Trade and Globalization

Who’s guarding Apple’s Foxconn chicken coop?

Last week, the Fair Labor Association released a report on its “independent investigation” of Apple supplier Foxconn, which employs 1.2 million workers and is China’s largest private employer and single exporter. I discussed the FLA report, and labor rights in the U.S. and China, trade, jobs and currency with C. Fred Bergsten, Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show this morning.

There are serious questions about the “independence” of the FLA report, which was commissioned by Apple to conduct the investigation; Apple is a major contributor to FLA’s activities.  Furthermore, although the report raised important issues such as excessive and unpaid overtime and health and safety concerns, it failed to address others, such as Foxconn’s harsh management practices and public humiliation of employees (well documented by groups such as the Hong Kong based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior), Foxconn’s systematic abuse of forced interns, and China’s refusal to permit free, fair and independent trade union elections (although the report does acknowledge that company officials dominate local unions in Foxconn plants and it calls for open, democratic elections of union officials, it fails to address the  fact that all unions in China must belong to the All China Confederation of Trade Unions, which is controlled by the government). Without the protections afforded by free, independent trade unions, it is unlikely that Apple or Foxconn will ever make good on the promised improvements in wages and working conditions in these factories.

Problems with excessive overtime, widespread safety problems and the absence of worker safety and health programs have been well known at Foxconn since 2006. Apple publicly promised at that time that it would correct these problems. The new FLA reports promise that excessive overtime will be eliminated by July 2013, 15 months from now. Apple could end this problem in a matter of weeks, not months or years, simply by raising the prices it pays for Foxconn’s products and then directing Foxconn to raise wages and hire more workers. The solutions are obvious. Engrained behaviors, however, are hard to change.

–The author thanks Ross Eisenbrey  and Scott Nova for helpful comments. 

What’s good for Apple is … just good for Apple

In a conference call with investors Monday, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer argued that the company could not repatriate its $65 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) in earnings and investments held overseas because the corporate income tax constituted too large a “disincentive” to do so. This was apparently the latest in a lobbying effort by Apple to have Congress institute a repatriation “tax holiday” similar to one passed in 2004, that saw hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign-held corporate earnings brought back to the country under preferential tax rates.

Calls for another corporate tax holiday have been growing in the past six months, with various pieces of legislation introduced in the House in 2011 that would reward companies that repatriate profits with a low tax rates. These calls for a repatriation holiday are often bipartisan (House legislation introduced in the summer of 2011, for example, is co-sponsored by Utah Democrat Jim Matheson and Texas Republican Kevin Brady).

It is important to note that a repatriation holiday solves no economic problem at all … unless one defines Apple investors’ obligation to pay taxes as a problem.

The best economic case made in favor of such a holiday is that by encouraging U.S. corporations to return their overseas holding to the domestic economy, this will greatly increase the supply of investment capital that can be mobilized to help businesses increase capacity.

But, as we’ve noted over and over again, U.S. businesses today still are not using anywhere near the full amount of capacity they already have. And access to cheap credit for corporations is historically easy. And business investment is the one area of the economy that is actually growing historically fast. And corporations are already sitting on historically large amounts of investable capital. In short, there is no plausible reason at all to think that repatriating foreign earnings provides any relief to the actual economic problems facing the U.S.

What a holiday would do, especially given the 2004 holiday, is convince U.S. corporations that profits earned abroad will always be given an opportunity to be brought home at very low tax rates in the future. And this will provide further incentives to firms to increase the share of their profits that are earned abroad, which means increasing the share of jobs and capacity that is held abroad.

Apple (and other multinationals) already has the chance to defer taxation on profits held overseas – this is a substantial tax benefit already. There is no public policy case at all for giving them and other multinationals another holiday from corporate taxes. Luckily, the Obama administration seems unswayed so far by Apple’s complaints.

China continues to lean against the wind on need for currency revaluation

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao claimed in remarks Wednesday that the yuan’s exchange rate may be close to an equilibrium level. Premier Wen claimed China has already achieved basic balance in international payment, which he defined as a current account surplus below 3 percent of gross domestic product. However, recent data and forecasts from the International Monetary Fund show that although China’s current account surplus is still recovering from the recession, it has never fallen below 5.2 percent of GDP. The IMF projects that China’s current account balance will increase to 7.2 percent of GDP by 2016.

Recent estimates by William R. Cline and John Williamson of the Peterson Institute show that China’s currency remains at least 24 percent undervalued relative to the U.S. dollar. Although China’s currency has been allowed to fluctuate against other currencies, China firmly controls the value of the yuan against the dollar, because the United States is the chief market for China’s exports. Recent appreciation in the yuan (also known as the renminbi) has not been sufficient to reduce China’s global trade surplus to a sustainable level. In 2011, the U.S. trade deficit with China reached $301.6 billion, 14.6 percent more than in 2010. In Jan. 2012, the monthly U.S. trade deficit with China increased again to $26.0 billion, an increase of 12.6 percent over levels in Dec. 2011.

China invested over $330 billion in purchases of new foreign exchange reserves in 2011, and historically about two-thirds of those reserves have been held in U.S.-dollar denominated assets. China is illegally intervening in foreign exchange markets to artificially suppress the value of its currency against the dollar and other currencies. This acts like a subsidy on all Chinese exports, and a tax on all U.S. exports to China. It also limits U.S. exports to every other country in the world because China is our top competitor in world export markets.

History demonstrates that China will not significantly revalue the yuan unless it is faced with threats of significant tariffs or other trade restraints. Congress threatened to impose tariffs in 2005, when the currency was even more undervalued, and China began to revalue but then stopped. Now, China is declaring the problem solved when in reality, it’s far from solved.

Paul Krugman has denounced China for its “predatory” trade policies. Fred Bergsten has described China’s currency intervention as the “largest protection measure adopted by any country since the Second World War – and probably in all of history.” Taking strong measures to end China’s currency manipulation will be good for Chinese consumers because it will lower prices of oil and other commodities in China. It will also create more jobs in the United States and other countries, because it will increase exports and shrink trade deficits. The time has come for the United States to declare China a currency manipulator and to threaten large, across-the-board tariffs unless and until they revalue enough to shrink their massive global trade surpluses.

U.S. sends the right message with WTO complaint on China’s illegal restrictions on rare earth exports

The Obama administration filed a complaint on Tuesday at the World Trade Organization challenging China’s restraints on its exports of rare earth minerals. This much-needed action will be good for both consumers and workers in the United States and other countries. China reacted immediately, promising to defend its actions and threatening that it could trigger further trade disputes. China’s export restraints are a clear violation of its WTO obligations, and it doesn’t have a leg to stand on in this dispute. Ending those restraints will lower prices for a wide range of high-tech products such as solar cells and hybrid and electric vehicles, and it will stimulate job creation in the United States.

The administration’s trade complaint covers tungsten and molybdenum (minerals used in steel production) in addition to rare earths, and includes over 100 specific products. Under the terms of its accession to the WTO, China was allowed to retain export duties at specified rates on 84 commodities. However, it maintains tariffs as well as quotas and other illegal restrictions on exports on rare earths and other metals. China controls 95 percent of the world’s production of rare earths minerals, which are critical ingredients in high-tech manufacturing of products ranging from smartphones to hybrid cars to missiles.  None of the items covered in the administration’s WTO complaint are included in the list of 84 items that China is entitled to restrict with export duties.

