Auto Tariffs on the Table

November 14, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-autos/white-house-to-consider-commerce-department-auto-tariff-recommendations-officials-idUSKCN1NH2JP

There’s a lot in the above-linked article, reporting on the Trump administration’s consideration of tariffs on imported autos, that I can’t let pass without comment.  In short, the Commerce Department has submitted recommendations to the White House on whether and how to proceed with tariffs on imported autos and parts, based on its determination of whether auto imports pose a national security risk, something allowed under “Section 232” of the World Trade Organization rules.  The administration may hold off on implementation of tariffs, pending progress in talks with Europe and Japan aimed at restoring a balance of trade in autos and parts.

You may ask how auto imports pose a “national security risk.”  Good question.  I don’t know the administration’s rationale for it.  Imported cars themselves are surely not a risk.  It’s not as thought Toyota and VW and Honda and Mercedes and Hyundai and BMW have secretly planted bombs inside the cars.  The cars aren’t a risk.  However, what is definitely a national security risk is the enormous trade deficit in autos and parts.  There is no greater threat to the long-term viability of our economy than a big, sustained trade deficit that drives our budget deficit and national debt ever further out of control.  And we’ve now run a huge trade deficit for forty-three consecutive years.

The only mystery here is why the administration hasn’t acted already.  It’s becoming clear that the remaining globalists in Trump’s cabinet, like Larry Kudlow, Director of Trump’s Economic Council, and John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff, have the upper hand over trade hawks like Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro.  As a result, Trump is being sucked into the kind of endless “trade negotiations” that have paralyzed U.S. trade policy for decades.

But having the Commerce report ready for action would underscore a consistent threat from President Donald Trump – that he would impose tariffs on autos and auto parts unless the EU and Japan make trade concessions including lowering the EU’s 10 percent tariff on imported vehicles and cutting non-tariff barriers.

… Last month, the administration said it would open formal trade talks with the EU and Japan in early 2019 after the 90-day required congressional notification period ends.

Such talks are a complete waste of time.  Lowering barriers in the EU and Japan will make absolutely no difference in the trade deficit.  Europeans and Japanese don’t buy imported American cars because their countries are so crowded that their per capita consumption of vehicles is a fraction of that of Americans.  They don’t buy them because there’s no place to park cars and their roads are so crowded that they can’t make practical use of cars.  The only way to achieve a balance of trade in autos and parts is to keep their imports out.  Tariffs are the most effective method of doing that.

Of course, stories such as this are never complete until the free trade advocates have their chance to scare you with dire predictions.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include General Motors Co (GM.N), Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) and Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), warned the price of an imported car would increase nearly $6,000, while the price of a U.S.-built car would increase by $2,000.

A study released by a U.S. auto dealer group warned the tariffs could cut U.S. auto sales by 2 million vehicles annually and cost more than 117,000 auto dealer jobs, or about 10 percent of the workforce.

If the price of imports goes up by $6,000 while the price of domestically-manufactured cars goes up by only $2,000, which are you more likely to buy?  The answer is obvious, but the above-mentioned groups only want you to focus on the fact that the cost of all autos will increase.  They want you to think that you won’t be able to afford a car any more.  They hope that you’re too dumb to realize that shifting manufacturing back to the U.S. will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and will drive a demand for labor that will also drive wages higher – more than enough to offset any price increase.  U.S. auto sales won’t fall by 2 million vehicles annually.  They’ll actually increase as rising wages make cars more affordable.  And regarding the loss of auto dealer jobs (117,000 estimated in the article), you can bet that dealer jobs will be lost at the imports’ dealers if the foreign companies aren’t smart enough to begin building their cars in the U.S., but those folks will quickly find new work at GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Trump is wasting precious time by dithering with these worthless “trade negotiations.”  He needs to implement tariffs now and make them big enough – at least 25% – to have the desired effect, which is driving manufacturing back to the U.S.  Before the next elections in two years, Americans need to see tangible results in the form of a falling trade deficit and rising wages, or the globalists will surely regain the upper hand.

