely to forces other than the renminbi. ...
U.S. imports from China currently exceed U.S. sales to China by a factor of 4 to 1. The implication of this ratio is that exports to China need to grow four times faster than imports merely to prevent the bilateral trade gap from widening. Can the bilateral trade deficit ever shrink, given this daunting math?
Yes, we think that the gap will shrink—but primarily as a consequence of the high rate of economic growth in China. We have already seen U.S. exports to China grow at a 20 to 30 percent pace in recent years, driven by the rapid expansion of that country's middle class and the resulting increase in demand for higher-end goods and services. We expect a similar pace of export growth for some time. A stronger renminbi could play an important supporting role in this process, even if it would not be the main driver. At the same time, the current share of Chinese goods in overall U.S. non-oil import spending—about 25 percent—is already so high that Chinese producers will find it increasingly challenging to make further gains in market share. Within a few years, growth in U.S. purchases from China is likely to settle at the much lower rate of growth seen in overall U.S. import spending.

"Within a few years" seems optimistic.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Trade Deficit Jumps

Dean Baker brings us the bad news the media mostly overlooked:

The Trade Deficit Jumps While the Politicians Play Debt Ceiling Poker, by Dean Baker: The Commerce Department reported that the trade deficit jumped in May to $50.2 billion from $43.6 billion in April. The monthly data are erratic, but this is definitely bad news. This means that growth in the U.S. economy is likely to be very weak in the second quarter. (Measured in constant dollars, the deficit increased by $3.9 billion.) It does not look like trade is about to become a major driver of growth and jobs.
This is also bad news for fans of income accounting. If we have a trade deficit, then national savings must be negative. That means either or both negative private savings or negative public savings (e.g. budget deficits). That's the rules -- there is no way around this one.
But this one didn't get much attention in the media. ...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fed Watch: On That Capital Flow Fallacy

One more from Tim Duy:

On That Capital Flow Fallacy, by Tim Duy: Yesterday Paul Krugman chastised the White House over this quote from President Barak Obama’s press conference:

I do think that if the country as a whole sees Washington act responsibly, compromises being made, the deficit and debt being dealt with for 10, 15, 20 years, that that will help with businesses feeling more confident about aggressively investing in this country, foreign investors saying America has got its act together and are willing to invest. And so it can have a positive impact in overall growth and employment.

Krugman adds:

OK, so that’s the confidence fairy at the beginning. But the “foreign investors” thing is actually worse.

Think about it: U.S. interest rates are low; there’s no crowding out going on; we are NOT suffering from a shortage of saving.

I think it is worth trying to understand the Administration’s position in light of this morning’s trade release, which revealed an unexpected surge in the trade deficit. The deterioration was in both the petroleum and non-petroleum balances, nominal and real. I imagine the numbers will be another ding to the second quarter GDP forecast, although on net trade is still poised to make a significant contribution to growth. So far, in real terms, the trade deficit for Q2 remains improved relative to Q1.

Still, the deficit was $50.2 billion, an outflow which requires an offsetting net inflow. Annualized, this amounts to $600 billion a year of inflow, although note the decline in oil prices should take some of the pressure of the nominal deficit over the next couple of months. I think it is protecting this inflow that concerns that White House.

The counter-argument is that that global investors appear to have plenty of cash to pour into the US, yielding very low interest rates. Under such circumstances, it is counterproductive to fret about the need for foreign investment. Indeed, that foreign investment, in the form of central bank dollar accumulation, has been a net drag on US demand, supporting the evolution of unsustainable patterns of trade.

It seems if you view the US as a sufficiently large country that the external accounts are simply a residual, the tail of the dog, so to speak, you tend to dismiss their relevance to policy making. This strikes me as essentially a closed economy view. On the other hand, persons working in international finance tend to have a less innocuous view of the external accounts, where sudden stops of capital in this “residual” have massive and destructive effects on the domestic economy. In such cases, the tail wags the dog.

Of course, Obama’s chief economic advisor, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, cut his teeth on financial crises, and thus I suspect this puts him in the latter group. And where Geithner goes, Obama follows.

I have gone back and forth on this issue. I don’t think I am alone in viewing the gaping and persistent US current account deficit as a potential disaster waiting to happen. At the same time, it seems that nations most likely to suffer from current account/currency crises are those with some mix of overvalued exchange rates, inability to print domestic currency, and high levels of foreign currency denominated debt.

The US is free of these issues. We can print our own currency, our debt is dollar-denominated, and US authorities are not actively strengthening the currency (such actions are directed by foreign central banks). Under such circumstances, my tendency is to think that excessive focus on the confidence of foreign investors would tend toward inappropriately tight policy given the current economic environment. Indeed, discouraging foreign central banks from accumulating dollar assets would be the appropriate policy, especially as we are experiencing a significant current account deficit at the same time output is well below potential.

I should add this is not meant to imply that investor confidence (and not just foreign investors) is irrelevant. I admit to a nontrivial concern that even for the US, the tail does wag the dog. But the much-feared dollar crisis continues to elude us. It appears that reasonable economic stewardship prevents those fears from being realized – with reasonable meaning acting to prevent economic collapse. I think this means to push the concern for deficits a few years into the future, but having a credible plan in place to tackle the issue at that juncture.

