Economic Data Still Stuck in “New Normal” of Globalization

May 6, 2017

Three major economic reports were released in the past week, each of which I usually write about separately.  But there was nothing particularly noteworthy about any of them.  Taken together, however, they paint a picture of a U.S. economy that’s still stuck in the “new normal” that characterizes globalization (trading freely with all nations, regardless of whether it makes any sense) – stagnation, an imbalance in the supply vs. demand for labor that puts downward pressure on wages, and a host-parasite relationship between the U.S. and the overpopulated nations of the world.

First quarter GDP was announced last Friday, and it came in at a measly 0.7%.  Expressed in per capita terms, it rose only 0.09%.  Over the past ten years, per capita GDP has risen at an annual rate of only 0.6%.  That’s very close to no growth at all and explains a lot about Americans’ sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction.  Population growth and free trade with much more densely populated nations has become a significant drag on the economy.

Speaking of trade, that data was released Thursday.  Here’s a chart showing the monthly balance of trade in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  The deficit in manufactured goods continues to hover near its record worst level.  In fact, it was the second worst quarterly figure ever, down by only $1 billion from the record level of $177.1 billion set in the previous quarter.

The April employment report was released yesterday.  The headline numbers were that the economy added 211,000 jobs and unemployment fell to 4.4%.  No one noted that the employment level rose by a more modest 156,000 and unemployment fell because, once again, the growth in the labor force was understated at only 12,000 (while the U.S. population grew by 171,000).  Each month, as the unemployment rate ticks downward, economists proclaim the economy to be at “full employment.”  And each succeeding month, the economy adds more jobs and the unemployment rate drops more.  How can that be?  Here’s a chart of the “labor force backlog,” the cumulative amount that the government has under-reported growth in the labor force in order to make unemployment look better than it really is:  Labor Backlog.  (It’s the yellow line on the chart.)  Note that the “backlog” remains near its highest level at about 5-1/2 million workers.  Were it not for this “backlog,” an honest reading on unemployment would have the figure at 7.2% – a far cry from “full employment.”  It’s no wonder that, in spite of all of this supposed strength in labor market, there’s been no corresponding upward pressure on wages.

What does it mean when you put all of this together?  It means that the approach taken by President Trump to date – jawboning foreign leaders on trade and CEOs about manufacturing in the U.S., and making idle threats about tearing up trade deals and implementing “border taxes” – has done absolutely nothing to improve the economy.  No surprise.  These are exactly the same results that the same tactics employed by past presidents for decades has produced, which are no results at all.

Trump has seemed to be backing away from his promises on trade.  He’d better not, or he’ll find himself dealing with a recession before his first term is up.  His voters tolerate his less appealing aspects on the hope that he’ll follow through on his promise to “Make America Great Again” by fixing our trade mess.  Failure to do so won’t be tolerated.


Apple’s “Advanced Manufacturing Fund” a PR Gimmick

May 4, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-apple-fund-idUSKBN17Z2PI

Today Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, announced plans to set up a $1 billion “advanced manufacturing” fund, making it sound as though it’s going to create manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  (See the above-linked article.)  It’s actually nothing more than a clever public relations ploy – a gimmick designed to polish Apple’s tarnished image.

Ever since Trump’s message about bringing back manufacturing jobs began to resonate with voters, free trade advocates like Cook have begun waging a campaign on two fronts designed to blunt any efforts aimed at reversing globalization.  On the one hand, there has suddenly emerged a lot of talk about how most manufacturing jobs have actually been lost to automation and not trade policy which is, of course, a lie.  If the plant you worked in has just closed, you merely need to ask yourself where that product is now being made.  Is it being made by robots in a new factory, or is it now being made in a sweat shop in China or Mexico?  The answer is obvious.

