A Trump Report Card

April 23, 2019

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, and thought it’d be a good time to give President Trump a sort of mid-term report card, albeit a little late.  I’ll grade him in two subjects only – immigration and trade policy – since these two areas address the economic effects of population growth, both actual growth the effect of growth imported through trade with overpopulated nations, the focus of this blog.  Beyond these, little else matters.  What about environmental policy?  Without a focus on stabilizing our population (and virtually all of America’s population growth is driven by immigration), all other environmental policies are doomed to failure.  What about foreign policy?  It’s impossible to project strength in the world if you’re weak on trade.

So, with that said, let’s begin with the good news:

Immigration Policy:  A+

Trump has done a fantastic job on both illegal and legal immigration, each of which had been contributing a million people per year to America’s population growth.  Thanks both to Trump’s zero tolerance policy for illegal immigration and dramatic cuts in legal immigration, the Census Bureau reduced its estimate of the U.S. population by 1.3 million people at the end of 2018.  He spent a lot of political capital in his efforts to get funding for a border wall and, when Congress wouldn’t agree, had the guts to declare a national emergency to obtain the funds.  “What emergency?” the media cried at first, but not for long, when their own reporters in the field began reporting on the humanitarian crisis at the border that resulted from the adminstration’s efforts to enforce the law instead of turning a blind eye to illegal immigration as previous administrations have done.  Now there’s virtually no complaints about Trump’s enforcement efforts or his emergency declaration.  His policies are likely responsible for the fact that increases at the low end of the wage scale are outpacing higher income increases.  Recently, during a trip to the southern border, Trump declared that “Our nation is full.”  Truer words were never spoken.  Ultimately, this is the biggest reason that immigration needs to be reduced.  Trump has done an absolutely fantastic job of reining in out-of-control immigration.

That’s the good news.  Now for the not-so-good:

Trade Policy:  D

Such a low grade may seem surprising and harsh, especially in light of the tariffs on metals and his seemingly tough position with China, including a 25% tariff on some items and a 10% tariff on half of all Chinese imports.  However, it’s those very actions that elevate his score to a “D” from an “F”, the score I’d give to every previous president going as far back as Franklin Roosevelt.  They’ve been a nice start, but fall far short of what we were led to expect from him in the way of trade policy.  Like all previous presidents of the modern era, Trump has been sucked into endless trade negotiations, a ploy that nations with large trade surpluses have used successfully for decades to forestall meaningful action by the U.S. – namely, tariffs.  We were promised that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would be torn up or promptly replaced.  Trump’s administration did negotiate a new agreement, but one that reportedly does little to shrink the enormous deficit with Mexico and it may never even be enacted, if Congress has its way.

Action on China is stalled.  Tariffs on auto and parts imports now appear to be idle threats.  Beyond China, there’s been no action on reducing the trade imbalance with other nations like Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and a host of others.  The trade deficit in manufactured goods has continued to explode to new record levels under Trump.  Employment in manufacturing has stalled once again.  Trump sees trade as a venue for demonstrating his deal-making prowess, and he sees tariffs as leverage to use in trade negotiations.  He doesn’t understand that favorable “deals” with overpopulated nations are impossible and a waste of time, and that tariffs are the only way to restore a balance of trade with those nations.  Regarding the ongoing trade negotiations with China, he recently declared that the U.S. will win, whether a deal is reached or not.  He’s wrong.  The Chinese have already won by sucking him into time-wasting talks that, at best, will yield a deal that the Chinese will use to continue to grow their trade surplus with the U.S.  He had them on the ropes with the tariffs and then caved in, letting them off the hook.

In summary, Trump’s trade policy is stalled and our trade deficit is getting worse, not better.  This has been a major disappointment.  He’s wasted valuable time.  As I’ve said many times, a tariff program will produce some pain in the short term as prices rise and companies are slow to build manufacturing capacity in the U.S., but will ultimately yield incredible economic growth once that capacity is in place.  Had Trump been more aggressive with tariffs, the short term pain would have given way to some major economic gains by the time of the 2020 election.  Now, that’s probably not possible and, instead, his economic program is at risk of stumbling into the election.

