Grasping at Chinese straws
The Commerce Department released another depressing report on the U.S. trade deficit this morning, our monthly reminder of the huge gap between globalization’s economic reality and American economic policymaking.
In March, we bought about $52 billion (28 percent) more from the rest of the world than we sold. From first quarter 2011 to first quarter 2012, the deficit on goods and services rose almost 8 percent, with China representing almost two-thirds of our non-oil deficit with the rest of the world.
Yet, over the past year or so, a drumbeat of analysis in the establishment business press has been telling us to stop worrying; our chronic trade imbalance with China will soon disappear. New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter last week summed up the happy scenario: Chinese wages and transpacific transportation costs are rising and the Chinese are allowing their currency to appreciate. The implication is that rather than exerting unpleasant political pressure on China, we should trust in the natural workings of the market and the good common sense of the Chinese leaders who “appear to understand the need for change.”
Don’t hold your breath.
Porter is correct that wages are rising in China faster than they are in the United States. But to get a perspective, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ numbers on international labor costs in manufacturing, where the latest data—for 2008—is that Chinese manufacturing costs are a little over 4 percent of U.S. levels. Yes, they probably have risen since then, but the gap is still immense and will clearly not be closed anytime soon.
Moreover, the narrowing of the gap may have as much to do with U.S. workers getting less as Chinese workers getting more. The corporate poster boy for looking at the bright side is General Electric, which has moved some production of a few heavy appliances back to the U.S. from China. What the poster leaves out is that GE workers who used to make $22 an hour are now making $13.
It is also true that rising fuel costs are making it more expensive to import large, heavy products from across the Pacific. But that hardly means that production will move back to the U.S. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, multinational producers of big appliances and autos and parts who find importing from China too expensive, are moving to Mexico where labor costs are 18 percent of what they’d pay in the U.S.
Finally, Porter writes that the Chinese strategy of manipulating their currency to keep their exports cheap and imports expensive “may be turning the corner.” He notes that the Chinese, while they don’t want to appear caving to American pressure, have quietly allowed the renminbi to appreciate 40 percent against the dollar since 2005.
Just so. And over that time our trade deficit with China has grown by over 45 percent, suggesting how large China’s comparative advantage in trade has become. Moreover, despite the endless parade of American officials to Beijing pleading for more currency appreciation, the Chinese apparently think they’ve already done enough. Porter himself quotes China’s premier Wen Jiabao to the effect that the dollar-renminbi now may “have reached equilibrium level.”
Thus, there is little evidence that either the market or the Chinese leadership intend to rescue the U.S. from its trade quagmire.
Unfortunately, neither is there evidence that American leaders—from either party—intend to take responsibility for doing it themselves. Not only do they have no strategy to deal with the trade deficit, but President Obama and congressional Republicans are busily preparing for yet another of the so-called free trade agreements—this one to a group of countries around the Pacific rim—that have allowed our multinationals to off-shore production for the American consumer for over three-and-a-half decades.
But the market will not be denied; eventually we will balance our trading account. So, in the absence of a proactive policy, GE will be the model—the relentless lowering of American wages and living standards until the gap with workers in China and Mexico is closed.