Trade and Globalization
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.
New data from the United Kingdom indicates that its economy has seen six consecutive months of economic contraction—the rule of thumb definition of recession.
Let’s be even more concrete: If the U.K. had just followed the fiscal stance of the United States over the past two years, they would not have re-entered recession. Adam Posen of the Bank of England recently estimated that the U.S. fiscal stance has contributed about 3 percent extra to overall GDP growth compared to a scenario where they had followed the U.K. stance. And this gap has actually widened in more recent years (and is projected to widen even further for 2012).
Posen’s estimate crucially includes the drag from state and local governments in the U.S., so it’s not like this overall fiscal stance in the U.S. over this time has been wildly expansionary. Just matching the U.S. fiscal support over this time period would have been a pretty modest goal.
But of course, this goal was rejected by the conservative government elected in mid-2010, and instead the U.K. has followed a plan based on austerity.
There is plenty to lament in policymaking responses to the crisis of the past four years, but the U.K. fiscal tightening may well be the single most avoidable own-goal over the period. Greece, for example, really can’t run expansionary fiscal policy right now (at least not without help from the core countries of the eurozone) without getting savaged by bond markets that will push up interest costs on debt.
The U.K., on the other hand, faces no such constraints. They print their own currency so they cannot be forced into default by bond markets, and there has been no upward pressure at all on their debt-servicing costs since the Great Recession began (see chart below). There is, in short, no actually-existing macroeconomic problem that austerity addresses. Instead, the swing towards it has been driven by ideology. And it has not turned out well.
Apple and its key manufacturing partner, Foxconn, have been justifiably criticized for their labor practices in China, which include excessive, oppressive and illegal overtime hours, hazardous conditions, inappropriate and sometimes forced labor of 16-18 year-old student “interns” on night shifts, and wages so low that 64 percent of workers claim they don’t cover basic needs.
Many observers have remarked that with Apple’s gigantic profits, it can afford to ensure better treatment of its production workforce. A close examination of the iPhone’s cost structure leaves no doubt.
Various market researchers, including iSuppli and Horace Dediu of Asymco, have broken down the costs of the iPhone, which Apple sold to wireless carriers for an average price of $630 in the fourth quarter of 2011. All agree that Foxconn’s assembly cost— approximately $15, or 2% of the total—is a miniscule part of the iPhone’s cost. Apple’s estimated $319 profit per phone is at least 20 times the cost of producing the iPhone. In fact, because the labor cost is only part of Foxconn’s costs, which include energy, property, and its own profit, Apple’s profit per phone is more than 20 times the labor cost.
Last week, Eduardo Porter wrote in the New York Times’ Economix blog about a response he received on his recent piece on manufacturing from Robert Lawrence of the Kennedy School. Porter should have dug into the topic further because what Lawrence wrote was rather misleading. Here are Porter’s words:
“Prof. Robert Lawrence from Harvard makes an interesting point in response to my Wednesday column about our misplaced hopes in manufacturing as a source of new jobs: even if every single thing we bought was “made in America” — if we stopped multinationals from outsourcing production to China and closed our doors to imports — even then, manufacturing employment would lag.
The reason is simple: we are spending less and less on goods and more and more on services. In 1969, American consumers were allocating half of all their spending on consumption to goods. By 2010, that share had fallen to one-third.”
Lawrence clearly wants people to believe that manufacturing jobs are declining because “we” just don’t buy much manufactured stuff anymore, or, in economic terms that there’s less demand for goods now than in the past. But that’s wrong, for a couple of reasons. First, goods are not only produced for household consumption, they are also produced for business and public investment, and for export. Second, and more importantly, the prices of goods have fallen relative to other types of products, so the goods share of total nominal (not inflation-adjusted) spending might fall, but the share in real (inflation-adjusted) spending might not follow. Or, to put it simply, people might have more TVs in their homes than ever before even while the share of their total income they spend on TVs has fallen. But, nobody would describe this state as a declining demand for TVs.