With this in mind, I would not court disaster, by, for example, calling into question the sanctity of US government debt or putting the nation at risk of a major economic contraction in the second half of this year. I think it would be appropriate for foreign investors to fundamentally reassess their confidence in US asset in the face of such recklessness. Yet Republicans appear willing to take just such a risk to hold to the “no new revenues” pledge.

Indeed, we are now closer than I would have imagined to the ultimate test of the “expansionary austerity” argument because, come August 3, fiscal policy will quickly become very austere. And somehow I don’t think this will boost investor confidence, neither foreign nor domestic. Indeed, foreign investors may then be the least of our worries.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Antidumping in Action"

When it becomes more expensive for producers in China to sell their goods in the US due to tariffs, bi-lateral exchange rate changes, increasing wage costs in China, etc., production does not necessarily move to the US:

Antidumping in Action, by Bill C: Today's Washington Post provides another example of our dysfunctional "Antidumping" rules in action. This case is about antidumping tariffs imposed on furniture imports from China:

But do tariffs work? In the case of bedroom furniture, they’ve clearly helped slow China’s export machine. In 2004, before tariffs went into force, China exported $1.2 billion worth of beds and such to the United States. The figure last year was just $691 million.
Over the same period, however, imports of the same goods from Vietnam — where wages and other costs are even lower than in China — have surged, rising from $151 million to $931 million. The loss of jobs in America, meanwhile, only accelerated.

This may be a case where the differential tariff treatment between Chinese and Vietnamese furniture which resulted from the antidumping case induced "trade diversion" - i.e., an efficiency loss because the trade preferences result in imports coming from someplace other than the low cost producer. However, in this example, it could also be the case that comparative advantage shifted to Vietnam as China's labor costs have risen.


The only Americans getting more work as a result of the tariffs are Washington lawyers, who have been hired by both U.S. and Chinese companies. ...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

"A Note on Trade"

On emore from Tim Duy:

A Note on Trade, by Tim Duy: US trade data were released today; Calculated Risk has the broad outlines of the report. As Ryan Avent notes, the non-petroleum balance points in the direction of rebalancing. I am hopeful this is correct, but add that we still lack clear evidence at this point. Indeed, since the end of the recession, non-petroleum trade has generally been a drag on the recovery – note trend #1 below:


The rebalancing story took a hit in the first half of 2010 as the trade deficit widened. That situation reversed in the second half of 2010, and the narrowing deficit helped propel final demand in the fourth quarter of last year. Since then, the rebalancing story has stalled on average. Now it appears we are arguably at something of a crossroads – will the general path of the US trade deficit follow path #1 or path#2? In other words, will the external sector be a drag or US demand, or a boost? I am cautiously optimistic ongoing general downward pressure on the dollar, in concert with policy changes and solid growth abroad, will sustain ongoing rebalancing.

That said, rising expectations of tighter monetary policy abroad serve as a reminder that the external environment could turn nasty. From Bloomberg:

Commodities sank, with gasoline falling the most in two years, U.S. stocks slid and the dollar rose as concern over Europe’s debt crisis deepened and inflation reports spurred speculation global interest rates will rise…

…The pound rallied as Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said inflation remains “uncomfortably high” and officials signaled they may raise rates later this year. Price gains in Germany and China topped estimates and Poland unexpectedly increased its benchmark rate. Concern about Europe’s debt crisis and prospects for higher borrowing costs damped enthusiasm for stocks even as earnings improved at companies from Macy’s Inc. (M) to A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S and U.S. exports climbed to a record.

Policy in China needs to tighten to stave off actual inflation. Optimally, Chinese policy steps, such as allowing the renminbi to rise at a faster rate, would shift demand internally toward consumption and away from the investment and export industries, effectively allowing US production to satisfy Chinese demand. This week's US-China talks give room for optimism on this issue. This is a reasonable policy path for other emerging markets as well and, in my opinion, the only win-win path. Still, it is not guaranteed that such a transition can occur smoothly, especially if inflation is already deeply embedded in the Chinese economy. A messy transition could slow global growth and put upward pressure on the dollar.

It is not clear that Europe, either the UK or Euro region, needs higher rates, but instead are being pulled in the trap of tightening policy in the face of a temporary commodity price shock. And it certainly seems clear that Ireland, Greece, and Portugal will be even more challenged to achieve fiscal and economic stability, guaranteeing a default or that euphemism for default, restructuring. The combination of higher interest rates and financial crisis should also prove to be dollar positive, thereby slowing the path toward rebalancing.

Of course, as Avent also notes, a complete rebalancing in which the overall US trade deficit falls to zero seems like an overwhelming challenge in the face of the US propensity for imported oil. Perhaps a more manageable trade deficit in non-petroleum products is the best we can hope for at this point.

In short, despite an improvement in the non-petroleum trade balance since the middle of 2011, rebalancing of the external accounts is not yet a certainty. Rebalancing continues to depend on the ability and willingness of the rest of the world to accept and manage the consequences of that rebalancing. Arguably, so far, so good, but the real tests may still be ahead.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

"Is Offshoring Behind U.S. Employment's Current Problems?"

David Altig says it is unlikely that the slow recovery of unemployment is due to offshoring:

Is offshoring behind U.S. employment's current problems?, by David Altig, macroblog: In a week loaded with important economic news, no piece of data will garner more justifiable attention than Friday's April employment report. ...