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Trade Deficit Exploding

November 5, 2018

So far, the minimal tariffs that Trump has imposed on China (10% tariffs on half of their exports) has been powerless to stop a tax cut-fueled explosion in the trade deficit.  On Friday, the Labor Department released the employment report for October and, once again, it was a strong one.  The economy added 250,000 jobs.  Unemployment held steady, and wages rose at their fastest pace in years.  The economy is doing well, at least better than it has since the U.S. granted “most favored nation” status to China in the year 2000.

However, at the same time on Friday, the Commerce Department released the trade figures for the month of September – the first month that the tariffs were in full effect – and it’s clear that much of the economic stimulus provided by the tax cut that went into effect this year is ending up in the hands of China, Japan and Germany.  The trade deficit in manufactured goods exploded to another new record – $71.6 billion (an annual rate of $859 billion) – blowing past the previous record set only one month earlier.  Look at this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.

This morning, I came across this commentary on CNBC:  https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/05/us-keeps-cutting-large-checks-to-china-japan-and-germany—commentary.html.  I don’t agree with everything said here, but it’s encouraging to see that people are starting to “get it” when it comes to the trade deficit:

“Those who are sadly and incorrectly arguing that this does not matter should note that America’s trade deficits will be added to its $8.6 trillion of net foreign debt recorded at the end of the second quarter.

That large overseas transfer of American wealth is also a drag on economic growth. In the first nine months of this year, the growth of the gross domestic product was lower than the growth of domestic demand as a result of increasing U.S. trade deficits.”

Finally, someone acknowledging that the trade deficit is the driving force behind our growing national debt.

Trump is exactly right to treat the trade deficit as a national security threat and to begin imposing tariffs on that basis.  So far, however, it’s been too little.  The tariffs need to be extended to all imports from China.  They need to be raised to 25% or more.  And they need to be extended beyond China, to Germany and Japan and anyone else who attempts to prop up their economies at the expense of American workers.  When that happens – when corporations stop seeing tariffs as a fleeting ploy in trade negotiations and instead see manufacturing in the U.S. as a more profitable business model than paying high tariffs – then and only then will trade become more balanced and fair and the trade deficit will begin to decline.


Why is hate on the rise?

October 31, 2018

In the wake of the mail bombs sent to Democratic critics of Trump and the deadly mass shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, many are raising alarm about what seems to be a dramatic increase in hate crimes and speech.  I was thinking about this and these lyrics came to mind:

“… The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch,
And I don’t like anybody very much.

… They’re rioting in Africa.
There’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us
will be done by our fellow man.”

Those lyrics are taken from a song titled “Merry Minuet,” released by the Kingston Trio in 1959.  Six decades have passed since then.  In spite of the strides we’ve made in being more tolerant of people who are different from us in terms of race, creed and sexual orientation, it does seem as though hate is more prevalent than ever before.  Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t.

The millenial generation now blames Trump and like-minded boomers for the rise in hate.  In 1959, the boomers were blaming their parents.  Hate and the primeval instincts that fuel it, like fear, distrust, envy, greed, and our territorial instincts, have always been with us.  Those instincts are critical to our survival.  One who wanders down a dark alley, oblivious to potential danger, ends up dead.  One who does so with an appropriate degree of fear and distrust is more likely to survive.

When driven to irrational extremes, however -as they can be when fed by false information, those instincts may cause us to unjustifiably hate others.  I and my fellow Christians believe that Christ came into this world to teach us to rein in our demons, to love our neighbor and to forgive those who wrong us.  Often, it’s not easy.  I see a couple of factors, beyond the political, that are making it much harder.

Number one is “social” media.  Not until the past few years have those beset with irrational fears and hatred had such a place to turn to for reinforcement, where their fears and suspicions could be stoked by gross propaganda designed to pull them in and exploit them.  There’s another factor, however, that few recognize – that high population densities are breeding grounds for hatred.  You can see it everywhere you look.  It’s not hard to understand.  Those who live in close quarters are more easily irritated by those around them.  Throw in obvious differences like race and creed and you have an explosive mixture.  “Good fences make good neighbors,” as the saying goes.  The point is that we can all more easily coexist when we have some separation.