Production of rare earths can be damaging to the environment. In 2009, China stopped issuing new licenses for rare earth mines, closed some illegal mines and set domestic production caps. If applied with equal effect to domestic and export sales, such restrictions would be legitimate under the WTO. Higher prices for rare earths will eventually encourage production in other countries that have large deposits, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greenland, South Africa and the United States, but new mines will take five or more years to develop.

By restricting and  taxing rare earth exports, China reduces the costs of these critical materials for their own domestic producers and raises the costs for producers in the rest of the world. Japan and the EU jointly filed the WTO case with the United States. Recent industry data show that the export price of a basket of rare earths from China was more than 120 percent higher than China’s domestic price for the same basket of minerals. Thus, China’s rare earth restrictions unfairly tilt the playing field in favor of its own domestic producers and raise the cost of high-tech products to consumers in the U.S. and other countries. Three U.S. manufacturers of photovoltaic cells, including Solyndra and Everygreen Solar,  have recently declared bankruptcy in the face of cut-throat, subsidized competition from Chinese manufacturers who benefit from plentiful access to cheap rare earths.

China’s illegal policy of restricting rare earth exports is just one of many examples of its unfair trade practices. Massive subsidies to key industries such as auto parts, glass and paper are also hurting domestic industries, and currency manipulation by China and other Asian countries has cost the United States millions of jobs. We applaud strong action by the administration in these cases and look forward to continued strong enforcement of all U.S. fair trade laws by the administration’s planned Interagency Trade Enforcement Center.

–The author thanks Monique Morrissey for comments

The myth of the rich, hungry Chinese consumer

The lead article in Monday’s business section of the Washington Post on the reported “boom” in U.S. exports to China painted an inaccurate and distorted view of U.S.-China trade. Headlined by a photo of Chinese Vice President Xi Ping visiting an Iowa family farm in February, the article claimed that a “richer China” has a “growing appetite for … American soybeans, cars, airplanes and medicine.” While the article does acknowledge the soaring U.S. trade deficit with China, it claims that such exports are a “bright spot.” In fact, those exports are swamped by soaring imports and trade deficits with China, which displaced 2.8 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2010 alone.

Review of actual trends in U.S. exports to China paints a very different picture than the one described in the Post article. Waste and scrap were the fastest growing U.S. exports to China, increasing $3.0 billion in 2011 (25.8 percent). The growth in agricultural products ranked a distant fifth on this list, increasing $0.9 billion (6.0 percent). Of the 10 fastest growing exports to China, seven were unprocessed commodities (as indicated by the black bars), including paper products, because 61.0 percent of U.S. paper exports to China in 2011 were unprocessed wood pulp. The vast majority of such exports are used as inputs for making paper and other products for export, not for Chinese domestic consumption.  Overall, although total U.S. exports to China increased $11.2 billion in 2011, imports increased by $34.4 billion and the trade deficit increased $23.3 billion. U.S. export of raw materials so that China, not the United States, can make higher value-added industrial products is an ongoing recipe for the decline of American manufacturing and for North American economic failure.

The Post cites unnamed experts who claimed that the main reason for the increased exports “is a booming China where wealthier tastes include an increased appetite for meat—and hence for soybeans used as livestock feed.” The growth in demand for grains pales in comparison to China’s voracious appetite for waste, paper and metal scrap, chemicals, minerals and ores and raw wood—commodities China turns into job-displacing exports. The rapid growth of Chinese exports to the U.S. and the world are the source of China’s growing wealth, and such wealth has not resulted in exports to China growing “exponentially” (e.g., faster and faster each year), another flawed claim from this report. Exports in 2011 increased at the third-slowest rate since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Export growth was slower only in the recession years of 2008 and 2009. Sadly, our exports to China are more closely tied to China’s demand for U.S. raw materials for its own production and exports than to Chinese consumers’ appetites for our products.

This story would be a good candidate for review by the Post‘s Fact Checker. We give it three Pinocchios.

– The author thanks Ross Eisenbrey and Doug Hall for helpful comments and Hilary Wething for research assistance.

Morals, money and book promotion

Since an unexpected link from Noam Chomsky (whoa!) has brought it some attention, I may as well take the chance to introduce my book Failure by Design as a piece of evidence in the “morals versus money” debate going on.

David Brooks, channeling Charles Murray, argues that moral/social decay led to the poor economic performance in the bottom half of the income distribution in recent decades. Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and Larry Mishel (I’m sure I’m missing others) demur – arguing that evidence for the poor economic performance is clear as day while evidence pointing to moral/social decay as an independent cause is awfully unpersuasive. (Wait! Don’t choose sides already based purely on teams – I have more evidence to offer!)

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that there’s plenty of reason to believe that things besides moral/social decay led to poor economic performance; policy changes alone just about guaranteed this poor performance. As Failure by Design notes, recent decades have seen: the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage fall for years (almost decades) at a stretch (leaving it still today below its late 1960s peak); an ongoing decline in the share of workers represented by a union (even while the share of workers desiring a union has not much moved); a much-larger share of the total U.S. economy accounted for by trade with much-poorer nations; and a Federal Reserve that has been less and less willing to push back hard against unemployment rates that rise above even their own conservative targets.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, disputes that these things should’ve been expected to do anything but inflict disproportionate harm on low- and moderate-wage workers. The conservative case for making these policy changes was that they would improve overall economic performance and if one was so inclined to make sure that low- and moderate-income workers were not harmed by these policy changes, one could have used the tax/transfer system to redistribute some of these overall gains their way.

I’d complain that not enough of these overall gains have found their way to the bottom half of the income distribution – but it’s awfully hard to believe these overall gains happened at all. Measures of aggregate economic performance are really no better (and are mostly worse) in recent decades even as incomes are shifted.

Exports and growth: Running harder and falling behind

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to double exports over the next five years, which would “support two million jobs.” How’s that working out? Not so well, despite claims to the contrary from the White House. In this year’s SOTU address, the president pointed to newly signed Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia and Panama as policies that will generate more exports, and they are, but the U.S trade deficit with those countries also increased last year. In short, it’s hard to argue that the Obama administration has taken any serious steps to make trade flows move from a minus to a plus in generating growth and employment in coming years.

Their rhetoric often suggests otherwise. Just last week, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman claimed that “last year our exports of goods alone to China exceeded $100 billion, and have been growing almost twice as fast as our exports to the rest of the world.” While this was a nice welcome for China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, who visits the White House today, it turns out that this nice round (and arbitrary number) was only reached if one is willing to overlook some key issues in trade data.

