Lots of Changes

March 25, 2018

by Steve Stofka

What a week it was. A glance at the headlines would lead someone to believe that it was all about tariffs and an impending trade war between the U.S. and China. On Thursday and Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 1000 points, or almost 5%. Was that all about tariffs? Hardly.

As expected, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates ¼% on Wednesday.  This put the Fed rate at 1.5% – 1.75%. Half of the members of the interest setting committee (FOMC) indicated that it might be necessary to raise interest rates four times this year. The market has been pricing in three interest rate increases for 2018. Until Thursday, a fourth increase had not been fully priced in.

Further, the Fed is projecting an unemployment rate below 4% by late 2018 and early 2019. The current rate is 4.1%. Many industries are already struggling to find qualified workers. Rarely does the unemployment rate dip below 4%, and each time, inflation has risen and the stock market has fallen – sometimes substantially.

CPIUnemploy

The downturn following the Korean War was short and shallow, but the other two periods of low unemployment were followed by steep corrections in the market.

On Thursday night, the White House tweety bird announced another change in the roster. Out with the old National Security Adviser, General H. R. McMaster. In with the new adviser, John Bolton, an old school war hawk who avoided military service in Vietnam by joining the National Guard. Bolton’s first instinct is war and regime change as a solution to global disputes. In choosing Mike Pompeo as his new Secretary of State and John Bolton as his new National Security Advisor, Trump has assembled a war cabinet. The market has still not priced in the heightened chances of conflict with North Korea or Iran. Nor has it recognized a greater likelihood of armed conflict with China in the South China Sea. That might come in the next few weeks.

On Thursday, Trump enacted tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from China as promised. Stronger action against China’s trade policies are overdue, as it has long violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the WTO global agreements. Car manufacturers wanting to set up a plant in China must have a Chinese business partner with a 25% stake and – surprise – access to industrial trade secrets. The national government heavily subsidizes key industries so that they can support their own industries and workers. They avoid labor and environmental regulations, and when caught, pledge to do better. They issue a national change in regulation, but the change is only published and enforced in a few local areas.

The theft of intellectual property is a hallmark of most developing nations like China. In the 18th and 19th century, the U.S. was notorious for copying products made by companies in England and France. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution added some promise of patent and copyright protection, but the laws instituted protected only U.S. citizens. A half century later, Charles Dickens was “one of the chief victims of American literary piracy” (Source). A foreign inventor had to establish citizenship or residency in the U.S. for two years to gain any patent protection. In 1887, the U.S. joined a 19th century version of the WTO called the Paris Convention. As China does today, the U.S. skirted international agreements for at least a decade (Patent history).

Older Chinese citizens may have watched patrolling U.S. naval ships from the shores of the Yangtze River. The nation remembers the century of U.S. gunboat diplomacy (Wikipedia article). Despite American free market rhetoric, Chinese leaders understand that mercantilism still retains a strong political influence in the trading policies of many developed countries, including the U.S.

When NAFTA was signed in the early 1990s, subsidies of American corn farmers enabled them to sell cheap corn to Mexico. Unable to compete, many farmers in northern Mexico went out of business. As farming jobs decreased in Mexico, many laborers journeyed north to the U.S. to pick crops so that they could support their families. The U.S. is partially responsible for creating the very environment that led to so much illegal immigration from Mexico.

Around the world, developed countries cry foul when another country subsidizes goods that are exported at a lower cost into their countries. Since 1963, the U.S. has imposed a protectionist tariff of 25% on imported light duty trucks, the so called “chicken tax”. Protected for over fifty years by this tariff, domestic truck manufacturers like Ford and Chevy had made few substantial changes to their work vans in the past few decades. In 2015, Ford finally made a substantial change to its F-150 pickup. Notice those Mercedes tall work vans on the road? They are built in Germany, disassembled to avoid the tariff, shipped to the U.S. and reassembled by U.S. workers. Ford uses the same process with its Transit Connect van.

Boeing imports parts from all over the world to build its Dreamliners. Chinese companies use southeast Asia as a manufacturing supply, then assemble and ship thousands of products to the U.S. and around the world. In the truly global manufacturing economy, a trade war is a threat to the profits of many large businesses. They have tuned their operations to the contradictory rules of international trade.

Business leaders understand the political strut of free trade. Each business wants free trade when it wants to compete in someone else’s market. Each business lobbies for more regulations, tariffs and barriers to protect its competitive position within its own market. Yes, it’s all lies, so it’s important that the rules underlying this game not change too much. Trade wars change the rules and that’s bad for business.