I like to use what I call the “monkeys in a cage” effect as an analogy.  Build an enormous, beautiful cage – perhaps acres in size – with flowing streams and trees full of fruit and nuts.  Now put a monkey in the cage.  Will he be happy?  No, he’ll be lonely.  Put in another monkey.  Are they happy?  They’re happier, but still long for more companionship, being very social animals.  So put in some more.  And then more.  At some point, some monkeys will be driven out of the group, where they’ll move to the opposite side of the cage and form their own group.  Now put in more monkeys, and more and more.  At some point, the monkeys will turn on each other and you’ll return to the cage in the morning to find many of them dead, casualties of an enormous fight that broke out overnight.

Any child whoever had an aquarium or terrarium understands that their bowl  or cage will only support just so many fish or animals, in spite of their best efforts to keep them fed.  And so it is with us.  Our country and our planet is twice as densely populated as it was fifty years ago, and is many times more densely populated that it was just a century ago.  While mankind may be clever enough to overcome many obstacles to never-ending population growth, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there are also many factors that are escalating beyond our ability to control them.  Rising hatred, fed by worsening over-crowding is one that shouldn’t be ignored.

 


Economy’s Good, Not Great. Tariffs Not Yet a Factor.

October 20, 2018

I’m back from my annual fall fishing trip up north.  Much has happened and it’s time to get caught up.

The economy’s doing quite well.  In September, the unemployment rate fell yet again to 3.7%.  Economists are wringing their hands over the tight labor market.  Every month, the Federal Reserve proclaims the economy to be at “full employment,” a condition likely to yield rising labor costs, fueling unwelcome inflation.  Yet, every month the economy adds more jobs and somehow manages to find workers to fill them.  Now we’re really at full employment, says the Fed.  Another month.  More jobs added.  “Now we’re really, really at full employment.”  And on it goes.  This supposedly tight labor market is the Fed’s chief justification for raising interest rates.

It’s almost as though there’s a conspiracy to stir up hysteria about an over-heating economy.  On Tuesday, the Fed released its “JOLTS” report of the number of job openings, noting that the number of job listings exceeded the number of people reported to be actively seeking employment.  What they don’t tell you is that that’s perfectly normal.  “Job seekers” is a figure taken from the unemployment report.  But if you’re simply changing jobs and never filed for unemployment, you’re not counted.  Many job opening listings are simply positions opened up by people who have left for other jobs, often because they have decided to simply relocate from one place to another.  It’s a weak measure of the health of the economy.  Nevertheless, ECONODAY had this to say about the report:  “Jerome Powell (head of the Federal Reserve) concedes that it’s a mystery why wages haven’t been going up very much as demand for labor grows and the supply of labor declines. Yet sooner or later, the law of supply and demand is bound to assert itself, at least this is the risk that the Fed is guarding against in its rate-hike regime.”

Yesterday, commenting about the weak report of existing home sales, ECONODAY had this to say: “The lack of wage gains, however, is a negative for home buyers not to mention a great mystery of the 2018 economy given the increasing scarcity of available labor. And another great mystery of this year’s economy is the lack of interest in home ownership.”

Is it a lack of interest in home ownership, or a lack of the wherewithal to buy a home in the face of rising interest rates (driven by the Fed) combined with the “great mystery” of a “lack of wage gains?”  People don’t just lose interest in owning a home.  Everybody wants a place they can call their own.  The problem is that not everyone can afford it.