On the broader question of export growth, while exports to China and the world have been growing rapidly, the volume of U.S. imports increased much more rapidly – and this means that U.S. trade deficits with China and the world have increased rapidly over the past two years. This increasing trade deficit has  generated a net loss in trade-related jobs with both China and the world as a whole. Thus, while export growth may have supported some new U.S. jobs, the growth in imports has displaced a much larger number of jobs. Between 2008 and 2010, the growth of U.S. trade deficits with China alone resulted in the loss of 453,100 U.S. jobs. A thorough jobs analysis of U.S. trade in the 2009-2011 period has not yet been completed. However, the U.S. trade deficit in non-oil manufactured goods, the most labor intensive portion of U.S. goods trade, increased by $129.3 billion in this period, displacing hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Exports to China increase at a relatively brisk pace of 22.3 percent on average over the past two years (since President Obama’s announced goal of doubling exports), as shown in the figure below. While this number sounds great in isolation, it was more than offset by the growth of imports from China, as shown in the figure; and U.S. trade deficits with China have soared.¹ So, even though exports to China are growing rapidly, the base (their initial level) is tiny compared with imports, which exceeded exports by more than 4-to-1 throughout this period. Therefore, in order to merely stabilize our trade deficit with China, exports would have to grow at least four times as fast as imports. In fact, imports from China grew nearly as fast as our exports to that country, and our bilateral deficit has increased 14.6 percent per year on average over the past two years

U.S. exports to the world have increased at a slightly slower rate of 18.4 percent per year over the past two years. Although this is slightly lower than the rate of growth of exports to China, at this rate, exports will double between 2009 and 2013, one year ahead of the goal set by President Obama. Time for a celebration and a tour of all those shiny new factories shipping exports to China, right? Not if we care about jobs. If imports  and exports continue to grow at present rates, the U.S. global trade deficit will more than double by 2013 to more than $1 trillion. Millions more jobs will be lost, most of them in manufacturing. Again, the story is simple: Trade flows have two sides, imports and exports. Counting only one side tells you nothing about how policy has aided or hindered U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

Readers will note that exports to China have grown only slightly faster than exports to the world over the past two years.Read more

China responsible for bulk of the U.S. trade deficit in non-oil manufactured goods

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the U.S. goods trade deficit increased from $645.9 billion to $737.1 billion in 2011 (an increase of $91.2 billion, or 14.1 percent). Crude and refined petroleum products were responsible for $61.3 billion, or 67.2 percent of the increase in the total goods trade deficit, as reported by the Census Bureau. The U.S. trade deficit in non-oil manufactured goods increased by $48.9 billion, or more than the residual.¹ The U.S. has a small, growing trade surplus in agricultural goods which increased from $36.2 billion in 2010 to $43.1 billion in 2011. We are, in effect, trading energy and capital intensive cash grains and other farm products for labor intensive manufactured goods.

The U.S. has a large and rapidly growing trade deficit in non-oil manufactured goods, as shown in the figure below.  This deficit reached a peak of $515 billion in 2006 (shown on the right axis), improved slightly in 2007 and then collapsed during the recession in 2008 and 2009 as employment, consumer incomes and demand for manufactured goods—especially durable products like automobiles—fell sharply. As a result, imports and the non-oil manufacturing trade deficit also declined in the same period.

The U.S. trade deficit in non-oil manufactured goods has been growing rapidly since 2009, as shown in the figure, which has contributed to the slow growth of manufacturing employment since the Great Recession. The U.S. lost 2.3 million manufacturing jobs between Dec. 2007 and the employment trough in Jan. 2010. Only 354,000 manufacturing jobs were added through Dec. 2011, an increase of 3.1 percent (BLS 2012).  Manufacturing output, on the other hand, which reached its nadir earlier, in June 2009, has recovered much more strongly, up 16.0 percent since the trough. The difference is due, in part, to the rapid growth of the manufacturing trade deficit shown in the figure.

Throughout this period, imports of manufactured goods from China have continued to grow rapidly. Their share of the U.S. non-oil trade deficit in manufactured goods trade deficit rose steadily and more than tripled between 2000 and 2009 as shown on the red line in the figure (measured on the left axis). The U.S. trade deficit with China in these products increased in every year between 2000 and 2008. They fell only briefly in 2009, and hit new, record levels each year in 2010 and 2011, peaking at $326.1 billion in 2011. The U.S. trade deficit with China in non-oil manufactured products exceeded the overall bilateral deficit because the United States had a small trade surplus with China in raw agricultural products.²

Although China’s share of the manufacturing trade deficit has declined slightly in the past two years, as shown in the figure, China and five other Asian trading partners have been responsible for 80 percent or more of the U.S. trade deficit in non-oil manufactured products for the past three years. These trading partners are South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia. These countries have been forced to manipulate their currencies and compete with China on unfair trade practices to avoid loss of market share and falling behind.

Each of these countries has engaged in substantial currency manipulation and four of the six (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia) have been identified as maintaining heavily undervalued currencies, relative to the dollar.  The share of these six countries in the U.S. manufacturing trade deficits ranged from 92.4 percent in 2009 to 81.0 percent in 2011.

What China has in common with most, if not all, of its Asian trading partners are a set of illegal trade practices including currency manipulation and subsidies and other markets barriers. As noted by the Alliance for American Manufacturing’s Scott Paul, China’s unfair trade policies “are now the single largest impediment to job growth in America.” It is time for the United States to get tough with China and other unfair traders and put an end to these policies. The first and most important step is to get tough with currency manipulators.


¹Detailed data on product and industry trade by country in this post were all based on EPI analysis of data from the U.S. International Trade Commission (2012).

²Note, however, that China has sustained a small trade surplus in processed food and beverage products with the United States for the past four years; this surplus was $386 million in 2011 (U.S. International Trade Commission 2012).  

References

U.S. International Trade Commission (U.S.I.T.C.).  2012.  USITC Interactive Tariff and Trade DataWeb.  Washington, D.C.:  U.S.I.T.C. Available at: http://dataweb.usitc.gov/scripts/user_set.asp (registration required).  Accessed December 9, 2012.

Auto industry roars back, everyone cheers (except anti-government conservatives)

I’d like to add some thoughts to Charles Blow’s entertaining and informative blog post about Karl Rove and Chrysler’s “It’s halftime in America” Super Bowl ad. The little dust storm over the commercial is fun to watch, and the public’s reaction—which has been overwhelmingly positive—tells me that Americans might be ready, at long last, to appreciate the single most effective economic intervention of the Obama administration, the rescue of the domestic auto industry.

For those who missed it, the commercial (watch below) has Clint Eastwood narrating scenes of the rebirth of Detroit, both the city and its industry, which were weak from decades of decline and, as Eastwood says, knocked down, but not out, by the Great Recession.

Today, the city’s in worse shape than the industry, but the automakers’ new plants, new models, sales revival and new jobs have created a sense of hope for a lot of people who have seen rock bottom. Against all the odds, Chrysler Corporation, which was not just knocked down, but was declared clinically dead by most experts five years ago, had the strongest year-over-year U.S. sales increase in January and continues to gain market share. Ford and General Motors both posted huge profits last year, and GM regained its place as the world’s auto sales leader.

This nearly miraculous, feel-good story has made conservatives dyspeptic. Mitt Romney and most Republicans in Congress opposed the federal government’s loans and restructuring of GM and Chrysler. They were happy to saddle President Obama with the catastrophic job losses that would have resulted. The Center for Automotive Research forecast the loss of 2.5 million jobs and EPI’s Rob Scott estimated the losses would range between 2.5 and 3 million jobs, while Moody’s Analytics’ Mark Zandi estimated the damage at about 1.5 million jobs.

