August Trade Data – More Evidence that Tariffs Work

October 7, 2019

You won’t find it in the headline number, but the August trade data that was released on Friday provides more evidence that tariffs work to reduce trade imbalances.

The overall trade deficit in August remained in the same tight range where it’s been for over a year, at $54.9 billion.  Imports remained locked in the same range where they’ve been for a year, while exports remained at the same level where they’ve been for two years.  The deficit in manufactured goods, which came in at $73.8 billion, may be showing signs of finally leveling off, although it’s too early to draw that conclusion.  (Here’s a chart of that all-important trade category:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.)

What’s significant is what’s happening in trade with China.  Through August, the trade deficit with China is on track to finish at about the same level as 2014 – $345 billion – after soaring to $420 billion in 2018.  It will likely end the year even lower as companies ramp up efforts to shift manufacturing to tariff-free suppliers.

The August trade data also illustrates that all of the talk of the tariffs hurting farmers is a bunch of baloney.  Through August, total farm exports are off from the previous year by less than 1%.  Exports of soybeans, which gets so much attention, are actually up in 2019 to $17.3 billion from $15.3 billion during the same period in 2018.

Unfortunately, the exodus of companies from China to find other tariff-free manufacturers hasn’t yet led to a boost in manufacturing in the U.S.  The trade deficit with other suppliers like Mexico, Vietnam, South Korea and others is actually getting worse as companies turn to them, their alternate, back-up manufacturers, to provide the capacity that’s been pulled out of China.  That won’t change until Trump begins extending his tariff policy to those countries as well.  Tariffs on all auto imports would be especially helpful.   As I said last month – what’s he waiting for?

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Evidence Mounting that Trump Tariffs are Working

September 9, 2019

The July trade data released on Friday by the Commerce Department provides evidence that the tariffs implemented by the Trump administration on Chinese imports are working.  The purpose of the tariffs, of course, is to shift manufacturing away from China and back to the U.S. to bolster the U.S. economy and manufacturing employment and break America’s dependence on massive budget deficits to counteract the damage done by trade deficits.

You won’t find much evidence of it in the headline number – the overall trade deficit – which shrunk marginally in July to $54 billion, a figure actually slightly worse than a year ago – $53.4 billion in July, 2018.  You have to look deeper at what’s happening with manufactured goods – not just “goods” in general, which the Commerce Department tracks and which includes trade in resources like oil and and farm products that have little impact on job creation.  The trade deficit in manufactured goods has been deteriorating rapidly for many years, interrupted only by the “Great Recession” in 2008/2009.  From January, 2010 to December of 2018, the deficit in manufactured goods nearly tripled, from $28.6 billion to $76.5 billion.  However, in the past twelve months, the deficit in manufactured goods has risen by only $0.3 billion – an actual decline when adjusted for inflation – and has actually fallen by $6.4 billion since the record of $76.5 billion set in December.

The impact on trade with China has been dramatic.  Through 2018, the deficit with China had been rising at a rate of about 10% per year, from $56.9 billion in 1998 to $419.5 billion in 2018.  In 2019, however, the deficit has fallen by 12% and the rate of decline is accelerating, though it ticked up slightly in July, likely the result of importers stockpiling goods in anticipation of the next round of tariffs.

The effect on manufacturing employment in the U.S. has been much less dramatic, though there has been some effect.  Manufacturing employment gains have been slow in 2019 after a strong 2018, but that may be about to change.  The Labor Department reported on Friday that, while the average work week in the U.S. rose a tenth of an hour to 34.4 hours, the manufacturing work week rose by 0.2 hours to 40.6 hours.  That bodes well for an overdue jump in manufacturing employment as employers look to cut overtime costs.  Also, although the headline number of Friday’s employment report – 130,000 jobs added in August (according the establishment survey portion of the report) – was below expectations for a gain of about 158,000 – what went unreported was that employment in the U.S. (as measured by the household survey portion of the report) rose by nearly 600,000!

And there’s this:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-women/tight-u-s-labor-market-shrinks-gender-and-race-gaps-to-record-lows-idUSKCN1VR2JC.  In August, the gap in the labor force participation rate between men and women fell to an all-time record low and black unemployment also fell to an all-time record low.

Still, job gains in manufacturing at this point could be and should be much better.  What’s holding it back is Trump’s failure to expand his tariff policy beyond China, enabling companies to shift production from China to secondary suppliers in other countries – especially Mexico – where the trade deficit has jumped 24%.  Mexican workers have been the biggest beneficiaries of the tariffs on China, not Americans.