In February and March payrolls expanded by an average of 205,000 jobs each month, a pace that is probably sufficient to make progress toward reducing the still-elevated unemployment rate. But at that pace it will take about three years before we see the same number of jobs that existed as of December 2007.

The significant lag between gross domestic product recovery and employment recovery has been particularly extreme in the wake of the most recent recession, but this pattern was a characteristic of the previous two recessions as well. You know the facts: In the post-WWII recessions up to 1989, the average time it took to regain recession-generated job losses was 10 months. The recovery time expanded to 23 months and 38 months in the recoveries following the 1990–91 and 2001 recessions. And we are on track to shoot past those records this time around.

Explanations abound, but one popular belief is that the answer hides somewhere within the somewhat ambiguous phenomenon labeled "globalization." A few weeks back, David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal provided some pretty compelling facts:

"U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers, have been hiring abroad while cutting back at home, sharpening the debate over globalization's effect on the U.S. economy.
"The companies cut their work forces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million, new data from the U.S. Commerce Department show. That's a big switch from the 1990s, when they added jobs everywhere: 4.4 million in the U.S. and 2.7 million abroad."

Two obvious questions: What jobs are we talking about, and what is the meaning of the differential in job growth? Is this a story of "offshoring"—the shifting, if you will, of jobs to foreign locales for production that still fundamentally satisfies U.S. demand? Or is it more a reflection of the different pace of growth in foreign markets relative to U.S. markets?

It's difficult to come to definitive conclusions on these questions, but we do have some information about the types of jobs that underlie the aggregate job-growth picture drawn in Wessel's statistics. Here's what we know based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis's International Economic Accounts from 1999 to 2008:

A couple of things jump out. First, among U.S. multinational employers, some industries added U.S. employees, and some shed them. On net, these corporations lost 1.903 million U.S. jobs from 1999–2008. During this same period, manufacturing multinationals in the United States lost 1.938 million jobs (see the table). Also, foreign employment in manufacturing represented less than 13 percent of U.S. employment losses and only 10 percent of the total foreign employment gains generated by those multinationals.

By industry, the largest U.S. job losses after the manufacturing industries were created by finance and insurance firms. But, as the table shows, foreign employment in these types of firms also fell. In fact, there were only two types of industries listed above—manufacturing and information—in which foreign employment by U.S. multinationals grew while U.S. employment fell.

Finally, the largest category of foreign job gains was "other industries," which breaks down as follows:

Sixty-nine percent of the foreign employment growth by U.S. multinationals from 1999 to 2008 was in the "other industries" category, and 87 percent of that growth was in three types of industries: retail trade; administration, support, and waste management; and accommodation of food services. Some fraction of these jobs, no doubt, reflect "offshoring" in the usual sense. But it is also true that these are types of industries that are more likely than many others to represent production for local (or domestic) demand as opposed to production for export to the United States.

We certainly don't present this information as a definitive answer to the question about the role of offshoring in the slow U.S. jobs recovery. But if you forced us to choose between global or domestic factors as the place to look for solutions as we struggle with persistent underperformance in U.S. labor markets, we'd choose the latter.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Footloose Firms and Social Services

Nancy Folbre argues that globalization undercuts support for spending on education, health care, and social insurance:

Super Sad True Jobs Story, by Nancy Folbre. NY Times: ...Once upon a time, economic recovery led to expanded employment of the United States population. Not anymore. The percentage of adults employed has declined sharply during the last two recessions and failed to increase much in their aftermath. ...
Concerns about the sputtering and laggard performance of the Great American Jobs Machine arose well before the Great Recession. ...
But the motives for multinational disinvestment in the United States seem far less important than the consequences. Globalization weakens the link between economic recovery, increased profits and job creation in the United States. ... As Deepankar Basu and Duncan Foley argued in a recent Political Economy Research Institute paper, the correlation between output growth and employment growth in the United States has declined in recent years.
Foreign-owned businesses may locate in the United States, helping compensate for declining investment by American multinationals. But as all businesses become more footloose, they have less incentive to support public spending on education, health, human services or social safety nets, including unemployment insurance.
Unneeded as workers, the unemployed also become superfluous as consumers and burdensome as citizens. Cutting unemployment benefits (as was just accomplished in Michigan and is well under way in Florida) becomes just another means of cutting losses. ...

An implicit assumption is that the interests of firms prevail over the interests of workers -- if firms don't support something it's far less likely to survive. It seems to me that's correct, and it's driven by campaign finance and the other ways that money enters politics. There was a time when unions were an effective countervailing political force, but those days are gone and there isn't anything on the horizon that will take their place. Instead, firms will continue to use globalization and the need to remain competitive as an excuse to cut private sector health and retirement benefits. And they will use an argument that taxes are high in the US relative to other countries as a reason to argue that taxes -- and by extension government spending on social programs -- need to be cut as well (and to keep personal taxes at the upper end of the income distribution low as well, they argue that most big firms begin as small firms that get their start through entrepreneurship, and raising taxes on the wealthy will stifle entrepreneurial activity).