Conservative opponents like Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and even Zandi, who supported the rescue plan, predicted that the rescue would end up costing taxpayers upwards of a hundred billion dollars. They assumed the initial loans would not be repaid and would lead to additional loans when the companies failed to meet their sales and revenue targets.¹ They were wrong. Totally, absolutely wrong. Zandi has, at least, been forthright that things turned out far better than he feared.

Nevertheless, because TARP funds were used to save the auto companies, and because TARP is still widely reviled, most Americans opposed the rescue as just another corporate “bailout.” It didn’t help that the Big 3 were unpopular and their executives were tone deaf and overpaid. Add to this mix a right-wing effort to discredit the United Auto Workers and blame it for the industry’s woes, and it’s easy to see why President Obama has had trouble making people understand what a dramatic success his (and George W. Bush’s) policy has been. What should have been a huge re-election asset has been viewed as a liability, even in Michigan and Ohio!

But maybe the public does get it now. If they do, Rove and Fox News will have every reason to choke on a commercial that never mentions the government or Obama but celebrates the fact that a key U.S. industry just might win the second half.


¹As EPI’s Robert Scott points out, the rescue made both fiscal and policy sense, even if the loans were never repaid.

A cheaper dollar is not enough

My colleague Josh Bivens is right to call Christina Romer on her failure to note the importance of currency manipulation on the plight of U.S. manufacturing. But, he leaves us with the impression that the story ends there, and that a targeted manufacturing policy is simply a poor second-best reaction to the governing class’ refusal to deal with our overvalued dollar. It’s not. Even if Romer had acknowledged the currency problem, she still wouldn’t have been, as it were, on the money.

Romer dismisses the notion of “special treatment” of manufacturing (a euphemism for industrial policy – the policy that still dare not say its name), as a sentimental effort to turn back the tide of history, which conventional economics wisdom tells us has thrown American goods production into its trash heap. In the same news cycle, Larry Katz of Harvard tells the New York Times that an increase in manufacturing jobs is “implausible.”

But what is really implausible is the notion that America’s creditors will continue to finance our current account deficit forever. The mills of macroeconomic adjustment may grind slowly, but sooner or later—with or without a change in U.S. dollar policy—they will grind away the dollar’s inflated position in the world. Assuming an eventual global recovery, foreign investors will eventually find more profitable ways to invest their money (in their own economies, for example) than to keep lending it to American consumers at low rates and with the increasing risk that they will be paid back in devalued dollars.

At that point, the market will force the dollar down, making us more price competitive. But this will not be costless. Given that a large chunk of what we buy—including most of our oil—comes from abroad, the initial impact will be to raise the cost of living here, undercutting real incomes.

Moreover, time has not stood still. After 30 years of surrendering markets and off-shoring production, Americans no longer dominate the upper reaches of the global supply chains. The world is now full of competitors whose governments will use every possible policy tool to keep, and expand, their share of high value-added markets. So, in the absence of something similar here, our workers will be competing on the basis of cheaper labor costs.

It’s already happening. Two tier wages systems, in which younger workers get paid much less are now standard practice in many American factories. As Rich Trumka said to me a few months ago, “What makes you think that two-tiers could not turn to three?” The Obama administration plays up the General Electric decision to bring the production of a water heater back from China to a plant in Kentucky. What it plays down is that the hourly wage went from $20 to $13 per hour.

Some have criticized President Obama’s proposals as cynical election-year half-measures. They may be right. Still, it is, finally, a step in the right direction. Even with a cheaper dollar, laissez-faire domestic policy is not going to bring back the American Dream.

Romer argues against ‘special treatment’ for U.S. manufacturing (gasp, somebody smart is wrong on the Internet!)

Oh no, the economy’s “paging Dr. Romer” feature seems to have developed a glitch. For those who don’t know, Mike Konczal suggested the “PDR” feature a while back, noting that, “Anytime someone associated with the Obama Administration, past or present, says something that is probably wrong about the economy in 2011, we break out Christina Romer saying the correct thing in early 2009.”

And it’s true that on the most important questions of the past couple of years, Romer has been admirably correct and as loud as policymakers with real influence are generally allowed to be. This makes her recent column in the New York Times that much more disappointing. The problem starts and ends with the title – which normally isn’t the author’s fault but in this case actually encapsulates her argument pretty well: “Do Manufacturers Need Special Treatment?”

She argues that recent debates about the importance of helping the manufacturing sector (started in large part by President Obama’s calls to do so in the State of the Union address) are essentially about the costs and benefits of providing this “special treatment” to manufacturing.

This is a very odd read of the current situation. The main problem facing U.S. manufacturing today is a value of the dollar that leads to mammoth trade deficits in the sector. This problem in turn stems largely from the policy of many of our important trading partners to peg the value of their currency at levels that insure very large deficits; as well as from our own policy of not doing anything about this unbalanced trade. Correcting this currency misalignment would provide large benefits to U.S. manufacturers, would reduce the foreign debt of the U.S., and would boost living standards in our trading partners. It’s not clear why calling to undertake this extremely obvious policy intervention is akin to arguing for “special treatment for manufacturers.”

And yes, it’s getting old saying this again and again. But, not as old as people debating issues of trade and manufacturing without wrestling with what is by far the most important policy angle of it.

Lastly, just as a data note, Romer repeats what is a very common canard about manufacturing employment: “Unemployment today is high, but not because of a decline in manufacturing. That decline has been going on for 30 years…”

Depends on what you mean by “decline.” Manufacturing as a share of total employment has been shrinking for decades – and this is not necessarily a terrible thing, so long as it simply reflects faster productivity growth in this sector. But, for 35 years, between 1965 and as recently as 2000, manufacturing employment never dipped below 16 million (and never got above 19.5 million), meaning that it was actually quite stable and not in obvious decline. Then, the sector lost 3 million jobs in the 2000 recession and never recovered them, largely because of subsequent very large increases in manufacturing trade deficits. The sector today employs less than 12 million workers:

Is it unreasonable to expect manufacturing to reach the share of overall employment it last attained in 1965 (27 percent – which would be 36 million jobs)? Yes. But, given a real recovery and intelligent exchange-rate policy, is it unreasonable to expect that it could reach its overall employment level of 1965 (around 16.5 million)? Not at all.

And it wouldn’t even require “special treatment.”

And look, Romer knows all of this. See? But given that no administration in recent decades has done anything about chronic dollar overvaluation – a clear policy failure – is it a shock that many have decided to try to advocate for help for manufacturing through other means? Of course not – but surely the right move here is not arguing against help for manufacturing based on a hypothetical that assumes status quo policy is mostly neutral towards the sector. Instead it’s providing those rightly concerned that current policy is damaging the the sector with the strongest arguments to end this damage.

State of the Union: Manufacturing a Better Future

In his State of the Union Speech last night, President Obama outlined a blueprint for rebuilding the economy the right way, by rebuilding American manufacturing, expanding clean energy investments and by fixing our broken infrastructure. Kudos to him for continuing to highlight this important issue, but he failed to mention the main cause of our manufacturing woes in the first place: currency manipulation.