The other tactic is to make themselves appear to be gung-ho for American manufacturing, lest they risk alienating the growing majority of Americans who now see free trade as a drag on the American economy.  As part of this effort, they’ve advanced the notion of “advanced manufacturing” – something that will somehow create jobs by developing factories so automated that human workers aren’t required.  Sounds like double-talk?  Of course it is.  But they believe you’re too dumb to see through it.

Apple is a perfect case in point.  Their products are considered the epitome of “high tech.”   Such a “high tech” company must be on the cutting edge of “advanced manufacturing,” right?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The manufacture of Apple’s electronic gizmos is about as low-tech as you can get.  Contracted out to companies like China’s Foxconn, Apple’s products are pieced together by hand, utilizing thousands of workers in sweat shop conditions to insert tiny components into circuit boards.  Truth be told, the manufacture of cars in Detroit assembly plants which utilize robots for hundreds of assembly tasks is far more advanced than anything that Apple does.  The manufacturing jobs in those assembly plants are well-paid, high-skilled jobs.  Interfacing with all of that automation is no job for dummies.

Apple could move their manufacturing back to the U.S. today, but they resist for two reasons.  One is the investment that would be required to build proper manufacturing facilities that comply with environmental and labor laws.  More importantly, however, they resist because they need to maintain their manufacturing presence in China in order to have access to the Chinese market.  China’s leaders are smart enough to insist that products sold in China be made in China.

Cook wants you to think of Apple as a good corporate citizen of the United States, interested in creating jobs for Americans.  Give me a break.  They want to sell you an iPhone.  They want you to pay as much as possible (regardless of whether or not you can actually afford it) for something that’s made as cheaply as it can be, and they want you to pay for it with money earned anywhere except at Apple.

Gimmicks like these won’t bring manufacturing jobs back.  Only tariffs (or “border taxes” or whatever you want to call them) will force companies like Apple to manufacture in the U.S. and actually create real jobs for American workers.

 


Trump’s “Faulty Trade Math?” Accuser’s math is faulty.

April 29, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-trade-analysis-idUSKBN17U2SL

This is rich!  In this above-linked op-ed piece (which isn’t identified as such but, rather, is presented as a factual report), the author takes Trump to task for “faulty math” regarding trade policy.  But it’s the author of this article whose math is “faulty” at best, or deliberately misleading at worst.  First, let’s consider some of the statements leading up to his “math.”

In the case of Mexico, the American companies that exported a quarter of a trillion dollars of goods and services to that country last year would be out a customer, and likely cut jobs.

Those American companies that tried to replace the $323 billion in Mexican imports would likely do so at a higher cost — assuming they are in the United States to begin with.

They would be in the United States if similar policies are applied to other countries, which would only make sense.  Then, yes, the domestic manufacturers would likely replace those Mexican imports at a higher cost.  But the author conveniently ignores the fact that the increased demand for labor in the U.S. would drive wages up even faster.

“Americans seem to really like guacamole,” Noland said, “but the idea that we are going to have giant greenhouses and lots of avocados and limes – the fact that we are purchasing them from the Mexicans rather than producing them at home tells you producing them at home is more expensive. We can stop trading with the Mexicans, and have $60 billion less in consumption.”

Seriously?  This is the argument for not bringing a million manufacturing jobs back from Mexico?  Avocados and guacamole?  If they cost 20% more, people won’t buy them?  They’ll just consume less?  They won’t serve onion dip at their parties instead?  Come on!  How much of your disposable income do you spend on avocados and guacamole?  How much more income would you have to spend on them if your wages went up?

By the statistics most widely accepted among economists, the U.S. position with the rest of the world has been steadily improving as investment flows into the country from abroad and supports millions of jobs.

This is an outright lie.  The flow of capital investment has been negative for decades.  While some investment dollars do come into the U.S., far more have left, making net investment a big drag on jobs.

OK, now for the “faulty math:”

Even if Trump achieved his wildest success, and eliminated the United States’ $500 billion trade deficit solely through increased exports that boosted gross domestic product on a dollar-for-dollar basis, it would do little to dent the estimated $7 trillion in government deficits his tax plan is projected to generate over the next decade.

