Could currency legislation lead to a trade war? Think again

On Wednesday, Senator Orrin Hatch claimed that the Currency Exchange Rate and Oversight Reform Act of 2011 (S 1619)  (the Currency Reform Act) could cause “a huge trade war … with China.” Nothing could be further from the truth. A large share of our exports to China are intermediate products that are used to produce exports to the United States. If China raised tariffs or otherwise restricted imports of those products, it would simply raise the cost of their own exports to the United States. Furthermore, U.S. imports from China exceed our exports to that country by a ratio of more than 4 to 1. So every dollar in tariffs imposed by China would, in theory, be matched by four dollars in U.S. tariffs on their exports, if China ever tried to engage us in a trade war. But history shows us that they will not.

Senator Hatch also disparaged my latest report on China trade and U.S. employment, but I’ll save that argument for another post. We appreciate his use of our research, and are glad that he felt it necessary to respond.

In Aug. 2005, the Senate passed much a much tougher currency bill sponsored by Senators Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham (S. 295) that would have imposed a 27.5 percent tariff on all imports from China if it failed to revalue within 180 days. That bill never passed the House and never become law. Nonetheless, shortly after the bill was approved in the Senate (by a veto-proof majority), China began to revalue, for the first time in more than seven years, ultimately allowing the yuan (or RMB) to rise by 18.6 percent over the next three years. China did not retaliate.

China will not retaliate if the Currency Reform Act becomes law because it will hurt its own exporters if it does, and because China will benefit if it does revalue. If the yuan is allowed to appreciate, it will lower the cost of oil, food and other imported commodities in China. This will put downward pressure on inflation, which has been accelerating rapidly in China this year. Lower fuel and food prices will be particularly helpful to low-income families in China, who are very dependent on these basic commodities.

As shown in my most recent report on China trade and U.S. employment (Table 2), some of the most important U.S. exports to China are basic commodities used in producing exports such as chemicals ($11.6 billion, 13.5 percent of total U.S. exports to China), scrap and second hand goods ($8.5 billion, 10.0 percent) and semiconductors ($6.1 billion, 7.1 percent). Agricultural products ($15.4, 18.0 percent) could be vulnerable, but U.S. imports from China, which could be subject to some trade restrictions, were $363.6 billion and exceeded agricultural exports by a ratio of 23:1 in 2010.

When Senator Hatch referred to a “huge trade war,” most people think of the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, which raised tariffs on about one-third of U.S. imports to a peak of 59.1 percent. However, average tariff rates rose to only 19.8 percent in 1933. Canada, our largest trading partner retaliated with higher tariffs on about 30 percent of U.S. imports, and Germany developed a system of autarky (little or no trade).

The Currency Reform Act of 2011 would not impose sweeping, across-the-board tariff increases (as did the Smoot-Hawley Act). It defines a new process for determining which currencies are “fundamentally misaligned,” and defines new procedures for conducting negotiations with such countries including new consequences, especially when a country persistently fails to revalue despite continuing negotiations. These measures are intended to spur negotiated solutions to currency manipulation, not to spark a trade war.

The Currency Reform Act also authorizes the Commerce department to take currency manipulation into account in anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations. But these changes will affect a small share of total U.S. trade with currency manipulators. Again, there is nothing similar in these proposals to the broad, across-the-board tariffs imposed in the Smoot-Hawley act.

“Trade war” is a term that is easily thrown around in legislative debate and by political commentators. As Fred Bergsten has noted, China’s currency manipulation “is by far the largest protectionist measure adopted by any country since the Second World War – and probably in all of history.” The Currency Reform Act is a measured response designed to bring about a negotiated end to China’s predatory economic policies. China has launched a trade war on the rest of the world. It is important to stand up to the bully, to restore balance to the global trading system and world demand.