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.


Closing the Book on Obama’s Trade Policy

March 8, 2017

The U.S. trade deficit for the month of January was posted yesterday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  It was horrible.  President Trump took office on January 20th, but he can hardly be held responsible for any of the January results.  This is all on former President Obama.

How bad was it?  The overall trade deficit rose to its worst level in nearly five years – $48.5 billion.  At $62.1 billion, the deficit in manufactured goods just missed its all-time worst reading of $62.5 billion set in March of 2015.  As you can see from this chart, if the trend in manufactured goods continues, we’ll have a new record very soon and, without the change in trade policy promised by President Trump, it will likely get worse from there:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.

Then there’s the export numbers.  In January of 2010, lacking the courage to take on the problem with imports, President Obama vowed to double exports in five years in an effort to turn the U.S. into more of an export-driven, Germany-like economy.  It never happened and never even came close.  In January of 2017 – seven years after Obama made that promise – total exports, at $192 billion – remained below the October, 2013 level.  Worse yet, exports of manufactured goods were below the level reached in September, 2011 – up only 26% from when Obama made that promise.  And that increase was due entirely to global economic recovery from the 2009 recession and had nothing to do with any real improvement in America’s export position.

So that closes the book on Obama’s trade policy, which was a total failure.  Actually, if President Trump follows through on his promise of tariffs (or border tax, or whatever you want to call it), this closes the book on a seven-decade-long experiment with free trade and globalization, begun in 1947 with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that, by any measure of its effect on the American economy, has been a complete disaster.

  • America’s trade surplus dwindled until we ran our last trade surplus in 1976.
  • 41 consecutive years of trade deficits has yielded a cumulative deficit of $14.4 trillion.  During that time, the national debt, which is closely linked to the trade deficit, grew by $19.4 trillion.  In 1976, the national debt was only $0.5 trillion.  Virtually all of our national debt is due to the cumulative trade deficit since 1976.
  • During this period, family incomes and net worth have declined, our infrastructure has crumbled, and our nation has been bankrupted.  The manufacturing sector of the economy has been gutted.  More than ten million manufacturing jobs have been lost.  The United States, once the world’s preeminent industrial power, has been reduced to a skid-row bum, begging the rest of the world to loan us money to keep us afloat.

This is all on you now, President Trump.  You own it.  You’ve promised to straighten out this mess.  America is watching and waiting.


Week 1 Done

January 28, 2017

The world is slowly awakening to a new reality.  It has profoundly changed.  And that may be an understatement.

Throughout the campaign, Trump’s “populist” rhetoric was dismissed by many – especially by those who stood to lose the most if globalization were dismantled – as exactly that, a play for votes or posturing designed to win concessions in the highly unlikely event that he would actually be elected president.  After all, this is the author of The Art of the Deal, a book about his tactics for winning in the business world.  He’s just  staking out his opening position.  Right?

During the transition, however, he doubled down on his rhetoric and stacked the cabinet mostly with people aligned with his positions.  The world grew a little more nervous.

Then came inauguration day and, I have to admit, that even I was taken aback by his speech.  It was as though he picked up a rhetorical two-by-four and began swinging at everyone who’d had a role in America’s trade mess and economic decline, and any who doubted his intentions or who stood in his way.

Now his first week in office is history, and what a week it was.  TPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal) is dead.  NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Deal) is as good as dead.  The wall on the southern border will be built.  Tariffs on Mexican imports will pay for it.  Immigration from many Middle Eastern countries has been brought to a halt.  And, in stark contrast to Obama’s visit to Mexico in the early days of presidency to discuss renegotiating NAFTA, a humiliating experience that yielded only more Mexican tariffs on American goods, Trump has put Mexico on notice.  If you can’t accept the new reality of American tariffs on Mexican imports and an all-out effort to halt illegal immigration from your country, then too bad – we have nothing to talk about.

Some seem to get it.  Some American companies have begun hedging their bets with announcements of plans to invest in American manufacturing.  Still, the world is largely in a state of denial.  Markets around the world continue to rally on optimism over the aspects of the Trump agenda that it likes – corporate tax breaks and infrastructure spending – while shrugging off the possibility that Trump means business about imposing tariffs on imports.