Alan Cole, an economist at the Tax Foundation, said that every dollar of gross domestic product generates about 17.6 cents in federal government revenue, meaning the $500 billion trade shortfall would translate into just $88 billion in new taxes.

That part is true but, as free trade advocates tend to do, he’s presented only one half of the equation.  That annual trade deficit of $500 billion (actually $800 billion if talking about manufactured products) is a drain on the economy.  If every dollar of that deficit isn’t re-injected into the economy in some way, the result is a permanent recession.  Since we’ve already noted that capital investment is also a net outflow, the only way left to re-inject that money into the economy is through federal deficit spending, in all its forms.  Grants for education, for police and fire, for infrastructure. safety net programs like welfare and medicaid, health care premium support under the Affordable Care Act, student loans … the list goes on and on.  All of this federal spending is made necessary by the trade deficit drain of money from the economy.

So, not only would restoring a balance of trade produce an additional $88 billion in new federal revenue (nothing to sneeze at and it would likely be more than that), but it would also cut federal spending by $500 billion.  That’s a net impact of nearly $600 billion per year – enough for the federal government to balance its budget.  And it would likely pave the way for cuts to personal income tax rates, saving all of us a bundle.

The case for free trade made by its advocates often reminds me of the commercials we all see on TV for the local casinos.  Everyone gathered around the blackjack table or the crap table pumps their fists and high-fives their friends as they celebrate another win and rake in their money.  Everyone’s winning and having a great time!  “Casinos are a big boost for the local economy,” we’re always told when some development group wants to build a new one in your community.  The casino owners and a few surrounding hotels and restaurants are winners.  You’re not.  If you’re someone who frequents one of these places, you’re a loser.  You may not want to admit it, but you are – you’re a loser.  Don’t feel bad.  Everyone who goes there is a loser.  Everyone who owns a business where you’d spend your money if you hadn’t lost it at the casino is also a loser.  Casinos are a net drag on the broader community, siphoning away money that people need for other things.

It’s exactly the same with a trade deficit.  Global corporations are winners.  The rest of us are losers.  But they want you to think that free trade benefits you in ways that are just too difficult to understand or quantify.  Remember Enron, the huge “energy trading company” that was such a darling of Wall Street back in the ’90s?  No one could figure out exactly how they made money.  Enron executives condescendingly sneered that their business was just too sophisticated and complicated for most investors to understand.  And lots of otherwise-intelligent people were sucked in.  Eventually, the whole thing collapsed spectacularly and was exposed as a giant scam.  Investors had been played for fools.  That’s exactly the same scam free traders are running when they tell you that it’s not just a matter of money in versus money out.

If trade deficits don’t matter, why is it that countries like Mexico, China, Germany, Japan, South Korea and others are so adamantly opposed to taking their turn at it?  It’s because they know the real math.


Anti-border tax coalition

April 20, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-tax-lobbying-idUSKBN17C2HQ

I’ve been predisposed for a week or so and it’s now time to get caught up on some things.  There’s been a lot in the news lately regarding Trump administration policies on immigration and trade.  I’m extremely pleased with what’s happening on immigration, less so with what I hear about Trump waffling on the idea of a “border tax” (another name for tariffs).

But I’ll start with the above-linked story that came out last week because this is a perfect example of the divergence of interests that takes place when a nation becomes “economically over-populated” or takes on the characteristics of such an economy through free trade with a badly overpopulated nation.  For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this concept, this divergence of interests is one of the consequences of the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption.  As a society becomes more densely populated, the need to crowd together and economize space begins to erode per capita consumption.  As per capita consumption declines, so too does per capita employment.  The result is rising unemployment and poverty.   It’s in individuals’ best interest – in the best interest of the common good – that this situation be avoided.  (To better understand this concept, I encourage you to read Five ShortBlasts.)