The following graph shows the share of goods in final sales of domestic products (the Bureau of Economic Analysis provides data on major types of products, dividing final sales into goods, services and structures. See NIPA Tables 1.2.5 and 1.2.6). The goods share of final sales in nominal terms did fall from 40.8 percent in 1969 to 28.3 percent in 2011, a roughly 30 percent decline in relative spending. However, the share of goods in real final sales actually rose 50 percent from 21.5 percent in 1969 to 31.3 percent in 2011. This means that the economy was even more goods-intensive in 2011 than in 1969 and that it was not a relative decline in the demand for goods that caused the shrinkage of manufacturing employment.
In the end, manufacturing employment is a horse race between demand for manufactured goods (which boosts jobs) and productivity (which, all else equal, means fewer jobs are needed in the sector). One thing that this analysis should remind us of is that even faster productivity has its upside: As prices fall because productivity rises in this sector, people demand more manufactured goods.
It should be noted, however, that neither Porter nor Lawrence denies that lowering the trade deficit would boost jobs. Rather, Porter says that even without any imports, manufacturing employment would lag. Lawrence, meanwhile, says that even without a trade deficit, goods employment would fall. In reality, closing the trade deficit would provide millions of jobs and boost the economy. For instance, my colleague Robert Scott has shown that growing trade deficits with China eliminated 2.8 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2010 alone, including 1.9 million jobs displaced from manufacturing. Similarly, correcting the currency imbalances with China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia could add up to $285.7 billion (1.9 percent) to U.S. GDP, create up to 2.25 million jobs over the next 18 to 24 months (most in manufacturing), and reduce U.S. budget deficits by up to $71.4 billion per year.
Moreover, as Scott’s recent blog post notes, the recent recession was especially hard on manufacturing (we lost 2.3 million jobs between 2007 and Jan. 2010) and we can get those jobs back in a robust recovery.
So, sure, manufacturing employment will not return to 25 percent of employment. Nevertheless, we can gain a lot of manufacturing jobs by strengthening the recovery and through appropriate trade and currency policy. This would provide millions of good jobs, aid many communities, and be good for the nation. No head-fakes about household consumption shares should distract us from these facts.
A recent commentary by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times claims that a “revolution in manufacturing employment seems far-fetched,” despite the recent recovery of manufacturing employment. Porter then proceeds to pound nails in manufacturing’s supposed coffin, claiming that “most of the factory jobs lost over the last three decades in this country are gone for good. In truth, they are not even very good jobs.” Perhaps not for a physicist like Porter, but manufacturing does provide excellent wages and benefits for many working Americans. And, with 11.9 million jobs today, U.S. manufacturing is very much alive and kicking.
Laura D’Andrea Tyson got the wage issue right in Why Manufacturing Still Matters, a post she wrote for the Times’ Economix blog in February. She notes that manufacturing jobs are “high-productivity, high value-added jobs with good pay and benefits.” According to Tyson, in 2009, “the average manufacturing worker earned $74, 447 in annual pay and benefits, compared with $63,122 for the average non-manufacturing worker.”1 Manufacturing wages and benefits are particularly attractive for workers without a college degree, for whom the alternative is often a job at low pay with no benefits.