The world is made up of only two economies, really.  One is the economy of the more sparsely populated countries, able to gainfully employ their workers, which is dominated by the United States.  The other is the rest of the world, badly overpopulated and heavily dependent on manufacturing for export to the aforementioned countries – again, most notably, the United States.  Tariffs on imports into the U.S. will  totally alter the host-parasite relationship that exists between the two.  Those who continue to blindly invest in the economies of the latter may be making a serious mistake.

Americans have finally gotten fed up with playing the role of enabler to ever-worsening overpopulation, using immigration as a relief valve and trade to prop it up.  Trump has hastened the day when the rest of the world must face the consequences on their own.


How the Global Elite Sewed the Seeds of Trump’s Victory and Their Own Demise

November 23, 2016

With each passing day since the election I am more amazed than the day before at what I see happening as the Trump administration begins to take shape and at the reaction from world leaders, the business world and political pundits.  I have a lot of thoughts I want to share about what this all means but, before getting into all that, I thought I’d share another take on just what happened with this election – a “take” that I haven’t heard from anyone else yet.

As global corporations began the process of implementing the New World Order that had its genesis in the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947 – especially as the process accelerated first with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, followed closely by the admission of China to the World Trade Organization, both events occurring during the Clinton administration – the painful process of passing out pink slips to American manufacturing workers got underway in earnest.

With nothing more than a small severance check and, perhaps, some “job re-training” (to do exactly what was never clear), millions of people were suddenly faced with the question, “now what do I do?”  They began with the obvious – look for another job.  When that didn’t work, more and more people tried their hands at starting their own businesses. It stimulated an interest in entrepreneurism like we hadn’t seen before.  People sought out the advice of successful entrepreneurs and began to revere the most successful among them.

The appetite for entrepreneurial advice didn’t escape television executives.  Never one to miss an opportunity, enter Donald Trump and his reality show “The Apprentice,”  which first aired in January of 2004 and has run continuously since then in various formats.  Viewers were awed by his business instincts, his ability to see through phoniness and identify those with real ambition, and his ability to win at business.  For people who had been exposed to the lies and BS that were standard fare used by corporations to justify the sacrifice of their jobs on the altar of globalism, this was refreshing.  This was someone they could admire.

What the global elite didn’t anticipate was that they were making a hero of a fabulously successful entrepreneur who didn’t need their money, one with political ambitions and one who, for whatever reason, seemed to have an affinity for the working class.  I’m reminded of the natural world where imbalances have a way of correcting themselves.  If a population of some species grows out-of-control, other forces have a way of reining it in.  In the same way, when the global elite concocted a system that helped some at the expense of others, they unwittingly sewed the seeds of that system’s own demise.

 


More Thoughts on Trump Victory

November 10, 2016

I’ll preface this by reminding readers that, in various posts in the past, I have described Donald Trump as a buffoon and as a “foul SOB.”  In spite of that, I encouraged you to vote for him as I did for one reason:  his stands on illegal immigration and trade align well with the conclusions of my book, Five Short Blasts.  To very briefly summarize, there is an unrecognized (by economists) inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption which has two major implications – that population growth beyond a certain level becomes a cancerous growth that eats away the economy, and that free trade with badly overpopulated nations accelerates this effect dramatically.  The effect of these on our economy is so over-riding that these issues dwarf all others.  I would vote for any candidate – Republican, Democrat or Independent – whose positions address these issues.

With that said, the following are some random thoughts on what happened in this election:

  1. Any party that focuses only on minorities and ignores the majority is doomed to fail.  The Democratic Party did exactly that, taking its historical support from working-class Americans for granted and ignoring them and polling data that consistently showed their deep concern about the direction of the country.
  2. The Republican Party has also blundered in its strategy of making itself indistinguishable from Democrats, particularly when it comes to the key issues of trade and immigration, contenting itself with splitting the vote while hoping to sway a small 0.5% toward their side.  Were it not for the fact that Trump – not a true Republican – chose to identify himself as one and to fight tooth and nail to prevail against their slate of traditional Republicans – the Republican party would have lost this election.
  3. This election was all about a rejection of the globalism and open borders that both parties embraced.  I don’t think either party, even now, fully understands this.  Whichever party embraces a new strategy and platform based on our nation’s right of self-determination will succeed going forward.
  4. Though it pains me to quote him, Bill Clinton said it best in the ’91 election:  “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Indeed it is, and not necessarily the macro-economy but each individual’s own share of the economy.  Only when the vast majority of Americans are enjoying the fruits of a healthy economy can other issues like the environment take center stage.  Both parties ignored the polling data that showed the country was headed in the wrong direction and that voters were fed up with their politicians.  The Obama administration chose to fool itself with gimmicked economic data.  Few voters were fooled.
  5. Clinton erred when she tried to portray Trump’s position on illegal immigration as racist and xenophobic.  Illegal immigration is a concern for all Americans and it’s a mistake to believe that Hispanic Americans would uniformly embrace it just because most illegal immigrants are Hispanic.  Many have been here a long time now and identify themselves as Americans first, just as I identify myself as American and not Irish.  As I said in Five Short Blasts, I wouldn’t care if it was Ireland that we shared a border with instead of Mexico.  Illegal immigration has to be stopped.  The Democrats were shocked to learn that nearly 30% of Hispanics voted for Trump.  Many were insulted by the assumption that they favor illegal immigration over the interests of their own country just because of their ancestry.  The Clinton campaign was no less guilty of stereotyping Hispanics than Trump was perceived to be.
  6. The Democrats are almost as guilty of taking the black vote for granted as they were of taking white working-class voters for granted.  Trump made a play for the black vote.  It was criticized as a clumsy attempt, but he made a very valid point, that the inner cities seem to be little better off and have little to show for their support for the Democratic party.  Trump correctly pointed out that his trade policies aimed at rebuilding the manufacturing sector of the economy would, if anything, benefit the black community even more than the white community.  Well, it didn’t seem to resonate that much, though Clinton got a little less of the black vote than Obama did.  But Trump has laid down a marker for the black community.  They may have been skeptical of what he said, but they’ll likely remember if, in fact, a manufacturing turn-around produces a renaissance in the inner cities.  Democrats, beware.
  7. The Clinton campaign’s mantra was that “when they go low, we go high!”  Yet, in the final days of the campaign, they did just the opposite.  They took the worst, most crude elements of the campaign and bundled them into commercials.  The commercials criticized Trump for things not fit for our children to hear, yet the Clinton campaign had no problem with bombarding our children with those things incessantly on prime time television – even during the World Series.  It came across as very two-faced and, if anything, made Clinton  seem more of a sleeze-bag than Trump.
  8. Meanwhile, the commercials aired by the Trump campaign in the last couple of weeks were very positive.  There was one commercial  that took on globalism and the globalist elites who profited at the expense of everyone else.  It was a dynamite, highly-effective commercial that should have begun airing sooner and should have aired far more often. But I saw it only once (and I watch a fair amount of television in the evenings).  What happened to it?
  9. Along those same lines, the Clinton campaign held a concert that head-lined Beyonce and Jay Z.  While some fawn over this couple, many people are offended by the lewd “twerking” of Beyonce and the filthy and racist (the “n” word) lyrics of Jay Z.  This isn’t a racist observation.  I personally find Miley Cyrus to be just as offensive.  Clinton’s condoning of these lyrics destroyed her credibility when criticizing Trump.  The concert was a dumb move.  What purpose did it serve?  Did she really think that Beyonce and Jay Z would swing undecided voters to their camp?
  10. The spending by the Clinton campaign dwarfed that of the Trump campaign, to no avail.  It’s not the first time we’ve seen such an outcome.  It demonstrates once again that it only takes a lot of money to sell lousy products, and good products sell themselves.  For all the concern about big money in politics, maybe it doesn’t really have that much of an effect.  So, hey big donors, if you want to waste your money, you’re perfectly welcome to plow it back into our economy through the ad agencies.  Either way, the money is now out of your accounts and into the hands of people who need it more.  Thanks!

Up next:  some thoughts about the challenges facing Trump and what it means for the world going forward.