There’s really no mystery here.  Anyone who has followed this blog or has cast a cynical eye on the employment statistics ever since the “Great Recession” knows that the unemployment rate is completely bogus, driven down artificially by the Labor Department claiming that people have dropped out of the labor force.  During the Obama administration, 6.4 million workers mysteriously vanished.  Since Trump took office, that figure has shrunk by over a million workers, but an honest tally of the unemployed still stands at 11 million workers (including those who were unemployed before the “Great Recession”) and unemployment is actually at 6.6% instead of 3.7% – a rate nowhere near low enough to begin driving wages higher.  Per capita employment remains exactly 1% below the level it was at before the onset of the “Great Recession” – a figure that was already depressed.

So the economy is doing well – better than it has done in the past ten years – but that’s not saying a lot.  The tax cut that went into effect this year gets the credit, but that will only carry the economy so far.  To keep it going – to accelerate the economy even further – we need progress toward cutting the trade deficit, especially the deficit in manufactured goods.  The Trump administration has made a lot of moves in that direction, imposing 10% tariffs on steel and aluminum, tariffs on $25 billion of Chinese imports, followed by 25% tariffs on an additional $225 billion of their imports, the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and threats to impose tariffs on all auto imports.

But there’s no evidence of any improvement in our trade situation, at least not yet.  The most recent trade data show that the rapid erosion of American manufacturing continues, yielding a trade deficit of $70 billion in manufactured goods in August – a new record – with new record trade deficits with China and Mexico.

That’s not an indication that Trump’s tariffs are a failure.  Aside from the small tariffs on aluminum and steel, none of the above-mentioned initiatives have taken effect yet.  The biggest chunk of the tariffs on China went into effect in September, so the effect on trade with China won’t show up until new trade data is released next month.  The “USMCA” agreement – the replacement for NAFTA – hasn’t been enacted yet.  And the trade deficit with China was artificially swollen by a rush to beat the tariffs.

It’s going to take a lot of patience to realize the real benefits of Trump’s trade policy.  The purpose of tariffs is to provide an incentive to manufacture products domestically.  The immediate effect will be to raise prices for American consumers, just as economists have warned.  Longer term,  companies will begin to realize that they can improve profits by manufacturing in the U.S., thus avoiding the tariffs.  It’s going to take time for that realization to sink in, and time for companies to implement plans to build factory capacity in the U.S.  Ultimately, when that capacity comes on line, we’ll see a real boom in the demand for labor and a corresponding rise in wages, more than offsetting any increase in prices.

Hopefully, the Federal Reserve won’t torpedo the economy in the meantime.  It can’t have any impact on price increases driven by tariffs, so it would be pointless to even try.  All they can do is drive the economy into recession with their high interest rates, raising doubts about the president’s economic policies, and increasing the chances that America will shrink back into its role as host in the global host-parasite trade relationship.  That would be a disaster.

Again, it’s going to take time and patience.  It took seven decades of globalism (beginning with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – GATT – in 1947) to get us into the fix we’re in.  It’s going to take more than a year or two to get us out.


U.S. Chamber Chief Dredges Up Smoot-Hawley Boogeyman

September 20, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-chamber/u-s-chamber-chief-says-trump-can-still-avoid-a-damaging-trade-war-idUSKCN1LZ1ZO

I’m surprised that free trade globalists haven’t done it sooner but, as reported in the above-linked Reuters article, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has dredged up the old Smoot-Hawley boogeyman to try to scare people into opposing the Trump trade agenda.

“No, I don’t think the tariffs will be permanent,” Donohue said, adding that this would “screw the economy” in ways similar to the 1930s Smoot-Hawley Tariff, referring to a protectionist law that raised thousands of U.S. tariffs and which many economists believe exacerbated the Depression.

My apologies to those who have followed this blog for a long time, as I’ve posted on this topic many times before.  But the message bears repeating anytime anyone resorts to this tired argument against tariffs.