Labor Languishes

March 4, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Next week, the White House intends to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. China subsidizes their core building industries. When global demand for China’s products wanes and inventories build, Chinese industries can sell at reduced costs, a practice known as “dumping.” Although the Commerce Dept. has warned China about dumping, the lower prices do benefit a range of U.S. industries but hurt U.S. steel manufacturers, who have endured both lower demand and unfair pricing competition from China.

Following the announcement, the Dow fell back 3%, wiping out Thursday morning’s gains. The prospect of tariff wars sent global stocks down later that night and the following morning. China’s stock index fell 6.5% for the week and Japan was down more than 4%. On Friday, the U.S. market experienced wide swings but settled nearly flat for the day and down 3% for the week.  Opinions vary on the long term consequences.

Let’s turn to a trend that has developed since China was admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. A year ago two BLS economists presented a historical estimate of labor’s share of yearly GDP since World War 2. If GDP is $100, how much went to the people who produced that output?

The authors describe it: “The labor share is the percentage of economic output that accrues to workers in the form of compensation. It is calculated by dividing the compensation earned during a certain period by the economic output produced over the same period.” The paper is intended for an academic audience, but I will extract some disturbing highlights. First of all, the graph.

LaborShareOfGDP

Note the sharp decline after China was admitted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. Some economists have concluded that half of the decline can be attributed to the mobility of computerized capital. Firms can produce a $100 of output with less labor and more of this mobile capital.

Labor in the U.S. is gradually being converted into capital. A business owner may be able to cut his labor costs by buying a machine. A rule of thumb in some industries is a two-year payback period for an investment of this type. Let’s say an owner can save $50,000 per year in labor costs with a machine. Using the two-year rule of thumb, they would not want to pay more than $100K for that machine.

During the past two decades, Asian factories have greatly improved their manufacture of such production machinery and the lower labor costs in Asian makes the machines cheaper. Quality up, costs down. It makes economic sense for more American business owners to replace some of their workers with machines. Before replacement: $100 output by the firm took $65 of labor and $20 of capital and included a profit of $15. After buying the machine, the figures might look like this initially: $100 of output by the firm costs $60 of labor, $25 capital, $15 profit. The $5 that used to go to an American worker now goes to a company in Japan and a bank in America that financed the purchase of the machine.

That laid off American worker bought stuff in their local community. Their sales and property taxes supported the services provided by the community. Although the machine may need maintenance and repairs, it doesn’t spend money regularly in the community, nor require community services like schools, police and medical care.

Donald Trump was elected President based on his claim that his administration would reverse this two decade trend.  The tariffs announced this week will have a small beneficial effect on workers in those industries because steel and aluminum manufacturing have become much more automated in the past twenty years.  The aluminum tariff will add about 1 penny to the cost of a can of beer. The tariffs are a symbolic nod to a campaign pledge that Trump made to those in the rust belt.

I applaud Trump for remembering his campaign pledges.  Professional politicians have long understood that campaign pledges are rhetoric that must fall to conflicting political alliances. Six months after taking office, most pledges have been broken or quietly slipped to the rear of an administration’s porfolio.  Trump has not forgotten the voters who put him in office, but he does have trouble maintaining a consistent stance on gun policy or immigration.  Keep those seat belts buckled.

Free Trade

March 20, 2016

This week’s blog will be about free trade.  Donald Trump first made it one of two signature Presidential campaign issues, then Bernie Sanders joined the chorus and now Hillary Clinton has made it part of her campaign speech. Have trade agreements with other countries put Americans at a disadvantage?

Most economists will not even entertain the idea.  The benefits of free trade are ultimately based on the benefits of specialization, the idea that everyone benefits when the most efficient producers supply a good or service.  Each producer achieves a comparative advantage (CA) in that specialization.   First formalized by economist David Ricardo in the 19th century, CA has long been a bedrock of micro-economic theory and introductory economics textbooks.

Greg Mankiw’s Prinicples of Economics cites the example of a rancher and farmer, who both benefit when they specialize.  The rancher concentrates on raising beef, the farmer raises potatoes and they produce more beef and potatoes at a lower cost than if the rancher and farmer did both. (Chapter 3)

A key concept to understanding CA is another bedrock economic principle:  opportunity cost, or what someone has to give up (the cost) to get some good or service (opportunity).  Each person, each country wants to minimize the cost to take advantage of the opportunity.

The same principle can be extended to international trade.  If a Mexican company can produce a good at a more efficient cost than an American company, then Americans will benefit if they buy the good from Mexico and sell something to Mexico which an American company can produce at a cheaper cost.  The ill effects in a particular part of the country are balanced by the good effects in another part of the country or economy, and lower prices benefit all Americans.