First, some background. China currently engages in massive intervention in currency markets, buying U.S. dollar-denominated assets to boost the value of the dollar and keep their own currency artificially cheap. This acts as a subsidy to U.S. imports from China, and it raises the cost of U.S. exports — both to China and to every country where U.S. exports compete with goods coming from there. Of the nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs we lost between Jan. 2000 and Dec. 2009, 2.8 million jobs were displaced by growing trade deficits with China between 2001 and 2010.

Manufacturing employment is growing again, with 322,000 jobs added in the past two years. But millions of jobs have been left on the table. By ending currency manipulation with China and other Asian countries, we could create up to 2.25 million jobs over the next 18 to 24 months, boost GDP by up to $285.7 billion, and reduce the federal budget deficit by up to $857 billion over the next 10 years.

The president proposed some well-intended changes in tax policy designed to reduce incentives for manufacturing firms to outsource production abroad and to encourage them to bring jobs home. But tax policies only work around the margins of manufacturing employment. We need to go after root causes of manufacturing job loss such as currency manipulation by China and other Asian nations.

The Senate passed a bill last fall that would allow the Commerce department to penalize imports from China that have benefited from illegal currency manipulation. But House leaders will not allow the measure to come to a vote.  The Obama administration has failed to do its part as well. Six times they have refused to identify China as a currency manipulator, denying the elephant in the room.

There are certainly other unfair trade practices beyond currency manipulation worth fighting.  China provides illegal subsidies to domestic and foreign firms in a wide range of industries including steel, glass and paper. It also subsidizes clean and green technology industries, and maintains extensive barriers to imports of manufactured goods from the United States and other countries. The president announced important steps to create a new trade enforcement unit to bring together resources from across the government to attack unfair trade practices. This will allow the government to initiate new unfair trade cases against China and other unfair traders.

But with a gridlocked Congress held hostage by the Republican controlled House that has refused to compromise with the Senate or the administration, President Obama’s hands are tied on new initiatives that require congressional approval. Certainly, there is more that he could do to fight unfair trade, for example by confronting China over currency manipulation. But the administrative measures outlined in his SOTU address will begin to make a difference.

Apple execs (like everyone else) overlook global exchange rates

Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher have a justly buzzed-about article in the New York Times this week on how the production of the iPhone (and Apple products more generally) has become almost completely globalized. A quick but important addition to their story, though, is the role of exchange rates. Yes, I’m getting boring on this topic, but, exchange rates are by far the single most important determinant of U.S. trade performance, so if the question is “why isn’t X made in the US anymore,” it’s very likely that the answer remains “the dollar is overvalued.”

And, strikingly, even the Apple-specific timeline fits the data regarding the biggest exchange rate development – China’s mammoth intervention in international currency markets to keep their own currency from rising vis-à-vis the dollar. This is how Duhigg and Bradsher write it up:

“In its early days, Apple usually didn’t look beyond its own backyard for manufacturing solutions. A few years after Apple began building the Macintosh in 1983, for instance, Mr. Jobs bragged that it was “a machine that is made in America.” In 1990, while Mr. Jobs was running NeXT, which was eventually bought by Apple, the executive told a reporter that “I’m as proud of the factory as I am of the computer.” As late as 2002, top Apple executives occasionally drove two hours northeast of their headquarters to visit the company’s iMac plant in Elk Grove, Calif. But by 2004, Apple had largely turned to foreign manufacturing….”

So, after 2002 Apple more and more turns to China for manufacturing? Huh. Not surprising – the graph below shows that the pace of Chinese accumulation of U.S. reserves (which leads inexorably to rising pressure on the dollar’s value, keeping Chinese products more competitive in U.S. and global markets) coincides with an accelerating increase in the U.S./China trade deficit around this time as well.

There is, after all, a reason why economists harp on the importance of the exchange rate – it drives lots and lots of hugely important economic decisions. As China intervenes to keep the value of its currency from rising against the dollar, this gives them an ever-increasing cost advantage versus the United States. The result is lots and lots of individual firm-level decisions (like Apple’s) to produce in China rather than the United States (because the exchange rate makes it cheaper) and the sum of these individual decisions cumulate to a huge aggregate trade deficit. The macro downsides of this trade deficit have been documented plenty of places, but if you’re writing about any feature of the US/China economic relationship and not mentioning this currency issue, you’re essentially writing Hamlet without the prince.

It’s frankly kind of amazing that Apple executives quoted in the article tell stories about how their global sourcing shifts are really about American skills, while managing to not mention global exchange rates. After all, there is an obvious trend in exchange rates and currency intervention that hamstring American competitiveness vis-à-vis China in the early-to-mid 2000s – but it’s awfully hard to make the case that American workers just got a lot dumber at the same time. But maybe blaming American workers can get some government subsidies for Apple to hire and train people in the U.S., while pointing out the effect of exchange rates might just lead to calls to rebalance the status quo U.S./China trade relationship – a status quo that has served Apple (and many other global manufacturers) very well.

Trade and jobs – why make it so hard?

Sometimes it seems like policymakers think that points are given for degree of difficulty. The Washington Post reports a number of policies are being considered by the Obama administration to “reward companies that choose to bring jobs home” and eliminate tax breaks “for companies that are moving jobs overseas.”

The impulse behind these ideas seems fine to me – the U.S. economy continues to “leak” too much demand to the rest of the world in the form of chronic trade deficits.

But, as the article notes, designing tax-based solutions to this problem will be quite complex and would take huge amounts of money to actually move the dial on this problem.*

If only there was a policy solution that was simple, could happen even without a gridlocked Congress, and would actually move the dial on the problem of large trade deficits dragging on growth.

But there is! Allow the dollar to fall in value sufficiently to move the trade deficit much closer to balance. Currently the biggest impediment to this happening is the policy of major U.S. trading partners (China is the linchpin) of managing the value of their currency to keep it from rising against the dollar – this results in Chinese exports gaining cost-advantages in both the U.S. and third-country markets where Chinese-produced goods compete against U.S.-produced ones.

Presumably this issue came up in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s meeting with Chinese leaders yesterday, but this issue has “come up” between the U.S. and China for a decade with no movement. As Joe Gagnon and Gary Hufbauer have pointed out, however, there is no need to wait for China on this one – the U.S. could solve this currency management unilaterally.

Engineering a decline in the dollar’s value costs taxpayers nothing, can be done without moving through a gridlocked Congress, would actually provide significant help to the job market in coming years, and requires no Byzantine redesign of the tax code.

So, yes, one probably shouldn’t bet on it happening.


*Yes, there are ways that features of the U.S. tax code provide some incentive for production abroad rather than at home – and these should be removed. But this is surely a second- or even third-order driver of trade flows, at best.

Cleaner, safer air (and some jobs) coming soon: Final “air-toxics rule” still likely to be life-saver, not job-killer

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the “air toxics rule” – a regulation mandating the reduction of toxic emissions (including mercury and arsenic) from the nation’s power plants, with some details concerning this rule made available to Washington Post. The EPA is expected to provide full information on the rule later this week.

The cost and other data on the final rule that have been released differ little from information available about the proposed rule.  It is thus very unlikely that the final Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) describing the expected impacts of the final rule will differ significantly from the proposed Regulatory Impact Analysis and other information released with the proposed rule in March of this year. This information makes clear that with benefits exceeding costs by at least 5-to-1, the rule is well worth doing – with up to 17,000 lives saved per year after its implementation and 850,000 additional days of work added to the economy because workers are healthier and would require fewer sick days.