The above quote would leave those unfamiliar with trade history with the impression that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act represented a turn away from free trade toward protectionism, triggering a global depression.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Here are the facts:

  • From its founding, the U.S. relied upon tariffs to establish itself as the world’s preeminent industrial power.  In fact, until 1913 when the constitution was amended to establish an income tax, all federal revenue was derived from tariffs.
  • The Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922 was widely credited for the economic boom times of the “roaring ’20s.”
  • The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act represented only a very minor tweaking of tariff rates – on average only a 2.7% change from the Fordney-McCumber Act.
  • Smoot-Hawley wasn’t enacted until June, 1930, a full seven months after the stock market crash of October, 1929 which caused the failure of thousands of banks.
  • At the worst depth of the Great Recession that followed the market crash, America’s exports had contracted by only $6.5 billion, while the economy, as measured by gross domestic product, contracted $33.1 billion.  It was actually the world-wide depression that caused exports to shrink, and not vice versa.  We saw exactly the same phenomenon during the “Great Recession” which began in 2008.  That came at the peak of free trade policy and yet trade contracted dramatically as the world sank into recession.

“U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue said on Wednesday that the Trump administration could still avoid a full-blown global trade war …”

It doesn’t seem to occur to Mr. Donohue that the Trump administration may not want to avoid a “full-blown global trade war.”  In fact, the U.S. has been in such a war since the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, a war we’ve been losing badly because we weren’t willing to put up a fight.  The free-traders that gained traction in the wake of World War II had pulled the wool over our eyes.  Thankfully, we finally have a president who sees what a failure that approach has been.


Tariffs on China!

September 19, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-tariffs/china-says-trump-forces-its-hand-will-retaliate-against-new-u-s-tariffs-idUSKCN1LX2M3

Monday evening, President Trump took the first meaningful step to extricate the U.S. from its decades-long trade policy nightmare that has wreaked havoc on the American people and economy.  He imposed a 10% tariff on $200 billion worth of imports from China, adding to the similar tariff he imposed earlier this year on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports.  His goal is to eliminate America’s massive trade deficit with China and restore a balance of trade.  When the Chinese failed to respond to the initial round of tariffs with voluntary measures to re-balance trade, the president was left with no choice but to take steps to assure that it happens.

Chinese reaction, and reaction by pro-trade lobbying organizations, has been predictable.  China threatened retaliation and yesterday announced small tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. exports.  Why only $60 billion?  Because that’s all that’s left after they already imposed tariffs on U.S. exports in response to Trump’s first round of tariffs.  In essence, they’re already out of ammo in the trade war.  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said as much yesterday and Trump warned China that any retaliation against our farmers or industries would immediately result in tariffs on all remaining imports from China.

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article:

… Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing later that the U.S. steps have brought “new uncertainty” to talks between the two countries.

“China has always emphasized that the only correct way to resolve the China-U.S. trade issue is via talks and consultations held on an equal, sincere and mutually respectful basis. But at this time, everything the United States does not give the impression of sincerity or goodwill,” he added.

I can’t let that pass.  Let’s get one thing straight.  Red China is not America’s equal in any respect.  (I refer to them as Red China because their annointing of Chairman Xi as chairman for life proves that they are still nothing more than the totalitarian, communist regime that they were under Mao Tse Tung.)  Such regimes aren’t worthy of American respect.  Red China’s economy – formerly an economic backwater – has been propped up by dumb American trade policy.  It’s time to kick away that prop.

Business groups warned of disruptions to their supply chains.  Funny.  They had no problems with disrupting their long-standing American supply chains when they moved them to China in the first place.

Others warned of economic harm to American consumers:

“President Trump’s decision … is reckless and will create lasting harm to communities across the country,” said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents major tech firms.

Seriously?  Recently, Trump was criticized for denying the death toll in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricane Maria last year.  That death toll figure was arrived at by comparing the death rate in Puerto Rico to the death rate preceding the hurricane.  OK, let’s apply that same logic to American trade policy.  In the wake of engaging in free trade with China, Americans’ life expectancy has actually declined and death rates have risen as despair set into communities where one factory after another closed.  So, applying that same death toll methodology to U.S. trade policy, it’s clear that previous administrations are responsible for not a few thousand deaths, but millions.  And as the economy continues to recover in response to Trump’s trade policies, he can be credited with saving millions of lives.  Anyone with a brain can see that it was the export of American jobs to China that did “lasting harm to communities across the country.”  Reversing that process, as Trump is doing, can only be a huge boon to American communities.