We've all heard about the high corporate tax rate in the US, but all things considered, how high are corporate taxes relative to the rest of the world?:

U.S. Business Has High Tax Rates but Pays Less, by David Kocieniewski, NY Times: ...Topping out at 35 percent, America’s official corporate income tax rate trails that of only Japan, at 39.5 percent, which has said it plans to lower its rate. It is nearly triple Ireland’s and 10 percentage points higher than in Denmark, Austria or China. To help companies here stay competitive, many executives say, Congress should lower it.
But by taking advantage of myriad breaks and loopholes that other countries generally do not offer, United States corporations pay only slightly more on average than their counterparts in other industrial countries. And some American corporations use aggressive strategies to pay less — often far less — than their competitors abroad and at home. A Government Accountability Office study released in 2008 found that 55 percent of United States companies paid no federal income taxes during at least one year in a seven-year period it studied.
The paradox of the United States tax code — high rates with a bounty of subsidies, shelters and special breaks — has made American multinationals “world leaders in tax avoidance”...
In addition to being complex and uneven, the United States corporate tax code is inefficient and has become a diminishing source of revenue. Corporate taxes accounted for about 9 percent of all federal revenue in 2010. ... “Whether the test is fairness or efficiency, the U.S. system gets really low marks,” said Michelle Hanlon, an M.I.T. professor...
Because some companies are so effective at minimizing taxes, the average works out to far less than the official rate. United States companies pay about a quarter of their profits in federal income taxes, a few percentage points higher than the rate paid by companies in most other major industrial countries, according to a number of studies and tax experts. ...

Overall, we are not a high tax country.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Economics of a Parable, Explained

Follow up on this post: Dani Rodrik explains his "bedtime story":

The economics of a parable, explained

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rodrik's Bedtime Story

Do you think everyone really lived happily ever after?:

A parable for the world economy, by Dani Rodrik

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Why US Multinationals Expand Abroad"

Kash follows up on a post from yesterday:

Why US Multinationals Expand Abroad, The Street Light: Mark Thoma points us to an article by David Wessel, who points out that new data from the BEA indicates that US-based multinational corporations (MNCs) decreased employment in the US while increasing employment outside the US:

Big U.S. Firms Shift Hiring Abroad
U.S. multinational corporations, the big brand-name companies that employ a fifth of all American workers, have been hiring abroad while cutting back at home, sharpening the debate over globalization's effect on the U.S. economy.
I would like to sound a note of extreme caution when interpreting such data. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that this data indicates that MNCs are shifting jobs overseas, and that foreign employment growth is coming at the expense of jobs in the US. However, that is probably not what's going on here.

The vast majority of employment and sales by the foreign affiliates of US-based MNCs are serving the local market. When GE, or Microsoft, or Coca-Cola, or American Express expand their operations overseas, it is almost always with the primary goal of satisfying local demand, rather than replacing workers in the US. Yes, of course some offshore outsourcing does happen (though much less over the past few years than happened in the early 2000s), but really that's not what's driving the dramatic difference in employment patterns of US MNCs within the US compared to outside the US. ...

The point is not to argue that offshoring never happens. It does. But the pattern of international trade, particularly when it comes to the activity of MNCs, is much more complex and nuanced than that. And the clearest implication of this data is that the primary motivation for MNCs to expand their operations outside the US is not to produce stuff more cheaply there to be sold to the US. Rather, MNCs expand overseas mainly to service overseas markets.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Martin Wolf: Doha is weakening the WTO"

Dani Rodrik says Martin Wolf is "right on all counts" in his comments about the Doha Round:

Martin Wolf: Doha is weakening the WTO, by Dani Rodrik: I am copying here Martin Wolf's comments on the Doha Round, as expressed on the CUTS-tradeforum. I find them remarkable because Martin simultaneously explodes three myths about the trade regime. First, he dismisses the "bicycle theory" of trade negotiations, which says that the trade regime will fall back into protectionism unless you keep liberalizing it. Second, he states that the fundamental motives behind Doha were political rather than economic. And third, he argues that Doha is doing more damage than good to the multilateral trade regime.

Doha was essentially a political response to 9/11. I supported it then because it indicated the global will to co-operate and sustain globalisation. Its chance of completion was in the first few years. Once the political reasons weakened, as they did, after Iraq and then the obvious fact that globalisation was ongoing, the will to complete this round disappeared. Today, no top-level politician would now use his or her desperately limited political capital to complete this round, which they see (rightly) as a low-level priority. After all, are we really living in an era of collapsing trade? Is protectionism rampant? Given the shocks of the last few years, it is almost astonishingly absent.

Then people will say that the WTO will collapse if we don't keep on doing rounds. I think that's absurd. Do we think the legal system will collapse if we don't go on writing more laws? At some point, we were bound to get to the point when a round failed. At some point, we would have to declare an end to rounds. Before 9/11, I thought we were already there. After 9/11, I thought it made sense to have one more go. I was wrong. Doha is weakening the WTO, not strengthening it.

So what now? Make the WTO work in a world without rounds, that's what. Move on. This is over.

Martin Wolf is right on all counts. And it is truly refreshing to see an economist openly admit to having been wrong.

For my own views on how Doha was misconceived and got off to a wrong start, see this Foreign Affairs piece.