Opponents of the act predictably characterized the air toxics rule as a “job-killer.” Even normall,y this is pretty bad economics – no serious economist thinks that regulatory changes on the scale of the air toxics rule have non-trivial impacts on national job growth. And during times like now – with the economy mired in a “liquidity trap” (very large amounts of productive slack persist even as short-term interest rates are stuck at zero) – this is completely upside-down economics. In today’s circumstances (with very high rates of unemployment) the jobs directly created by the need to install pollution abatement and control technologies will almost surely not be offset by rising interest rates or prices, as could happen if these regulations took effect in an economy with no productive slack.

Our own earlier research, based on the information provided with the proposed rule, indicated that it would lead to roughly 92,000 net new jobs by 2015. The nature of this estimate is likely to apply to the final rule as well. To be clear, this rule isn’t a significant jobs policy that would put a large dent in the current unemployment crisis. But, it is a very valuable rule that would only push in the correct direction in the labor market.

We will re-examine the job impacts of the final rule when full information is available.

Eurozone crisis: Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

The crisis in the eurozone, and the bizarre failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to even try to manage it, has united strange bedfellows in arguing that the United States Federal Reserve should begin acting as in loco Responsible Central Bankis for the eurozone.

Brad DeLong argued a week ago for the Fed to begin buying up Italian and Greek debt to avoid a financial crisis potentially as big or bigger than the fallout from Lehman’s collapse in 2008. Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, often skeptical of finance-centric explanations of (and solutions to) the ongoing jobs crisis over the years since the Great Recession began … agree wholeheartedly.

Yes, as a general rule, economists agreeing with each other is usually a recipe for other people to begin reaching for their own wallets, but this group is both smart and (much) more importantly right on this specific issue. If the ECB won’t act like a central bank, and if the absence of a central bank in the eurozone threatens American economic growth (and it does – the eurozone is a crucial export market for the U.S. and fallout from U.S. banks holding eurozone could indeed be ugly), then it makes sense for the Fed to step in.

It would be really helpful, by the way, to have the two current vacancies on the Fed’s Board of Governors filled by people who were consistently arguing for aggressive actions to stem the economic crisis.

The timing is right for construction-related environmental jobs

Today’s interesting story on the front page of The Washington Post presents a nuanced view of the reaction of companies  to new environmental regulations, quoting, for instance, several utility industry representatives on the ways jobs are created during the compliance process. The main channel of job creation occurs through the construction and installation of pollution-abatement equipment, or less-polluting facilities.

The piece is a good overview of the impact of regulatory change on employment in general, but there is an important angle that it did not touch on: the positive job-impacts of regulatory changes are likely to be much more potent in today’s economic context of high unemployment and low rate of capacity utilization. In particular, the construction industry, where many jobs would be created, is in particularly dire shape, with its overall level still nearly a half million short of its level at the start of the recession.

As Josh has blogged previously, when there are large amounts of unused capital and unemployed workers, as there are today, government regulations can effectively move this capital into action in the form of investments to comply with important environmental rules. Partially because of this, Josh’s analysis of the air toxics rule found that it would be a net job producer; in essence, in 2014 the jobs generated by investments in less-polluting technologies would outweigh any jobs lost due to higher prices or plant closings by about 90,000 workers.

As the manufacturing sector goes, so goes America?

As Americans wrap their heads around the meaning of the growing “Occupy” movements in cities throughout the nation, trying to determine whether or not the 99 percent vs 1 percent breakdown of Americans constitutes “class warfare,” there are a great many irrefutable facts that need to inform such discussions. Many have been clearly articulated recently, (including this great collection by my EPI colleagues). In this blog post, I begin a renewed examination of how the decline of manufacturing employment has contributed to the erosion of the American middle class, and in the process, left many state economies in shambles.

Employment in the manufacturing sector has long provided a foundation for the American middle class. In 1999, former EPI economists noted key features of manufacturing employment:

Manufacturing provides middle-class jobs and a channel of upward mobility for non-college-educated workers (especially men). Compensation is higher and fringe benefits (such as health insurance and pension coverage) are more common than in other industries that, like manufacturing, employ non-college graduates. Blue-collar workers in manufacturing are also more likely to be union members, and thus they have more bargaining power than do comparable workers in services.

In 1999, there were troubling signs that all was not well in the American manufacturing sector, with the “Asian crisis” identified as a growing threat; a threat which my colleague Rob Scott has repeatedly shown to have continued to erode American employment (see, for example, Growing U.S. trade deficit with China cost 2.8 million jobs between 2001 and 2010). The alarming decline of the American manufacturing sector has of course only gotten worse over the intervening decade, leaving in its wake many state economies that have yet to recover. Since Jan. 2000, the American manufacturing sector has lost 5.5 million jobs, nearly a third (32.1 percent) of the Jan. 2000 total. Six states – Michigan, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York – have lost over 40 percent of their manufacturing workforce, while another five states have lost more than 37 percent of their manufacturing employment (collectively, the dark red states in the figure below). Indeed, only Alaska has seen growth in its manufacturing sector since 2000, though numbering less than 2,000 workers.

Click to enlarge

In future posts, I’ll examine the impact the erosion of manufacturing employment has had on wage trends in those states that have been hardest hit by the decimation of manufacturing employment. Lest readers despair, here are some concrete suggestions for what can be done to breathe new life into American manufacturing:

Return to profitability, new UAW contract reflect the benefits of auto industry’s restructuring

In Dec. 2008, the U.S. auto industry stood on the brink of collapse. The Obama administration negotiated a restructuring plan for the industry that took General Motors and Chrysler through quick bankruptcies, helped get them back on their feet again, and provided bridge financing for auto parts makers and auto finance companies. This plan was widely criticized at the time but restructuring has paid big dividends for the nation, autoworkers and the domestic auto industry.

If the auto industry had been allowed to collapse, between 1.1 and 3.3 million jobs would have been lost between 2009 and 2011. After restructuring, more than 78,000 jobs have been added in U.S. motor vehicle production. All three U.S. auto companies returned to profitability in 2011 and they earned combined profits of nearly $6 billion in the first quarter of this year. Total sales and market share of the Big Three are all up sharply since 2009.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have bargained new labor agreements with the UAW, recently approved by workers at each company, which will ensure increased employment and investments in the United States by all three firms. The completion of these agreements and the strong improvement in the performance of U.S. automakers shows that the Obama administration made a wise decision to invest in the auto industry restructuring package. If the industry had been allowed to fail, costs to federal, state and local governments in the form of reduced tax payments and increased unemployment compensation would have totaled between $83 billion and $249 billion in 2009 alone.

The auto industry restructuring plan has yielded a huge return on taxpayer investment and put the industry and its workers on a solid path to recovery. I estimate the federal, state and local governments saved between $10 and $78 for every net dollar invested in auto industry restructuring—a very savvy investment at a time when failure to intervene would have been catastrophic for the domestic economy.