When countries impose tariffs on imports, those goods become more expensive for consumers. Economists talk about the “deadweight loss” from tariffs. Here is a graph of the negative effects of tariffs and more discussion on the topic.

The matter would seem settled then, as economist Paul Krugman noted in a 1987 paper : “the underlying commonality among conventional trade models is such that until a few years ago international trade theory was one of the most unified fields in economics.”

As early as the 1960s, economists questioned some aspects of conventional trade models, leading to the development of new models. Krugman notes, “The new view of international trade holds that trade is to an important degree driven by economies of scale rather than comparative advantage, and that international markets are typically imperfectly competitive.” [my emphasis]

Economies of scale. What’s that? This idea, also called increasing return, is when a producer gets a greater growth in outputs than the growth in inputs.  Increasing returns become a force separate from comparative advantage that leads to a “geographical concentration of production of each good,” or regional oligopolies.  We see this phenomenon in southeast Asia, Indonesia and Australia, where a complex web of materials and components production dominates the global electronics market.

“The view that free trade is the best of all possible policies is part of the general case for laissez-faire in a market economy, and rests on the proposition that markets are efficient. If increasing returns and imperfect competition are necessary parts of the explanation of international trade, however, we are living in a second-best world where government intervention can in principle improve on market outcomes.” [my emphasis]  The new idea in trade models is that strategic trade policy by a government “can tilt the terms of oligopolistic competition to shift excess returns from foreign to domestic firms.”  On the campaign stump, Trump makes the same case, although a bit less elegantly; that the U.S. government should make trade deals that shift the benefits of trade back to American workers and producers.  Is Trump channeling Paul Krugman?

Not quite.  Krugman notes three sometimes vociferous criticisms of government intervention. 1) The difficulty in measuring, understanding and modeling imperfect markets makes it impossible to formulate just the right policy.  2) If the government is going to intervene, companies will devote some resources to compete for favors from government, a process called “rent-seeking.” 3) Markets will make adjustments to offset intervention.  Other governments will initiate policies to counter the effects of a government’s intervention.

Krugman concludes “This is not the old argument that free trade is optimal because markets are efficient. Instead, it is a sadder but wiser argument for free trade as a rule of thumb in a world whose politics are as imperfect as its markets.”  This is the argument that Adam Smith made for laissez-faire capitalism, finding it undesireable but better than the alternatives.  Smith spent considerable effort in his book The Wealth of Nations to recount the degree of political corruption that distorted economies and society, that poisoned the human character.

That Krugman disregards those cautions when he favors government intervention within domestic markets confirms the fact that economists are human.

Economist Ian Fletcher presents far more arguments against free trade than Krugman. I would add an additional consideration.  When economists compute the costs of free trade policies, they use a model which does not include the economic benefits provided to workers displaced by free trade policies.  The costs are presumed to be offset by higher taxes from those areas of the country which benefit from free trade.  Admittably, these costs and additional tax revenues attributable to free trade policies are difficult to measure.  However, I do think that the effort should be made.  I suspect that the benefits paid to dislocated workers and the total negative effect, the multiplier, of the lost economic activity have not been fully accounted for and that free trade is much more costly than conventional models portray.

Even if we can measure and agree on the facts, we can not agree on what those facts mean.  Whatever the facts, we prefer our familiar and favorite idea.  They not only reassure us but are also well integrated into our values, and our philosophical sense of life.

Global Trade Recovery

The Bureau of Economic Policy Analysis, based in the Netherlands, recently reported that their index of global trade rose 3.5% in July. Although trade is 16% below the level of spring 2008, the 3 month average has shown an increase of .5%, it’s first rise in a year. The July ending 3 month average of industrial production increased by 3.2% but production was still 1.9% down in the U.S. Japan and Asia are leaking the pack in the production rebound.

Annual trade volume, though, was down more than 11% and far below the growth rate of 2006. A month ago, the U.S. imposed trade tariffs of 35% on tires from China. Last week, the European Union slapped tariffs of 40% on steel pipe from China. Contending with high unemployment during a global recession, governments come under pressure from their domestic industries and unions to preserve market share and jobs. During the depression of the 1930s, the U.S. unilaterally imposed a number of high tariffs, which led to retaliatory tariffs from other countries. The stifling of trade during that decade had a drastic impact on the economies of many nations. Hopefully, leaders in the G-20 nations will have learned from the lessons of the 1930s.