UPDATE: Arvind Subramanian reminds me, correctly, that along with Aaditya Mattoo he has long been pointing to the inadequacies and irrelevance of the Doha agenda and the public denial on this since 2007.  See this, this, and this.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Jobs and Structure in the Global Economy

Michael Spence and Sandile Hlatshwayo:

Jobs and Structure in the Global Economy, by Michael Spence and Sandile Hlatshwayo, Project Syndicate: The global economy is at a crossroads as the major emerging markets (and developing countries more broadly) become systemically important...
Consider, for example, what has occurred over the past 20 years in the United States. Some parts of the tradable sector (finance, insurance, and computer systems design) grew in value added and employment, while others (electronics and cars) grew in value added but declined in employment, as lower value-added jobs moved offshore. The net effect was negligible employment growth in the tradable sector. ...
But ... while many goods and services are less expensive than they would be if the country were walled off from the global economy, we cannot assume that these cost savings necessarily compensate for diminished employment opportunities. People might trade away cheaper goods for assurances that a wide range of productive and rewarding employment options would be available, now and in the future. ...
If a relatively open global system is to survive..., it will have to be managed ... to ensure that its benefits are distributed equitably between and within countries. ...
It is not a good idea to assume that markets will solve these distributional problems by themselves... All countries, advanced and emerging, have to address issues of inclusiveness, distribution, and equity as part of the core of their growth and development strategies. ...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance and the Trade Deficit Both Increase

A quick reaction to today's reports on intial claims for unemployment incurance and the trade deficit:

Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance and the Trade Deficit Both Increase

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Eichengreen: Slowing China

Barry Eichengreen warns that China's economy may be headed for a slowdown:

Slowing China, by Barry Eichengreen, Commentary, Project Syndicate: With the world’s rich countries still hung over from the financial crisis, the global economy has come to depend on emerging markets to drive growth. Increasingly, machinery exporters, energy suppliers, and raw-materials producers alike look to China and other fast-growing developing countries as the key source of incremental demand. ...
Chinese officials are convinced that a slowdown is coming. ....[I]n response to foreign and domestic pressure, China will have to rebalance its economy, placing less weight on manufacturing and exports and more on services and domestic spending. At some point Chinese workers will start demanding higher wages and shorter workweeks. More consumption will mean less investment. All of this implies slower growth. Chinese officials are well aware that these changes are coming. ...
So what is at issue is not whether Chinese growth will slow, but when. ... [A] significant slowdown in Chinese growth is imminent. The question is whether the world is ready, and whether other countries following in China’s footsteps will step up and provide the world with the economic dynamism for which we have come to depend on the People’s Republic.

All the more reason -- besides the risk of rising oil prices and other uncertainties -- to be wary of doing things now such as reducing the deficit or raising interest rates that might make it even harder for the economy to recover. There are enough potential headwinds in the air already.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Should Losers from Free Trade be Compensated?"

Kash is back. So is William Polley:

Should losers from free trade be compensated?, by William Polley: It's been a while... far too long. Suffice to say that my day job has been keeping me very busy this year and has made blogging difficult. I want to rectify that, but it may be tough going for a while yet.

This, however, was enough to bring me back.

In their work, economists are typically are not nationalistic. National boundaries mean little to them, other than that much data happen to be collected on a national basis. Whether a fellow American gains from a trade or someone in Shanghai does not make any difference to most economists, nor does it matter to them where the losers from global competition live, in America or elsewhere.

I say most economists, because here and there one can find some who do seem to worry about how fellow Americans fare in the matter of free trade.

In a widely noted column in The Washington Post, "Free Trade's Great, but Offshoring Rattles Me," for example, my Princeton colleague Alan Blinder wrote:

I'm a free trader down to my toes. Always have been. Yet lately, I'm being treated as a heretic by many of my fellow economists. Why? Because I have stuck my neck out and predicted that the offshoring of service jobs from rich countries such as the United States to poor countries such as India may pose major problems for tens of millions of American workers over the coming decades. In fact, I think offshoring may be the biggest political issue in economics for a generation. When I say this, many of my fellow free traders react with a mixture of disbelief, pity and hostility. Blinder, have you lost your mind?

Professor Blinder has estimated that 30 million to 40 million jobs in the United States are potentially offshorable -- including those of scientists, mathematicians, radiologists and editors on the high end of the market, and those of telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end. He says he is rattled by the question of how our country will cope with this phenomenon, especially in view of our tattered social safety net.

"That is why I am going public with my concerns now," he concludes. "If we economists stubbornly insist on chanting 'free trade is good for you' to people who know that it is not, we will quickly become irrelevant to the public debate. Compared with that, a little apostasy should be welcome."

What do you think?

This led Mark Thoma to wisely say:

Saying that everyone could be made better off with increased international trade is not the same as people actually being made better off. There are winners and losers from increased international trade, and while I agree that the gains exceed the losses in almost all cases, the gains haven't been distributed in a way that leaves everyone, or even most everyone, better off (see, e.g., widening inequality and where the costs of these kinds of adjustments fall). When some people are made better off and others made worse off at the same time, economists cannot say it is unambiguously better or worse. If we are going to make the argument that trade is good because everyone could potentially be made better off, we should do much more than we have to ensure that this potential is realized, i.e. that the gains from trade are distributed widely across the population rather than concentrated among a smaller set of winners.

Which in turn led Tim Worstall to reply:

But this argument then generally morphs into an insistence that we should not have free trade until that compensatory mechanism is put in place, so that, say, I, who will be gaining from that free trade will be compensating those who will lose from that free trade.

Hmm. But do you see what is implicit in that argument?