How not to make globalization work for America’s workers: A tale of two trade deals

Last week, Congress considered two important pieces of legislation that will affect imports and exports; one would provide a substantial boost to the U.S. economy in the near term while the other will be irrelevant at best. The first was S 1619, The Currency Exchange Rate Oversight and Reform Act of 2011. I have estimated that ending currency manipulation with China and other Asian countries could create up to 2.25 million jobs over the next 18 to 24 months, boosting GDP by up to $285.7 billion and reducing the federal budget deficit by up to $857 billion over the next 10 years.

This bill passed the Senate with a strong, bipartisan majority of 63 votes. A similar measure passed the House last year by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of 349-79.  This year, the companion bill to the Senate measure, HR 639 has attracted 225 co-sponsors, also a bipartisan majority. However, the bill faces opposition in the House this year from Republican leadership, who may not allow it to come up for a vote, while the White House has also expressed concerns about the legislation.

Contrast the fate of currency legislation with the package of free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. These deals were rushed through both chambers of Congress last week just in time for the visit of South Korea’s president Lee Myung-bak. The Korea and Colombia FTAs were opposed by more than two-thirds of House Democrats, and 64 percent opposed the Panama FTA. Yet, both were approved by the House and Senate and will be signed into law by President Obama later this week.

At best, the administration claims that these deals will support a few tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs that could be created over the next decade (I have estimated that when the effects of growing imports are included, we are likely to lose over 200,000 jobs over the next seven years due to the Korea and Colombia FTAs alone). But the United States has a jobs crisis now. A decade from now, if employment finally recovers, these deals could simply end up moving jobs from one industry to another. FTAs are no answer to the jobs crisis, even in the best case.

Given the jobs crisis, why can’t we pass currency legislation that enjoys broad, bipartisan support? Why are controversial trade deals that will have, at best, a minimal impact on unemployment being rushed through Congress with a full-court press from the White House? The answer is simple. Big business opposes restrictions on China trade because they earn enormous profits on cheap and subsidized imports from China, and because low real wages in China keep a lid on wages of their U.S. workers. And big business favors FTAs, because they make outsourcing easier. So it turns out that the Occupy Wall Street group has it right. When it comes to trade, it’s not about ideology, or politics, it’s about the money.

Snapshot: Will outcome of new trade agreements be any better than NAFTA?

Last night, Congress passed a free trade agreement for the first time since 2007. In fact, it passed three.

Behind vast Republican support, the House and Senate approved trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. This came, of course, one day after Senate Republicans killed President Obama’s jobs bill. These trade agreements should be a boon for jobs, right?

Not so fast. Robert Scott, EPI’s Director of Trade and Policy Manufacturing Research, estimates that 214,000 net U.S. jobs will be lost or displaced in the first seven years under the FTAs with Colombia and South Korea.

“With 14 million unemployed, these deals will only further burden our domestic economy, which is already teetering on the brink of another recession,” wrote Scott in a statement today.

Supporters of the FTAs, however, claim the deals will create tens or hundreds of thousands of U.S. export jobs. That would sound great if it wasn’t so naive.

As Scott points out in this week’s snapshot, trade both adds to and subtracts from the demand for workers. While the growth of exports supports domestic employment, the increase of imports displaces American jobs. Scott says counting export jobs while ignoring imports is like “trying to run a business while ignoring expenses.”

In 1993, the Clinton administration also had high hopes for job creation when the U.S. and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. They claimed NAFTA would “create an additional 200,000 high-wage jobs related to exports to Mexico by 1995.”

Before NAFTA, the U.S. had a trade surplus with Mexico. By 2010, the U.S. had a trade deficit with Mexico and had lost or displaced 682,900 jobs. Free trade, anyone?

Cato on China trade: Looking glass economics

My research has shown that the growth of the U.S.-China Trade deficit since 2001 has displaced or eliminated 2.8 million American jobs, and that eliminating currency manipulation by five countries in Asia (including China) could create up to 2.25 million U.S. jobs in the next 18-to-24 months. Dan Ikenson of the Cato Institute has responded with a graph which appears to show “a positive relationship” between “the bilateral trade deficit and jobs… when the deficit increases, U.S. employment rises; when the deficit shrinks, U.S. employment declines.” If Ikenson is right, there’s a simple policy solution: just eliminate exports!

Increasing exports reduces the trade deficit. In Ikenson’s world, this shrinks employment.  In Ikenson’s model, eliminating exports increases the trade deficit and creates jobs. If he’s right, we should eliminate all exports, which totaled about $1.8 trillion last year. That will provide a HUGE boost to employment and the economy.

President Obama and all the business executives on his export council, such as Boeing Chair W. James McNerney, must be wrong if Ikenson is right. Exports are really the problem, and the president’s campaign to double exports will only make our terrible unemployment problems worse.

Last Wednesday, Senator Orrin Hatch used a graph very similar to the one developed by Mr. Ikenson to criticize my estimate that China trade has displaced 2.8 million jobs. The senator’s chart compares only U.S. imports and employment—he was careful to avoid bringing exports into the discussion. But his chart otherwise echo’s Ikenson’s work.

The basic problem with both charts it that they ignore basic economics and simple rules of national income accounting. In the national income accounts, exports contribute to Gross Domestic Product (and employment); imports reduce GDP and employment. Every quarter, the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the U.S. Department of Commerce publishes GDP statistics based on these national income accounts, and they have been a foundation of macroeconomics for generations. Economists from EPI and many other leading institutions, including the Federal Reserve bank of New York, have estimated the job impacts of trade in recent years by netting the job opportunities lost to imports against those gained through exports. But in the world of Senator Hatch and Mr. Ikenson, increasing imports are good for employment and exports are bad: what’s down is up and up is down. It’s economics Through the Looking Glass:

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 5).

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.

China’s People’s Bank: The lady doth protest too much

On Monday, the Senate agreed to move ahead with debate on the China currency bill, approving a petition to proceed on the measure by a 79-19 marginthis morning they voted to proceed to a final vote, also by a strong margin. Predictably, the People’s Bank of China responded by claiming that the yuan (or RMB) has appreciated “greatly” and is close to a balanced level. The best indicator that China is manipulating its currency is simply that it must buy hundreds of billions of dollar in U.S. assets each year to keep it from moving ever higher. That’s how we know that they haven’t done enough.

China’s purchases of Treasury bills and other types of foreign exchange reserves have accelerated in the past year, as I showed on Monday. In the past 12 months (ending June 30, 2011), they acquired nearly $730 billion in additional reserves. Between 2005 and 2010 their reserve acquisitions averaged between $400 and $450 billion, which indicates that the yuan is even more undervalued than it was a year ago. This is true despite the yuan’s real, inflation-adjusted appreciation of 7.4 percent in the past year.

William R. Cline and John Williamson of the Peterson Institute have produced some of the best estimates of China’s currency manipulation. In a series of annual reports on fundamental equilibrium exchange rates (FEERs), they have estimated that China’s currency manipulation increased from 24.2 percent in 2010 to 28.5 percent in 2011, despite the fact that China’s real exchange rate appreciated over the past year. Three factors explain why China’s estimated FEERs increased in 2011.

First, the International Monetary Fund has estimated that China’s global current account surplus (the broadest measure of its trade balance) will more than double from $305 billion in 2010 to $852 billion in 2016 (an increase of 179 percent), as shown in the graph below.  There is widespread agreement among the G-20 leaders (including China) that global trade flows must be rebalanced to help end mass unemployment around the world. These IMF predictions show that unless China sharply revalues, world trade flows will become even more distorted than they are today. Among the top five currency manipulators identified by Cline and Williamson (China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan), China is responsible for the vast majority (83 percent) of the estimated global surpluses of these currency manipulators in 2016.