Porter is also wrong to suggest that manufacturing employment has been on a downward trend for three decades (see graph below). In fact, manufacturing employment was relatively stable between 1969 and 2000, generally ranging between 16.7 million and 19.6 million workers. During this period, employment in big-ticket, durable goods industries such as autos and aerospace was more volatile than employment in non-durable goods. Starting from a peak in early 1998, U.S. manufacturing declined rapidly after the Asian financial crisis (which caused widespread devaluations in Asia), and total employment in both durable and non-durable goods began a sharp drop. This decline was associated with the rapid growth of the U.S. trade deficit, especially with China. Growing trade deficits with China eliminated 2.8 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2010 alone, including 1.9 million jobs displaced from manufacturing. Thus, U.S. job losses in manufacturing are really just a phenomenon of the past decade.2
Manufacturing has been hit with two distinct waves of job losses since 2000. Between 2000 and 2007, growing trade deficits were largely responsible for the loss of 3.9 million manufacturing jobs. In this period, employment declined in both non-durables (-20.3 percent) and durables (-19.8 percent) at similar rates. The great recession eliminated another 2.3 million jobs between 2007 and Jan. 2010 as the demand for cars and other manufactured goods collapsed. Employment in durable goods was hit especially hard by the recession, falling an additional 19.7 percent, while employment in durables fell 11.3 percent. However, since the end of the recession, employment in the two sectors has behaved in very different ways, as shown in the graph. Non-durable employment has remained essentially flat, adding only 5,000 jobs (0.1 percent) over the past 26 months, while durable goods industries have added 454,000 jobs (6.7 percent).
It does seem unlikely that the U.S. will recover many jobs in apparel or footwear. However, the non-durables sector also includes chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and petroleum refining. The U.S. exports large amounts of those commodities, and they certainly support the kind of high value-added, high-wage jobs Tyson described.
Durable goods industries such as aerospace products, machine tools, electronics, and motor vehicles and parts also support lots of exports, and those industries could grow with support of appropriate trade and industrial policies. Countries such as Japan and Germany have managed to support large and growing trade surpluses, especially in those sectors, because the vast majority of their exports are manufactured products. And, contrary to Porter’s assertions, they have lost a much smaller share of their manufacturing jobs than the United States. According to OECD statistics, between 2000 and 2009 (from peak to the trough of the recession), Germany lost fewer than 700,000 manufacturing jobs (an 8.3 percent decline). Japan lost 2.1 million (-17.4 percent), and the United States lost 5.7 million (-30.2 percent). The U.S. suffered nearly twice as much manufacturing job loss as Japan, and nearly four times as much as Germany.
Manufacturing employment in each of these countries has been hurt by the recession (although Germany, for example, did much more to prevent manufacturing job loss during the downturn), but the big difference is trade. In the German “Kurzarbeit,” or short work program, firms cut workers’ hours rather than make big layoffs, and the government helps make up the difference in workers’ paychecks (rather than paying unemployment compensation), thus limiting mass unemployment and stabilizing the economy. Growing trade deficits eliminated millions of manufacturing jobs in the United States, while growing trade surpluses helped support manufacturing jobs in Japan and Germany. It didn’t have to be that way, and we can recover lost manufacturing jobs in the future, especially in high-wage, durable goods industries. Read more
The most annoying responses to the revelations about Apple’s inhumane and exploitative factory pay and working conditions in China are the variations on the theme that the Chinese workers are grateful (or ought to be) to have the work and even the grueling overtime hours. “Sure, it looks like exploitation to Westerners, but really, Apple is lifting their living standards.” No. Apple is exploiting these young Chinese workers, grinding them down, forcing them to work for pay so low they can’t survive on it without working far beyond anything fair or reasonable – or even legal under Chinese labor law. And the workers don’t have a choice; they either work the overtime or they’re fired.
The Fair Labor Association, Apple’s hand-picked auditor, found that Apple’s most important supplier, Foxconn, works employees far beyond the hours permitted by Apple’s code of conduct (a maximum of 60 hours per week), let alone Chinese law, which limits work hours to 49 per week. The FLA reports that “in November and December 2011, 34% and 46% of the workforce respectively worked up to 70 hours per week.” Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based labor rights organization, has documented Foxconn employees working 140 hours of overtime a month.
Keith Bradsher’s recent “news analysis” in the New York Times, “Two Sides to Labor in China,” blamed the workers for these sweatshop hours and tried to portray them in a positive light. Bradsher wrote: “But one reason that workweeks of 60 hours or more have been possible at factories run by Foxconn and others is that at least some laborers already on the payroll have wanted the extra hours.”