Trump can’t really claim that he’s “Made American Great Again” until manufacturing jobs come back to the U.S. in a much bigger way.  That can’t happen until he applies tariffs beyond China to include Mexico and imported autos from Europe, Japan and South Korea.  The results with China prove that they work.  Why is he holding back?


“Embrace change,” corporate America!

September 3, 2019

I was there, working in manufacturing in the 1980s, when a cold wind swept across America.  I was there when our corporations, until then led by manufacturing and the engineers who rose up through its ranks, kicked manufacturing to the curb and replaced their leadership with marketing people, skilled in the art of B.S., and bean counters, focused on nothing but cutting costs.  I was there when the United Nations and the World Trade Organization embarked on their campaign of raising poor nations out of poverty through the systematic plundering of jobs from the U.S. – as many jobs as possible without tipping the balance of power in favor of bad actors who might threaten this new concept of “globalism” and the “New World Order” – the new regime of parasites dedicated to keeping its U.S. host alive just enough to keep the blood flowing.

I was there when they began scaling back manufacturing operations, laying off good workers and closing plants.  “Embrace change,” we were told constantly by business managers with an air of condescension, as though they were addressing fools too dumb to recognize good things and good opportunities when they see it.  We had made careers of embracing change – change for the better – changes that automated our factories, boosted production, cut emissions, improved quality and grew profits.  Now we were being insulted by con men whose only goal was the next promotion, which required laying off more people than the next guy.

I was there at a big division-wide meeting – one of those meetings whose purpose was ostensibly to gather input, but it was clear from the start that input was the last thing they wanted.  What they wanted was “buy in” for the new direction of the company.  In other words, you’d better accept what’s coming enthusiastically, with a big smile on your face, if you know what’s good for you.  The leader, the division manager, asked, “what are we going to need to succeed?”  I raised my hand and replied – perhaps naively or perhaps in a thinly-veiled attempt to stand up for what I and many others present had built our careers around.  “We’ll need excellence in manufacturing.”  I was stunned by his arrogant, dismissive reply.  “Why?  We don’t need that.  We can buy that!”  I thought to myself, “you dumbass, you can buy it if you want, but you still need it, and now you’re at the mercy of your supplier.”  But it would have been a pointless example of falling on your own sword to come right out and say it.  “Embrace change.”  Here it comes.

Our final days before closing the doors were spent writing operating procedures, documenting every detail of our operations, and then training workers brought over from foreign subsidiaries.  We were forced to facilitate the widespread technology transfer that played a critical role in ruining the American economy.

It’s decades later and the tables have turned.  As it always does, the pendulum swung too far.  The globalist corporations over-played their hand, planting the seeds of political change.  Americans are sick of working for minimum wages and being the world’s chumps.  America itself can no longer fund massive trade deficits.  The wind has shifted and now blows cold on globalist dreams of reaping big profits from a China transformed into western-style consumers and from plundering the American market with cheap products.  Those dreams never had a chance.  China will never be more than a sweat-shop labor pool with their gross over-population dooming any hope of a western-style, consumer-driven economy.

In the meantime, a lot of weeds sprouted in the devastated American economic landscape.  By “weeds,” I mean business models that bring so little value to the table that they are dependent on virtual slave labor wages.  Cheap junk of poor quality has perpetuated a throw-away mindset among consumers.  Cheap clothing made of thin, flimsy fabric.  Tools that break after one use.  Auto parts and appliances that break as soon as the warranty expires.  An economy dependent on consumers burning through their severance packages.  A retail economy that employed laid-off workers manning check-out lines until everyone had burned through their savings.  An economy totally dependent on consumers buying stuff that they had no hand in producing.  All the while the economy grew.  It didn’t matter if the growth was flowers or weeds, as long as the color was green – money pouring into corporate coffers.

In the wake of Trump’s tariffs on China, retailers are having a hissy-fit when their suppliers ask for a price increase to cover the cost of the tariffs.  Products with high perceived value needn’t fear.  They’ll always find a way to be marketed successfully even if their prices do rise a few percent.  Those with low value will bite the dust.  Good riddance.  And retailers who turn their backs on good products just because the supplier needs to raise prices to make a profit – whether to cover the cost of the tariffs or, better yet, to begin manufacturing domestically – will lose out to retailers who understand their value, and they too will fail and vanish.  Again, good riddance.  It’s not like there’s a shortage of retailers.