That there are gains that I am not getting, gains that are going to some other, as a result of our not currently having free trade.

This is obvious: if free trade benefits me and disbenefits you, then not free trade must disbenefit me and benefit you.

Which leads to the question: are you compensating me for those benefits you are getting and the disbenefits I am getting from the absence of free trade?

Where, in short, is my check from those benefitting from protectionism?

I'd like to see Worstall defend that one in front of a class of principles of econ students who have seen jobs in their towns go overseas or south of the border.

Seeing as how for the last 16 years I've been defending free trade to classes of principles students who have seen jobs in their hometowns disappear because of free trade, I feel like I can take a crack at this.

Blinder gets it absolutely spot-on. Print this one and post it on your wall.

If we economists stubbornly insist on chanting 'free trade is good for you' to people who know that it is not, we will quickly become irrelevant to the public debate.

That is exactly what 16 years of defending free trade to Midwestern college students has taught me. And since I have no desire to become irrelevant to my students, I have found it useful to focus their attention on what I was taught about free trade.

You see, it is the potential for a Pareto improvement that makes free trade desirable. There are winners and losers. But the winners gain more than the losers lose. So effect a transfer from the winners to the losers that still allows the winners to gain but compensates the losers for what they lost. Only then can you really say that free trade (with the compensating side payment) benefits everyone. If the compensation is not there, then I cannot unconditionally advocate free trade. I must call attention to the fact that some will lose. Call it professional ethics. ...[continue reading]...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Mankiw's Leap"

Angus at Kids Prefer Cheese:

Mankiw's leap, by Angus: In last Sunday's NY Times economics column, NGM quite reasonably points out that voluntary exchanges benefit both parties in the exchange.

However, he then makes an unsupportable leap to the following:

Listening to the president, you might think that competition from China and other rapidly growing nations was one of the larger threats facing the United States. But the essence of economic exchange belies that description. Other nations are best viewed not as our competitors but as our trading partners. Partners are to be welcomed, not feared. As a general matter, their prosperity does not come at our expense

I do agree that China is not one biggest problems the US is facing, but not for the reasoning that NGM uses which is that all voluntary exchanges are mutually profitable (read the article, it's the only principle he speaks of before giving the quote I reproduce above).

People, the United States is not a person! Only in DSGE models do we assume that all individuals are identical! There is no "our" to which general statements can be attached.

Yes, going from autarky to free trade will raise the GDPs of both nations, but that is a very far cry from saying that a large number of individuals will not be made worse off in the process. I figure that NGM is familiar with the Stolper-Samuelson theorem, so I guess he is assuming the political process always provides adequate compensation for the losers??

ROFLMAO, anyone?

Here's a case for free trade:

Individuals should be allowed to contract with whoever they wish, without government interference based solely on geography.

Now, that is not much of an economic argument, but, to tell the ugly truth, THERE ISN'T MUCH OF AN ECONOMIC ARGUMENT.

Once you factor in agent heterogeneity, imperfect competition, increasing returns, and an arbitrarily large number of traded goods, the welfare economics of free trade is murky at best.

Here's a political economy case for free trade:

Yes free trade has its losers and drawbacks, but the losses and distortions from free trade are far less than the losses and distortions from politicized, "managed", trade so free trade is therefore preferable.

Is there a bumper sticker big enough to hold that?

["I guess he is assuming the political process always provides adequate compensation for the losers??" That's the point I was making here.]

Friday, February 18, 2011

"How Convincing Is the Case for Free Trade?"

Ewe (grrr) Uwe Reinhardt:

How Convincing Is the Case for Free Trade?, by Uwe E. Reinhardt: “Emerging Markets as Partners, Not Rivals,” a fine commentary ... by N. Gregory Mankiw ... prompted me to ... visit one of the economic profession’s intellectual triumphs: the theory that every country gains by unfettered international trade. ...

In his recent commentary, Professor Mankiw explained the gains from trade even more simply than is done in textbooks. Your driveway is covered in deep snow. Its removal is worth $40 to you. The boy next door, currently engrossed with a game on his Xbox, would give up the game and shovel your driveway for any payment exceeding $20.

So if you pay him $30 to shovel your driveway, you will both be better off by $10. Overall social welfare is unambiguously enhanced. ... As far as economists are concerned, how can anyone argue with that? ...

Now let us think again about ... manufactured scarves. Just as you were about to buy a scarf from your neighbor on the left for $50, your neighbor on the right, also a manufacturer of scarfs, offers you an identical scarf for $35. Economists would consider that fair and efficient... – as, I am sure, would most Americans.

But many Americans might balk at the lower-priced scarf if it were offered not by an American but by a low-cost manufacturer in Shanghai or Bangladesh. This nationalist sentiment sets many noneconomists apart from most economists. In their work, economists are typically are not nationalistic. National boundaries mean little to them...

I say most economists, because here and there one can find some who do seem to worry about how fellow Americans fare in the matter of free trade. In a widely noted column in The Washington Post, “Free Trade’s Great, but Offshoring Rattles Me,” for example, my Princeton colleague Alan Blinder wrote:

I’m a free trader down to my toes. Always have been. Yet lately, I’m being treated as a heretic by many of my fellow economists. Why? Because I have stuck my neck out and predicted that the offshoring of service jobs from rich countries such as the United States to poor countries such as India may pose major problems for tens of millions of American workers over the coming decades. In fact, I think offshoring may be the biggest political issue in economics for a generation. When I say this, many of my fellow free traders react with a mixture of disbelief, pity and hostility. Blinder, have you lost your mind?