However, while per capita consumption may begin to decline as a population density reaches a certain level, total consumption continues to rise with a growing population.  Who benefits from that?  Anyone in the business of selling products.  Not only do they benefit from the increase in sales volume, but they benefit further as the labor force grows faster than demand, putting downward pressure on wages.  Thus, it’s in corporations’ best interest to see population growth continue forever, and to pursue more markets through free trade.

So it’s in the best interest of the common good that we avoid meshing our economy through free trade with nations whose markets are emaciated by overcrowding and who come to the trading table with nothing but bloated labor forces hungry for work.  But it’s in corporations’ best interests to grow the overall customer base through free trade with those same nations.  So it comes as no surprise that a big-business coalition is eager to steer lawmakers away from any tax plan that would include a “border tax” (a tariff) that might shut them out of their foreign markets.

They call themselves “Americans for Affordable Products,” making it sound as though it is individual Americans who make up this coalition and not global corporations.  They want us to believe that products will become less affordable.  While prices for imports may rise, they want you to forget that those increases would be more than offset by rising incomes and falling tax rates.  They don’t care if the border tax benefits you.  All they care about is that it may not necessarily benefit them.

So which of these competing interests will lawmakers heed – their wealthy corporate benefactors or the angry Americans who swept the Trump administration into power on his promise to enact a border tax and bring our manufacturing jobs back home?  Money talks and I fear that groups like this coalition are having an effect.  Trump and Republicans would be wise to ignore them.  Democrats paid the price for ignoring the plight of middle-class Americans when Obama betrayed his promise of “hope and change.”  Those same middle-class Americans will pull the trigger on Trump too if he doesn’t come through.

 


Weak Headline Number Masks Strong March Employment Report

April 8, 2017

The Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday released its employment report for the month of March.  The headline jobs number was weak.  “Only” 98,000 jobs were added in March – about half of what was expected.  But unemployment dropped by two tenths (a fairly big drop) to 4.5%.  The data underlying the unemployment figure was quite strong.  The “employment level” (the number of people reporting being employed in the household survey portion of the report) rose by 472,000 in March.  (It rose by 447,000 in February.)  And the labor force grew by 145,000 – outpacing the growth in the general population for the fourth month in a row.

Last month, Trump hailed the strong February employment report as “real,” as opposed to the “fake” reports produced by the Obama administration.  (The Obama administration did lean heavily on claims of a shrinking labor force to prop up its unemployment figures.)  Was that claim just bluster or has the reporting methodology actually changed for the better?  It’s two early to tell but, at least for the second month in a row, the BLS claims that the labor force grew (as it actually does, of course) and the numbers seem plausible.  Time will tell.

Per capita employment (the employment level divided by the population) climbed above 47% for the first time since November, 2008.  (Here’s the chart:  Per Capita Employment.)  The “detachment from reality index” – my measure of how much the unemployment figures were distorted by the “mysteriously vanishing labor force” tactic used by the Obama administration – fell to its lowest level since January, 2013.  (Here’s the chart:  Detachment from Reality Index.)

This is great news, but it has more to do with a burst of confidence among consumers (likely driven by a burst of confidence among investors which has driven the stock market higher) in the wake of Trump’s election.  The fundamentals of the economy haven’t changed.  The trade deficit is as bad as ever.  And interest rates are on the rise which will pull the economy down if Trump isn’t able to make headway with tax and trade reforms.  And the jump in stocks that have propelled the economy has already stalled, now waiting to see if expectations of Trump policies actually materialize.

I hope that what appears to be honesty with the factors that make up the employment report (based on a scant two months’ of data) continues.  But without the “border tax” that Trump promised, the good numbers won’t.

By the way, for some time now, the Federal Reserve and others have been proclaiming the economy to be at full employment.  If that were true, then how does the economy continue to add jobs at a faster rate than the growth in the labor force, and how does the unemployment rate continue to fall?  It’s because they were all sucked in by the “detached from reality” employment reports produced by the Obama administration.  The fact is that an honest reading of unemployment (one that grew the labor force in proportion to population growth) has unemployment at 7.3% – nowhere even remotely close to “full employment.”