So, corporate America, the shoe’s now on the other foot.  EMBRACE CHANGE!  Think of the possibilities and opportunities – the opportunity to cut your shipping costs dramatically, to be in charge of your manufacturing again instead of being at the mercy of Chinese companies, to boost sales to American consumers with more buying power thanks to rising wages.  EMBRACE CHANGE!!  Maybe you can mitigate some of the increased cost by cutting fat at the top layers of your organizations – those con men who grew fat and rich by ruining the lives of the people who actually did the work.  EMBRACE CHANGE!!!  Maybe you’ll survive.  If not, good riddance and adios.  Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out.  Your workers will be fine.  The winning companies will snap them right up.


Tariffs “a problem with no solution?”

August 31, 2019

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/30/basic-fun-ceo-jay-foreman-to-keep-production-in-china-despite-trump.html

In the above-linked article, Jay Foreman, CEO of Basic Fun, Inc., the toy company whose most well-known product is “Lincoln Logs,” whines that the tariffs on China have created “a problem with no solution.”  He complains that Trump’s order to American companies to find a new supply chain, preferably in the U.S., leaves him with no good alternatives.  If he moves production to another country, like India, he may soon face the same tariff problem there.  Move production back to the U.S.?  “There’s no labor here,” he says.

“I’m not really sure the American consumer is ready to start making toys in the kind of conditions you might see in factories in India, and there’s no labor here in the United States to manufacture toys,” said Foreman.

In addition to labor condition concerns, Foreman said that moving production to India, for example, is risky because Trump has already criticized that country’s trade practices.

I’m confused.  American consumers don’t make toys, especially in India.  Workers make things, not consumers.  And Indian factories are staffed with Indian workers, not American consumers.  I think he’s saying that American consumers might be turned off if they learned that the toys they’re buying are made in deplorable conditions.  I suspect that the Chinese factories aren’t that much different.

There’s “no labor here?”  What a crock.  The U.S. is awash in labor.  There are still ten million Americans who haven’t been put back to work since the “Great Recession” in 2009.  The only reason that unemployment in the U.S. is so low – 3.7% in July – is that these long-term unemployed have been factored out of the labor force.  This is why per capita employment remains approximately 2% below the pre-2009 level.  It’s the reason that the American economy is able to add 200,000 jobs every month during this period of economic expansion without any effect on unemployment and barely any upward pressure on wages.  The workers seem to appear out of thin air like magic every month.  It’s not magic.  The workers are here, waiting and eager to be put back to work.

Any time some company executive complains that they can’t find workers in the U.S., it’s because they can’t find workers at the wages they’re willing to pay, which is probably minimum wage or even less, if they could get away with it.  Offer $20 an hour, a more reasonable wage for the kind of skilled work required by manufacturing, and see how many workers show up at your door.  The impact on product prices would be minimal, and more than offset by rising wages.  After all, every consumer is either a worker or is supported by a worker.

Oh, by the way, it’s kind of ironic that Mr. Foreman complains that his toys can’t be made in the U.S. when the most iconic toy in Basic Fun’s line-up, Lincoln Logs – a toy inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999, is actually made in Maine by Pride Manufacturing for Basic Fun.  And guess what?  American consumers still buy Lincoln Logs for their kids.  No one complains that Lincoln Logs’ manufacturing should be shipped to China so that they can save a few cents.


Trump Tariff Policy and the Risk of Recession

August 21, 2019

Early this month, Trump announced that a 10% tariff would go into effect on September 1st on all remaining imports from China.  (Half of Chinese imports were already subject to a 25% tariff.)  Stock markets plunged amid warnings of a global slowdown, inflation and the possibility of recession in the U.S.  Investors rushed to buy safe-haven bonds, sending the yield on 10-year bonds below that of 2-year bonds, producing the dreaded “yield curve inversion,” which has often been a harbinger of a looming recession.  So the warnings of recession intensified.  Every weaker-than-expected economic report blames the “trade war” and Trump’s tariffs, while every stronger-than-expected economic report – most notably a strong labor market and good GDP growth (the exact opposite of recession) is shrugged off as happening in spite of the tariffs and trade war.  The globalist media is desperately stoking fear of a recession in the hope of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is there actually a risk of recession related to Trump’s tariff policy?  You bet there is.  But the relationship is exactly the opposite of what economists and the media would have you believe.  Trump’s “slow turkey” approach to the use of tariffs – imposing them only on China – so far hasn’t yielded anything in terms of reducing the trade deficit and bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  Don’t get me wrong.  The tariffs on China are definitely working – reducing the trade imbalance with China by nearly 25% this year.  But companies aren’t convinced that this is anything other than a blip in U.S. trade policy or that it could extend beyond China.  So, instead of bringing jobs back to the U.S., it has shifted them to other overpopulated nations hungry for work.  It appears that countries like Mexico and Vietnam have been the big beneficiaries so far, where our trade deficit with each has grown by approximately 25%.