Professor Blinder ... says he is rattled by the question of how our country will cope with this phenomenon, especially in view of our tattered social safety net.

“That is why I am going public with my concerns now,” he concludes. “If we economists stubbornly insist on chanting ‘free trade is good for you’ to people who know that it is not, we will quickly become irrelevant to the public debate. Compared with that, a little apostasy should be welcome.”

What do you think?

Saying that everyone could be made better off with increased international trade is not the same as people actually being made better off. There are winners and losers from increased international trade, and while I agree that the gains exceed the losses in almost all cases, the gains haven't been distributed in a way that leaves everyone, or even most everyone, better off (see, e.g., widening inequality and where the costs of these kinds of adjustments fall). When some people are made better off and others made worse off at the same time, economists cannot say it is unambiguously better or worse. If we are going to make the argument that trade is good because everyone could potentially be made better off, we should do much more than we have to ensure that this potential is realized, i.e. that the gains from trade are distributed widely across the population rather than concentrated among a smaller set of winners.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Feldstein: The End of China’s Surplus,

Martin Feldstein argues that China's current-account surplus is likely to shrink dramatically over the next few years:

The End of China’s Surplus, by Martin Feldstein, Commentary, Project Syndicate: China’s current-account surplus ... is the largest in the world. ...China’s external surplus stands at $316 billion, or 6.1% of annual GDP.
Because the current-account surplus is denominated in foreign currencies, China must use these funds to invest abroad, primarily by purchasing government bonds issued by the United States and European countries. As a result, interest rates in those countries are lower than they would otherwise be.
That may all be about to change. ... It is possible that, before the end of the decade, China’s current-account surplus will move into deficit... If that happens, China will no longer be a net buyer of US and other foreign bonds, putting upward pressure on interest rates in those countries.
Although this scenario might now seem implausible, it is actually quite likely to occur. ... China’s national saving rate ... is now about 45% of its GDP, which is the highest rate in the world. But, looking ahead, the five-year plan will cause the saving rate to decline...
The plan calls for a shift to higher real wages so that household income will rise as a share of GDP. Moreover, state-owned enterprises will be required to pay out a larger portion of their earnings as dividends. And the government will increase its spending on consumption services like health care, education, and housing....
Since China’s current-account surplus is now 6% of its GDP, if the saving rate declines from the current 45% to less than 39% – still higher than any other country – the surplus will become a deficit.
This outlook for the current-account balance does not depend on what happens to the renminbi’s exchange rate... But the fall in domestic saving is likely to cause the Chinese government to allow the renminbi to appreciate more rapidly. Higher domestic consumer spending would otherwise create inflationary pressures. ... A stronger renminbi would ... cause a shift from exports to production for the domestic market, thereby shrinking the trade surplus, in addition to curbing inflation.
...Americans are eager for China to reduce its surplus and allow its currency to appreciate more rapidly. But they should be careful what they wish for, because a lower surplus and a stronger renminbi imply a day when China is no longer a net buyer of US government bonds. The US should start planning for that day now.

Plans are not action. I hope the Chinese government moves to raise the standard of living and to provide more social services, but I'll believe it when I see it happen. For now, interest rates remain very low -- markets are not worried about this -- and it's not the time to panic about the deficit, impose large budget cuts, and endanger the recovery.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The "Anti-Willie Sutton"

Bill Craighead at Twenty Cent Paradigms:

SOTU, by Bill Craighead: A couple of thoughts on the "State of the Union"-
As an economist, I don't find the rhetoric of "competitiveness" very appealing (see Paul Krugman's classic on this).  International trade is mutually beneficial* - not a zero sum struggle to beat other countries to the "good jobs."  From an economist's point of view, the rapid growth in China is a great story about an dramatic increase in human welfare.  However, while competitiveness rhetoric can be used to justify bad policies like subsidies and tariffs, Obama is employing it to promote policies like investment in infrastructure, basic research and education that are beneficial regardless of what is going on in other countries.  Though it is a mistake to feel threatened by the success of other countries, Obama seems to be exploiting this sentiment to embarrass us into getting our act together, which isn't entirely a bad thing.  He's like our national "Tiger mother."
Unfortunately, President Obama appears to have conceded the rhetorical war on two important fronts: global warming and the budget deficit.
On global warming, which is the most important policy issue we face, the President chose not to even mention it directly.  So much for having "adult conversations" in our politics...  Even if the towel has been thrown in on cap-and-trade, the administration does appear to be trying to confront the problem, sotto voce, in other, less efficient ways.  At least, that is how I interpret the call that 80% of energy should come from "clean sources" by 2035.
As for the deficit, the idea that the government is like a family that needs to "tighten its belt" seems to have won out.  That's simple, intuitive and wrong.  The basic principle of countercyclical fiscal policy - that when households are cutting back, government needs to step in and make up for it with offsetting spending increases or tax cuts - also seems simple and intuitive.  But apparently not enough so.  President Obama is a very good speech-maker, but has proven not to be enough of a great communicator to get the public thinking correctly about this.
It looks like we'll get some "cuts" and "freezes."  These may manage to be a drag on the recovery and damage some important government functions without making much of a dent in the real long run problem because domestic discretionary spending is a fairly small part of the overall budget (as Howard Gleckman says: "that makes Obama the anti-Willie Sutton. He is going whether the money isn’t").  It seems that we're done with counter-cyclical fiscal policy and its all up to the Fed now.  With 14.5 million still unemployed, that is a mistake, and a real shame.  While I hope (and believe) the President is correct in presuming the recovery will continue, it still could benefit from a fiscal push.
See also: Paul Krugman, ... and Ezra Klein.