February Trade Report: New Administration, Same Old Deficit

April 4, 2017

OK, I know it’s not reasonable to expect anything different.  After all, Trump hasn’t yet had a chance to implement new trade policies that would have any meaningful impact on our trade results.   What he has done is meet with some leaders of nations who are among the worst offenders in terms of their trade surplus with the U.S.:  Mexico, Japan and Germany, most notably.  He meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping in a couple of days.  Reportedly, he hasn’t pulled any punches so far in expressing his displeasure with the trade deficit and has vowed to take tough action (like a “border tax”) to change the situation.  So, one thing we can say about the early evidence provided by the February trade results is that tough talk has absolutely no effect on trade results.  (As if the trade results of past administrations aren’t sufficient evidence.)

In February, the deficit dipped slightly.  Here’s a chart of the deficit in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  As you can see, though the deficit dipped slightly from January, it remains stuck in the $55-62 billion range it’s been in for two years.

As time goes on, I grow more nervous that Trump will cop out on the trade issue just as Obama did, as more and more meetings with world leaders and business leaders try to convince him of the intangible, unquantifiable benefits of free trade.  It worked on Obama.  Hopefully, they’ll find Trump a tougher nut to crack.  Time will tell.  If there is no border tax in Trump’s tax overhaul plan, we’ll know that he caved to the pressure.  We’re watching, President Trump.  You can kiss your supporters goodbye if you don’t come through on this campaign promise.


Trump to Confront China’s Xi This Week

April 3, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-markets-idUSKBN175025

In the wake of the Obama administration, it still makes me nervous any time the president sits down for talks with a foreign leader.  For Obama, there were no concessions too big for him to make.  Foreign leaders played him like a fiddle.  Americans came out the losers every time.  I say this as one who had big hopes for Obama and voted for him in 2008.

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, Chinese President Xi Jinping travels to Florida this week to meet President Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort.  The media will be focused on dealings aimed at reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.  But the real story will be their talks on trade.  America’s failed trade policy is far and away the biggest contributor to our economic decline.  All of our economic problems and virtually every other problem that is impacted by monetary resources allocated to deal with it can be blamed on our trade deficit.  The budget deficit, nearly all of our national debt, our crumbling infrastructure, our health care crisis, homelessness, poverty …. you name it, they’re all directly linked to the drain of our financial resources wrought by the trade deficit.  And no country is more responsible for that drain than China, who accounts for nearly one half of the entire deficit.

On Friday, the U.S. president sought to push his crusade for fair trade and more manufacturing jobs back to the top of his agenda by ordering a study into the causes of U.S. trade deficits and a clamp down on import duty evasion.

If the President is truly interested in the cause of U.S. trade deficits, he need look no further than this blog and can learn all he needs to know by reading Five Short Blasts.   Nations who come to the trading table with nothing to offer but bloated labor forces and markets emaciated by gross overcrowding are the cause of trade deficits.  By this criteria, China is the worst of the worst.  Only tariffs (or a “border tax,” if that term is less onerous) can maintain a balance of trade when dealing with such countries.  Negotiations are pointless since the only possible outcome is to trust the other side to take actions to rein in their appetite for our market.  Decades of experience since the beginning of the failed experiment with “free” trade has proven that they won’t.

So far, President Trump has proven that, for the most part, he can be trusted to follow through on his campaign promises.  No promise was bigger than getting tough with China on trade.  It seems that Germany’s Angela Merkel found him to be a very different president from Obama in her recent meeting with Trump.  Hopefully, he’ll be just as tough on Xi.  It seems that Trump’s “border tax” idea is now becoming more accepted as a crucial element of his upcoming tax reform plan.  Let’s hope he doesn’t negotiate away any of it this week.