Bradsher believes the employees have a choice about working 60-70 hours a week. He writes that “the added expense of hiring additional workers can make it cheaper to ask employees for extra overtime…” Ask? When Foxconn employees were throwing themselves out of dormitory windows, committing suicide in reaction to the harsh conditions at Foxconn, the company reduced work hours to 60 a week, but it didn’t give workers a choice about working them. As an Oct. 2010 SACOM report revealed, “Despite fatigue, workers cannot reject overtime work, because Foxconn requires workers to sign a Voluntary Overtime Pledge.”
Bradsher cites the FLA’s survey of Foxconn employees, 34 percent of whom reported they “actually wanted even more hours.” How can workers want more than 60 hours a week? Bradsher says they’re young and bored, have nothing better to do, “and were eager to make as much money as possible so as to return to their home villages.” He never suggests that their pay is so low they can’t survive working the legal maximum number of hours. But that is exactly what SACOM found in 2010 when it compared the cost of living in Foxconn’s factory cities with Foxconn’s pay. Without overtime, the average Foxconn production employee earned about 60 percent of what was required to meet basic needs. Today, after wage increases that have been offset by higher food prices and what Bradsher admits are “soaring rents,” 72 percent of Foxconn employees at Chengdu told the FLA their salaries did not cover basic needs.
So when Apple apologists tell you that “the Chinese are different, they want to work long hours,” don’t buy it. The richest corporation in the world is grinding its workers to the bone because it can get away with it, not because the workers want to live that way.
Is the eurozone in recession? Eight consecutive months of rising unemployment indicate that the region could indeed be facing another economic downturn.
According to Eurostat, the European Union’s version of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the 17 countries that use the euro climbed to 10.8 percent in February, its highest level since the currency’s introduction in 1999. Seven eurozone countries have unemployment rates of more than 10 percent; in comparison, the United States’ unemployment rate is 8.3 percent. Past historical periods have also seen lower unemployment rates in the United States than in most of Europe, but the difference over the last couple of years is that joblessness in the eurozone is obvious collateral damage stemming from the embrace of fiscal and monetary austerity.
“Europe’s leaders just haven’t been nearly as committed [as U.S. leaders] to boosting demand with expansionary macroeconomic policies, either fiscal or monetary,” says EPI macroeconomist Josh Bivens.
“To be clear, the United States hasn’t provided adequate support to its economy and job market—but Europe has been even worse,” he continued.
In Spain, nearly a quarter of the labor force is unemployed, including more than half of workers under age 25. Spain’s plan to combat its troubles? A $36 billion austerity package passed by its new conservative government. As EPI has argued before, austerity measures are inappropriate solutions to unemployment crises. This is clearly the case in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, all of which had to enact austerity measures as a condition of receiving bailouts. In these countries, austerity has compounded economic troubles and failed to improve staggeringly high unemployment rates.
So how can the eurozone avert another crisis? Bivens thinks there are two separate questions that need to be answered. First, how are countries like Greece (and if we’re unlucky, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) going to pay their debts (and how much of their debts will be written off by creditors)? Second, how are these same countries going to see growth in the next decade sufficient to ward off disastrous unemployment levels?
Bivens believes the second question gets much less attention—but is far more important.
“A key barrier to a country like Greece achieving growth in the coming decade is the lack of an independent monetary and exchange-rate policy,” says Bivens. “Greece absolutely needs to gain competitiveness in global markets as part of its medium-term macroeconomic strategy.”
He continued, “There are two paths there, exchange-rate adjustment or ‘internal devaluation’ [i.e., having Greek wages and salaries grow painfully slow for years]. The latter course is much more damaging; just look at Latvia, which fully embraced that strategy. The real lesson of the euro crisis is that all the tools of macroeconomic management need to be taken much more seriously than they have been.”