One group has been conspicuously silent during this whole process and no one has reported on it.  For decades, American trade policy has been paralyzed by fear of the World Trade Organization.  Now we can see what an irrelevant, toothless tiger that organization is.  In Five Short Blasts, I pointed out that the WTO was actually powerless to do anything that nations weren’t already free to do before the organization existed.  Why have we waited all this time to take our trade policy back in our own hands and impose tariffs to restore a balance of trade?  Why have we stood idly by and racked up trillions of dollars of debt and devastated our communities out of fear of this organization?  Stupid.  There’s just no other word to describe it.

I honestly thought I’d never live to see the day when America would stand up for itself again.  It seemed that the sappy globalist mentality, reminiscent of the ’70s Coca Cola ad where everyone held hands and sang “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” had condemned America to live out the rest of its existence as a sick host, lying helplessly as it’s fed upon by a horde of trade parasites.  But that day that I thought I’d never see came on Monday.  America has stopped being a trade chump.  There’s much more to be done.  The European Union has been as much of a trade parasite as China and needs to be dealt with in the same way.  So too does Mexico.  But this is a good start.

 


The Federal Reserve Thinks Unemployment Is Too Low!

September 13, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fed-rosengren/fed-says-it-whipped-u-s-unemployment-maybe-too-well-idUSKCN1LT0F0

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, Boston Fed bank president Eric Rosengren worries that the Federal Reserve has been “too successful” is lowering unemployment.  He explains:

“The recurrent pattern (of recessions) was one where the tightening of monetary policy was expected to slow the economy down gently…to full employment,” Rosengren and three Boston Fed co-authors noted. But “Once the unemployment rate starts to rise by a relatively modest amount, dynamics take hold that tend to push the economy into a recession.”

The Fed considers an unemployment rate of 4.5% to represent “full employment.”  The current rate of unemployment, as reported by the Labor Department on Friday, is 3.9%.  So the Fed worries that there’s no place for the unemployment rate to go but up, and even a small rise could start a recessionary downward spiral in the economy.

This is ridiculous for two reasons:

  1.  The Fed ignores its own role in choking off the economy and precipitating recessions by constantly tightening monetary policy (i.e., raising interest rates) as unemployment drops, and
  2.   The Fed has bought into bogus employment figures propagated by the Labor Department in an effort to stabilize confidence in economic policy in the wake of the Great Recession.

Regarding point 2 above, consider the following:

  • In November of 2007, just before the collapse of Lehman Bros. triggered the Great Recession, 48.4% of the U.S. population was employed and the unemployment rate stood at 4.7%.
  • As of August of 2018, the U.S. population has grown by 25.6 million people.  But, according to the Labor Department, the work force has grown by only 7.9 million workers, and the nation’s employment level has grown by only 8.9 million workers.  And in August of this year, only 47.4% of the population was employed.  Yet, thanks to the unnaturally low rate of growth in the labor force reported by the Labor Department, instead of rising, official unemployment has fallen to 3.9%
  • An honest accounting of the labor force that grows proportionately with population growth would produce a current  unemployment rate of 6.8% – nowhere close to “full employment.”
  • In spite of the decline in unemployment, wages have barely risen, confounding economic experts.  They haven’t risen because unemployment is still quite high – not anywhere close to being low enough to put upward pressure on wages.

Even the definition of “full employment” used by the Fed – 4.5% – is subject to debate.  If that level is “full employment,” how do you explain that some states and some countries routinely operate well below that level?  During World War II, unemployment fell to approximately 1% in the U.S.

The Federal Reserve is making a big mistake with its program of hiking interest rates just because the economy is doing better.  President Trump has been right to criticize its policies.  How can he “Make America Great Again” when the Fed’s policy is to “Let America Get Just a Little Bit Better – But Not Much?”