Click figure to enlarge

Second, the IMF predicts that China’s current account surplus will rise from 5.2 percent of GDP in 2011 to 7.2 percent in 2016. Cline and Williamson project in their latest research China’s that current account will rise even faster, to 7.8 percent of GDP in 2016. China’s rapidly growing GDP, combined with a rapidly growing trade surplus as a share of its GDP, and its stubborn addiction to currency manipulation will, if unchallenged, destabilize both the U.S. and global recoveries, as suggested by the IMF’s own forecast of global trade imbalances shown above.

The final nail in the case against the People’s Bank is its own massive and growing accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, as noted above. China has invested trillions of dollars to prevent the appreciation of their currency to a fair market value. China’s currency manipulation is a fundamental threat to the U.S. and world manufacturing system. It artificially suppresses the value of the yuan, subsidizing China’s exports to the United States and raising the cost of U.S. exports – both to China and to every country where U.S. exports compete with Chinese products. Enough is enough. It’s time to get tough with China and other currency manipulators.

China’s currency manipulation reached record level in June 2011

In light of this afternoon’s cloture vote in the Senate on China’s currency bill, I think it would be helpful to go over why the bill is so important. Simply put, unlike most bills that proponents claim are about “job creation,” this one actually is. Since it entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, China has engaged in massive intervention in currency markets, buying U.S. dollar-denominated assets to boost the value of the dollar and keep their own currency artificially cheap. This acts as a subsidy to U.S. imports from China, and it raises the cost of U.S. exports — both to China and to every country where U.S. exports compete with goods coming from there.

Between 2007 and 2010, China invested nearly $450 billion per year in Treasury bills and other foreign exchange reserves to keep its own currency cheap. In the year ending June 30, 2011, China’s purchases of foreign exchange surged to nearly $730 billion, and its total holdings reached $3.2 trillion, as shown in the figure below. Roughly $2.2 trillion (70 percent) of China’s foreign exchange reserves are held in Treasury Securities and other dollar denominated assets.

Click figure to enlarge

The best estimates arethat the Chinese currency, known as the yuan (also known as the Renminbi, or RMB), is undervalued by approximately 28.5 percent, relative to the dollar.  China’s currency manipulation has compelled others to follow similar policies in order to protect their relative competitiveness and to promote their own exports. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore have currencies that are undervalued by 27.5 percent to 38.5 percent against the dollar.

In The Benefits of Currency Revaluation I showed that full revaluation of the yuan and other undervalued Asian currencies would improve the U.S. current account balance by up to $190.5 billion, increasing U.S. GDP by as much as $285.7 billion, adding up to 2.25 million U.S. jobs over the next 18-to-24 months, and reducing the federal budget deficit by up to $857 billion over 10 years. This change to the current account balance would also help workers in China and other Asian countries by reducing inflationary overheating and increasing workers’ purchasing power.  Revaluation is a “win-win” for the global economy.

Millions of jobs left on the table

It was great to see President Obama challenge congressional Republicans to do something real about jobs. His jobs bill, submitted to Congress Monday, would support 2.3 million new jobs and provide continuing support for another 1.6 million jobs. But his plan requires congressional approval, which is about as likely as a World Series appearance for Washington’s sub-.500 Nationals this year.

With unemployment at 9.1 percent, our economy desperately needs at least 11 million new jobs now just to get the unemployment rate down to pre-recession levels. We cannot allow the political stalemate in Washington to stand in the way of a full set of bold job creation initiatives. The president should take immediate, executive action that will directly support the creation of up to 2.25 million export jobs by eliminating unfair currency manipulation by China and other countries.

The administration wants to stimulate exports, and that’s a good idea, but if and only if it improves the trade balance. Growing exports support domestic employment but growing imports displace domestic jobs; meaning that we need policy changes to boost net exports. The president included an oft-repeated promise in his speech last week that he will soon send legislation to Congress to implement Bush-negotiated free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Passage of those FTAs would be a terrible idea because all past evidence indicates that FTAs are not an effective tool for improving the U.S. trade balance and stimulating net job creation.

If the president was serious about boosting net exports he would take significant action to stop the currency management of our trading partners that has hamstrung the competitiveness of U.S. producers. He has the authority to do this without Congress – and swift and independent action could help to create millions of new jobs over the next 18 to 24 months.

The best estimates are that currency intervention by our trading partners (i.e., buying U.S. dollar-denominated assets to boost the value of the dollar and keep their own currency artificially cheap) raises the cost of U.S. exports – both to the intervening countries (China is the most important one) as well as to  every country where U.S. exports compete with goods coming from there. China’s currency intervention has also compelled Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan to follow similar policies in order to protect their relative competitiveness and to promote their own exports.

In a recent report on the benefits of revaluation, I showed that full revaluation (28.5%) of the yuan and other undervalued Asian currencies would improve the U.S. current account balance by up to $190.5 billion, increasing U.S. gross domestic product by as much as $285.7 billion, adding up to 2.25 million U.S. jobs, and reducing the federal budget deficit by up to $857 billion over 10 years.

This revaluation done quickly would be a win-win – it would help workers in China and other Asian countries by reducing inflationary overheating and increasing workers’ purchasing power in those countries.

There are several different actions that can be taken by the Obama administration to put pressure on China. First, it can and should identify China and the other countries listed above as currency manipulators when the Treasury releases its Semiannual Report on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies in mid-October. This would trigger mandatory negotiations which could result in sanctions if the issues are not resolved. Secretary Tim Geithner has consistently refused to name China or any other country as a currency manipulator, despite all available evidence to the contrary. The administration could also file complaints with the World Trade Organization (WTO) about China’s currency manipulation and request dispute resolution.

The administration could also endorse China currency legislation that has been introduced in both the House and the Senate. The Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act (HR 639, S 328) was passed by an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the House in 2010, but the bill died in the Senate. The scope of the bill is a bit limited – only 3 percent of Chinese imports would be affected – making it something of a rifle shot; larger artillery may be needed to persuade China that it’s in its own interests to revalue.

The mere threat of a large, across-the-board tariff on imports from China may be sufficient to persuade China that the time has come for a major revaluation that would benefit both countries. In 2005, Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham introduced legislation (S. 295) that would have imposed a 27.5 percent tariff on all imports from China if it failed to revalue within 180 days. This legislation was approved by the Senate (by a veto-proof margin of 67-33) but not by the House. Even so, shortly after its passage, China allowed its currency to rise for the first time in more than a decade. The currency ultimately appreciated by 20 percent, until the onset of the great recession in late 2007, when it was again tied to the dollar. China will respond to the threat of severe external pressure – especially since their policy of intervention has clear downsides for them as well.

The U.S. needs at least 11 million jobs to eliminate excess unemployment. Fiscal policy, if it can be enacted, is a good start, but the task before us is huge. We need a job strategy that pulls every available policy lever. The best place to start is with exchange rates—a lever that can be pulled by President Obama even if Congress refuses to help.

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