The Fair Labor Association (FLA), Apple’s auditor for its labor rights problems in China, issued a report last week that received widespread praise, including in the New York Times, whose reporting about workplace deaths, employee suicides and grueling overtime forced Apple to conduct the audit in the first place. This is not the first time Apple has commissioned such an audit, and it’s not the first time the auditor found serious problems.
In 2006, after British newspapers wrote about labor standards violations at Apple’s suppliers, Apple said an audit of a Foxconn facility revealed that more than a third of its employees worked more than the 60 hours-per-week limit imposed by Apple’s code of conduct. According to CorpWatch, Apple admitted that about 25 percent of the time, employees worked more than six days straight without a day off.
Apple vowed to clean up the violations it found and hired an outside consultant, Verite, to conduct ongoing audits of all of the factories where Apple’s products are assembled.
Fast forward to 2012, and Apple is once again telling the public it intends to improve, in precisely the same areas. But why should anyone think Apple’s commitment is any greater today than it was in 2006? Two important signs make me skeptical.
The first sign of trouble is the fact that the FLA’s “Remediation Plan” focuses exclusively on Foxconn and its scheduling, compensation, health and safety and industrial relations practices. Nothing in the plan makes Apple responsible for changing Apple’s own key behavior, the price it pays for Foxconn’s production. If Apple’s pricing is so tight that Foxconn can’t meet its profit targets without exploiting its employees, who’s responsible for their exploitation? If, as Apple claims, it truly wants to reduce the overtime hours Foxconn’s employees work to legal norms, without reducing the pay the workers receive, Apple can make that happen by paying more for each unit of production – enabling Foxconn to pay more more for each hour worked. But Apple hasn’t pledged that and the FLA doesn’t even mention the economics of Apple’s contracts with Foxconn. Apple’s public attitude is akin to saying: “We’re as pure as the driven snow, and our only taint comes from Foxconn’s sins.” But Apple has tolerated or compelled these practices for six years.
The second sign of trouble is that Apple and Foxconn have agreed to keep violating the law for the next 15 months, with the FLA’s blessing. Chinese labor law limits overtime per month to 36 hours, yet Apple and Foxconn have agreed to wait until July 1, 2013 to live within the law (page 12 in FLA’s report). As outrageous as this is, it seems to have gone unnoticed in all of the reporting on the FLA report. Perhaps the companies are right to think that Chinese law is a joke that can be ignored. But why doesn’t the FLA require the companies to comply with the law today, rather than next year? The FLA hours of work standard permits employees to work 60 hours per week — 80 hours of overtime a month, 44 hours longer than the law permits. How is this different or more acceptable than a standard that permits paying 25 percent less than the legal minimum wage?
Finally, I recommend that any of Apple’s customers who care about the well-being of the people who make their iPads take a few minutes to read the FLA report before taking comfort in Apple’s new commitment to decent labor standards. Almost three-quarters of Foxconn’s workers in Chengdu “said their salaries did not cover their basic needs (report page 9).” It’s no wonder so many are willing to work 80 hours a week; they can’t afford not to. Yet the FLA does not call on Apple and Foxconn to raise wages. Rather, “Given the concerns expressed by workers about whether wages cover their basic needs, the FLA recommends a follow-up study to document spending patterns and the actual costs of the components of a basic needs wage (report page 12).”
Now that’s a tough audit!
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.
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.
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 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.
— The author thanks Ross Eisenbrey and Doug Hall for helpful comments and Hilary Wething for research assistance.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
- The Alliance for American Manufacturing has a comprehensive plan for job creation based on the following five strategies: expanding American production, hiring, and capital expenditures; investing in America’s infrastructure; enhancing our workforce; making trade work for America; and rebuilding America’s innovation base.
- AAM’s Executive Director Scott Paul appeared Tuesday night on The Ed Show, noting how different the American economy would be if 5.5 million manufacturing jobs had not been lost over the past decade.
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.
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.
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.”
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).