*There are number of possible caveats on that, including that while a country as a whole benefits, some within it are hurt (Stolper-Samuelson theorem) and that a trade deficit can reduce aggregate demand which is bad for employment in the short-run.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Facing a Marked Global Reversal

Joe Stiglitz is pesimistic aboout globalization:

Facing a marked global reversal, by Joseph Stiglitz, Financial Times: 2011 will be a hard year for globalisation. ... America’s quantitative easing is now viewed as an update of the policies that marked the Great Depression. The world is waking up to the way exchange rates can be used in self-promotion at the expense of others...
Such beggar-thy-neighbour policies didn’t work in 1930s, because countries responded in kind. Today the same will happen. Indeed, emerging markets are already responding... The result? More uncertainty in financial markets, greater fragmentation of capital markets, and a marked reversal in globalisation.
Globalisation’s cheerleaders will thus face an increasingly hard time, as the boom in Asia is seen to come at the expense of jobs elsewhere. .. Those Americans and Europeans who risk losing their jobs will be especially vocal in protest. ...

Thursday, December 02, 2010

"Making Peace in the US-China Trade War"

Dean Baker argues that mechanisms such as an "effective policy of work-sharing, like the one in Germany" can be used to redistribute the costs and benefits of China's currency policy so that "we need not be hostile to China," We won't, of course, do anything like this and the costs will continue to be concentrated rather than diffuse, but we could:

Making peace in the US-China trade war, by Dean Baker, Comment is Free: Trade disputes with China have been heating up lately, but there really is no reason for the hostility. Essentially, China's government is saying is that it has no better use for its money than subsidising the consumption of people in the United States and other wealthy countries, by propping up the value of the dollar. That may seem surprising..., but if this is what China's leaders insist, who are we to argue? ...
In effect, China is subsidising its exports to the United States. This is very generous of the Chinese government, since the United States can take advantage of China's generosity to enjoy a higher standard of living. Currently, our deficit with China is equal to 2% of GDP. This means that China is handing us goods and services that are worth roughly $280bn a year more than the value of goods and services we give them in exchange.
While this displaces a large amount of domestic production, we can ensure that the displacement does not result in unemployment by simply shortening working weeks. If everyone's working week was shortened by 2.0% (the equivalent of one week per year of vacation), we could keep the workforce fully employed even in the case of reduced demand.
This could be accomplished by having the government pay people to work shorter working weeks; in effect, paying unemployment benefits to cover a reduction in hours. This would spread the pain over many workers, rather than forcing a portion of the workforce to be completely unemployed. In this way, China could effectively subsidize the vacation of tens of millions of workers in the United States and elsewhere.
This may sound like a bad deal from China's standpoint, but it is a deal they insist upon. They have sometimes raised the question of whether they can expect to have debt to the United States lose value as a result of a falling dollar. The United States should take away this uncertainty.
China absolutely will lose money on its investments in government bonds. ... China's leaders should rest completely assured that when they ultimately sell these assets, they will be getting dollars that are worth substantially less than the dollars they bought. ...
So, we need not be hostile to China over its desire to give money to American consumers. An effective policy of work-sharing, like the one in Germany, can ensure that China's generosity leads to longer vacations, not unemployment. We should also take steps to ensure that our highest-paid workers are subjected to the same competition from China as our manufacturing workers.
And, in order to eliminate their uncertainty on this issue, we should assure the Chinese people and their government that they will be repaid in lower-valued dollars. However, if China's government thinks the best use of its money is to pay for longer vacations for workers in the United States, there is no reason for us to be upset.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Irrepressible 1930’s"

Should we really worry that Hitler is on the horizon?:

The Irrepressible 1930’s, by Robert Skidelsky, Commentary, Project Syndicate: The just concluded G-20 meeting in Seoul broke up without agreement on either currencies or trade. China and the United States accused each other of deliberately manipulating their currencies to get a trade advantage. The Doha Round of global trade talks remain stalled. And, amid talk of the “risks” of new currency and trade wars, such wars have already begun.
Thus, despite global leaders’ vows to the contrary, it seems that the dreadful protectionist precedent of the 1930’s is about to be revived. ... Substitute China for Britain and today’s eurozone for the gold bloc and the trend of events today has the same ominous feel. ...
The euro will become progressively overvalued, just as the gold bloc was in the 1930’s. Since the eurozone is committed to austerity, its only recourse is protectionism. Meanwhile, China’s policy of slowly letting the renminbi rise against the dollar might well go into reverse, provoking US protectionism.
The failure of the G-20’s Seoul meeting to make any progress towards agreement on exchange rates or future reserve arrangements opens the door to a re-run of the 1930’s. Let’s hope that wisdom prevails before the rise of another Hitler.