Our overall trade deficit hasn’t budged.  In  June (the most recent month for which data is available), our deficit in manufactured goods was $73.1 billion – the 2nd worst figure ever recorded and only $3.6 billion below the record set in December of ’18.

Trump appears to be walking a fine line, taking the “slow turkey” approach to tariffs to avoid roiling markets but, at the same time, not realizing any of the benefit of bringing back manufacturing jobs, leaving the economy dependent on deficit spending to counteract the drag of the trade deficit, making it susceptible to a recession.  It’s a huge gamble.  A recession will doom any hope of a 2nd term and, with it, any hope of sustaining this badly-needed turn in trade policy.

 


“Slow-Turkey” Trade Policy

July 8, 2019

Like the animated “slow turkey” we’ve all seen on the TV ads for a quit-smoking medication, Trump’s trade policy is also taking the “slow turkey” approach.

As announced by the Commerce Department on Wednesday, the trade deficit jumped back up in May to $55.2 billion from $51.2 billion in April, but this was still below the peak of $60.8 billion in December.  (Here’s the full release from the Commerce Department:  https://www.bea.gov/system/files/2019-07/trad0519.pdf.)

More importantly, the deficit in manufactured goods also rebounded in May to $71.1 billion, up from $67.9 billion in April.  It too, however, was below the all-time record of $76.5 billion set in December.  Here’s a chart of the deficit in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.

Based upon these figures, it’s difficult to see that Trump’s policy of using tariffs to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. is having any effect.  Look more closely, though, and you’ll find that things are starting to happen.  The deficit with China rose again in May, but to “only” $30.2 billion, from $26.9 billion in April and $20.7 billion in March.  But this rise follows a seasonal pattern.  The fact is that the deficit with China has been down from the same month in 2018 every single month so far this year.  The year-to-date deficit with China is $137.1 billion through May, compared to $152.2 billion for the same period in 2018.  And let’s not forget that the U.S. is now collecting a lot of revenue from half of Chinese imports – approximately $5 billion in May – an annualized rate of $60 billion.  If and when Trump imposes a 25% tariff on the other half of Chinese imports, that revenue figure will double to $120 billion per year and will further cut our deficit with China.

Yes, China is retaliating with tariffs of their own, and exports to China have dropped slightly, but imports from China have fallen much more – the net result being a lower trade deficit, which is a boost to the U.S. economy.  What about the stories about how bad America’s farmers are being hurt by this trade war?  Baloney.  Look at page 19 of the report.  Exports of “foods, feeds, and beverages” year-to-date is running almost dead even with last year.  Exports of soybeans, which get so much attention, are running 7% ahead of last year.  And overall exports are up by $2 billion from last year.

Recently, Trump announced in the wake of his G20 meeting with Red China’s dictator Xi that he is holding off the implementation of the 25% tariff on the remainder of Chinese imports that he has threatened, pending a new round of trade negotiations with China.  We can see a pattern emerging in Trump’s style of trade policy.  He’s all warm and fuzzy when meeting with global leaders like Xi, then takes the tough action when the lower-level negotiations don’t measure up.  Maybe it’s a smart approach, effectively inoculating the business world against the Chicken Little, “the sky is falling” dire warnings of trade war consequences.  The unfounded fears dissipate when the trade war is rolled out slowly and nothing bad happens.  The free trade fear mongers are losing credibility.  Each new round of tariffs gets more of a ho-hum response.

Who’s been the biggest beneficiary of the tariffs on China so far?  Mexico.  While the trade deficit with others like Germany and Japan is either stagnant or declining (South Korea), the deficit with Mexico is growing rapidly as manufacturers who have been leaving China in droves (a few examples of which are reported here:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-strategy-tech/hp-dell-other-tech-firms-plan-to-shift-production-out-of-china-nikkei-idUSKCN1TY14G) look for their next best (low cost) solution.  Some manufacturing is coming back to the U.S., but a lot is going to Mexico.

Under current NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) rules, that may look like a smart move.  But that landscape is changing too – in “slow turkey” fashion.  A new agreement has been negotiated and is pending approval by Congress, and Trump has repeatedly threatened tariffs on Mexico imports, most recently in his effort to force Mexico to take a tougher stand against Central American immigrants.  Those companies moving to Mexico now may be throwing good money after bad and regret not facing the inevitable – that America’s tolerance of perpetual, huge trade imbalances has reached the end of the line.