He’s done a terrific job on immigration but all may be lost if he doesn’t get his trade policy off dead-center.

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Auto Tariffs? Bring ’em on!

February 21, 2019

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-autos/automakers-brace-for-u-s-government-report-on-import-tariffs-idUSKCN1Q503G

A Commerce Department report that likely labels auto imports a national security threat which, under Section 232 of the World Trade Organization, would clear the way for Trump to impose tariffs, is now in Trump’s hands.  It could happen at any time now.  It’s impossible to overstate the consequences of such a move.  Without question, it would be the biggest shake-up in global trade since the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947.

Let’s begin with some perspective.  In 2018, 17.3 million cars and pickup trucks were sold in the U.S.  Of these, only about half of these vehicles were produced domestically.  The rest are imports.  Through November, the annualized value of imported cars in 2018 was approximately $180 billion.  The annualized value of auto parts was approximately $165 billion.  Together, that’s $345 billion worth of imported cars and trucks.  Roughly half of the cost to produce autos and parts is labor – about $172 billion.  If we assume that the average annual wage paid to auto workers is about $50,000, then that’s a total of about 3.5 million jobs that are lost to imports.

With that background, let’s take a look at the above-linked Reuters article about the possibility of Trump imposing a 25% tariffs on imported autos and parts.

The report’s recommendations may bring the global auto industry a step closer to its worst trade nightmare – U.S. tariffs on millions of imported cars and parts of up to 25 percent that many in the industry fear would add thousands of dollars to the cost of vehicles and potentially cost hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the U.S. economy.

While it may be a “nightmare” for the “global auto industry,” it would be a dream come true for domestic U.S. manufacturers.  A 25% tariff would indeed drive up the cost of imports by thousands of dollars, and could even increase the cost of domestic autos some, depending on the amount of imported parts used in their manufacture.  The net result?  It’s not hard to imagine.  If you were in the market for a new vehicle that currently costs $30,000, which would you buy?  An import that now costs $37,500 or a domestic that now costs maybe $31,000.  It’s a no-brainer, one that would be repeated millions of times per year by new car buyers.  The result is that domestic auto manufacturing would soon double in volume while imports would slow to a trickle.  It’s as simple as that.

So how can one claim that  “hundreds of thousands of jobs” would be lost throughout the U.S. economy?  It’s easy to make that claim as long as you’re talking only about jobs lost and don’t include job gains elsewhere.  Sure, there’d be lots of jobs lost (and a couple hundred thousand is feasible) in the distribution, sales and servicing of imported autos.  But the loss of those jobs would be offset ten-fold or more by gains in the manufacturing, distribution, sales and servicing of domestic autos, not to mention the jobs involved in building the required manufacturing facilities, including buildings and machinery.

And what about this?

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, recently introduced legislation that would shift responsibility for Section 232 investigations from Commerce to the U.S. Defense Department. The law containing the provision was passed in 1962 to keep U.S. industries healthy to meet Cold War defense needs.

“There is no way that minivans from Canada are a national security threat,” Portman told reporters.

Portman is wrong on two levels.  First of all, every imported car and truck weakens our manufacturing sector.  That could be critical in a time of war.  Just as important as our victories in the battlefield that ultimately forced the surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II was America’s industrial might that supplied them with weapons and materials.  No other nation on earth could even come close to matching America’s industrial power.  By the end of World War II, America’s shipyards were building complete destroyers, from the keel up, in two days, and Ford’s Willow Run factory in Michigan cranked out B-24 bombers at the rate of one per hour around the clock, or 650 bombers per month.  That didn’t happen by magic.  It took a veritable army of men and women experienced in manufacturing.

Existential wars – wars fought for survival against an enemy bent on conquering you – like our war against the Axis powers in World War II, are wars of attrition.  Who wins and who loses is often determined by who runs out of something first.  It doesn’t have to be ammunition or tanks or ships.  It can be something as simple as boots.  Every nut and bolt counts.  The lack of even one component can grind a war machine to a halt.  Supply chains that depend on overseas suppliers can be quickly and easily disrupted.  In other words, it’s critical to our survival that we maintain a robust manufacturing base, one that can be quickly converted to a wartime footing to supply everything imaginable that we might need.  Anything that degrades that capability is a national security threat.

