Trade and Globalization

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.