This “slow turkey” approach to trade policy is frustrating for a “cold turkey” like me.  The “cold turkey” approach would already be yielding bigger benefits for American workers.  But I’ll concede that a “slow turkey” approach may be more sustainable in an environment where free trade globalists still command the attention of the media and are influential in what happens in global stock markets.  The benefits for workers may not be sustainable if investors are taking it on the chin.

It looks like the “slow turkey” approach is just beginning to show positive results.  The American economy, including the manufacturing sector, is doing well while others are faltering.  If this approach de-fangs the critics as their trade war hysteria falls flat, and the political climate becomes favorable for an 8-year “slow turkey” transformation of trade policy instead of a 4-year “cold turkey” that ultimately yields nothing more than a lame duck dead turkey, then I’m all for it.

 


Trade Deficit “Unexpectedly”(?) Narrows

June 8, 2019

https://www.fidelity.com/news/article/top-news/201906061158RTRSNEWSCOMBINED_KCN1T71LA-OUSBS_1

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, America’s trade deficit fell slightly to $50.8 billion in April.  More importantly, the deficit in manufactured goods fell to $68 billion, it’s lowest level since June of last year.  The decline was due to a drop of $5.9 billion in imports, partially offset by a $5.2 billion drop in exports.

The reporting in the article seems to be intentionally misleading to promote a pro-free trade, pro-globalism agenda.  First of all, the article reports that the deficit “unexpectedly narrowed.”  Why “unexpectedly?”  I, and anyone who understands how tariffs work to restore a balance of trade, have been expecting it for months.

Then there’s this:

“U.S. trade with the world is slowing dramatically and the odds are rising that the economy is going to take a big hit,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

“Globalization and expanded trade between nations benefited everyone and now the reductions in trade volumes between nations are going to subtract those benefits worldwide from everyone.”

The facts are that the economy is actually doing very well, especially in the U.S.  Globalization didn’t benefit everyone.  America’s manufacturing sector was devastated, turning a nation that was an industrial powerhouse into a skid row bum, economically speaking.

And this:

The politically sensitive goods trade deficit with China surged 29.7% to $26.9 billion. The gap with Mexico fell 14.1% to $8.2 billion in April.

Well, yeah, the deficit with China rose in April from March, but March was the lowest deficit with China in five years.  The Reuters article failed to mention that the 3-month trailing average deficit with China, which factors out month-to-month volatility, fell to its lowest level since April of 2014.  The data about Mexico is also misleading.  While the gap fell with Mexico in April from March, the 3-month trailing average rose to its highest level ever as manufacturers flee China for Mexico to avoid tariffs and to reduce their high shipping costs.

The tariffs on China are working, a fact more accurately covered in this article:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-mexico-manufacturers/under-tariff-threat-mexico-less-attractive-to-companies-avoiding-china-trade-war-idUSKCN1T82HB.

Take the recent experience of outsourcing firm Tecma Group, which saw a surge in interest from companies mulling a move to Mexico as Trump raised tariffs to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods.

Tecma, which manages some 75 factories in Mexico, had been approached “every week” by companies selling items from furniture to ink pens seeking a pathway out of China and into Mexico, according to Alan Russell, its chief executive and chairman.

…  data showing Mexico emerging as the top U.S. trading partner as China exports less to the United States, combined with anecdotal evidence, suggest a significant trend.

… “Whatever we are doing in Mexico is for our company’s long-term strategic growth … If we produce in Mexico we’ll a save a lot on freight and it will reduce the time for delivery. It’s a huge advantage,” said (Fuling Global Inc.) CFO Gilbert Lee.

… Similarly, camera maker GoPro Inc decided in early May to move most of its U.S.-bound production to Mexico from China to “insulate us against possible tariffs,” Chief Financial Officer Brian McGee told investors at the time.

… In fact, Mexico overtook both China and Canada in the first quarter of 2019 to become the U.S.’s top trading partner in goods, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

This is proof positive that the tariffs on China are working, forcing manufacturers to flee in search of a better deal.  The fact that, for now, they’re finding a better deal in Mexico instead of returning immediately to domestic manufacturing in the U.S. isn’t all bad news.  Mexico is a nation with only one tenth of the population of China, and with a GDP (gross domestic product) per capita that’s approximately 25% higher than China’s.  That means that Mexico doesn’t have enough slack labor force to take on all of the manufacturing currently done in China.  The demand for labor will quickly drive wages that are already higher in Mexico than in China even higher, to the point where manufacturing in Mexico has no advantage over the U.S.

The data shows that the tariffs are really beginning to work.