Secondly, our national debt – now over $22 trillion – has grown to the point at which it threatens the viability of our economy.  Our national debt is directly tied to our trade deficit.  Every dollar drained from our economy by purchases of imports must somehow be put back to work in the economy, and the only mechanism available to do that is through federal deficit spending, financed by the sale of debt to those countries awash in our trade dollars.  Our debt is now growing by nearly a trillion dollars per year, and the $345 billion trade deficit in autos and parts is a major contributor.  The trade deficit is, without question, a national security threat and every imported minivan that Senator Portman references is part of the problem.

Tariffs are the only mechanism at our disposal for restoring a balance of trade – something we haven’t had since 1975 – and applying tariffs on the import of autos and parts is critical if we are to have any hope of achieving that balance.  Tariffs can’t simply be used as leverage to force other nations into trade concessions because they’ll never willingly give up their trade surpluses, regardless of their promises, as we’ve seen time and again for many decades.  We need tariffs now and they need to be permanent.

 


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.


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.


Trade Deficit in Manufactured Goods At Record High

December 7, 2017

The trade deficit in manufactured products* rose to a record high of $64.6 billion in October, surpassing the previous record of $63.3 billion set in March of 2015.  Take a look at this chart of our monthly deficit in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade. Exports of manufactured goods haven’t risen since September of 2011 (in spite of Obama’s laughable proclamation in 2010 that we would double exports in five years).  In the meantime, imports have soared by almost $30 billion.  It’s a dubious distinction for President Trump who, during his inaugural address in January, spoke of “…rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…” and proclaimed that “This American carnage stops right here and right now.”

To be fair, Trump didn’t mean that it would happen on the spot.  His administration has been taking steps to address our trade problem, trying to renegotiate NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada), imposing tariffs on some products and, most recently, blocking China from rising to “market economy” status with the World Trade Organization.  Aside from the work on NAFTA, which may conclude soon with the U.S. walking away from that ill-conceived agreement, the rest amounts to little more than the token steps taken by previous administrations.  The net result is that the plight of the manufacturing sector of our economy grows steadily worse.

Enough is enough.  It’s time to walk away from both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and begin implementing tariffs.  Any tariffs would be better than our current trade policy, but smart tariffs that address the real cause of our trade deficit – attempting to trade freely with badly overpopulated nations characterized by bloated labor forces and anemic markets – would be much more effective.  As an example, it was reported yesterday that Canada, angered by their treatment in the NAFTA negotiations, has canceled an order for Boeing-made fighter planes.  Why are we treating Canada this way?  Sure, we have a trade deficit with Canada, but it’s due entirely to oil.  In 2016, our biggest trade surplus in manufactured goods, by far, was with Canada – $44 billion, more than double any other country.  Canada is our best trading partner.  Why anger them?  Why not tell Canada that our beef is with Mexico, with whom we had a trade deficit in manufactured goods of almost $68 billion in 2016 – our third worst behind China and Japan – and that they’ll get just as good a deal from the U.S. without NAFTA?  Slap the tariffs on Mexico, not Canada.

We could completely wipe out our trade deficit in manufactured goods by applying tariffs to only ten countries – China, Japan, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, Vietnam, South Korea, Italy, India and Malaysia.  These ten countries, all more densely populated than the U.S. (all but Ireland are many times more densely populated), account for all of our trade deficit in manufactured goods.  While we have defiicts with others, they are much smaller and are offset by surpluses with the rest of the world.  The point is, we don’t have to anger the entire world with tariffs – just ten out of the more than 220 countries in the world.  So let’s be smart about how we do it, but the time has come, Mr. President.  Stop delaying the inevitable.  Do what you know needs to be done.

* The trade deficit in manufactured products is calculated by subtracting services, trade in petroleum products, and trade in foods, feeds and beverages from total trade, as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in its monthly reporting of international trade.


Ending NAFTA Would Hurt U.S.?

December 1, 2017

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nafta-economy/ending-nafta-would-hurt-growth-competitiveness-of-united-states-canada-report-idUSKBN1DR1D4

The above-linked story appeared a few days ago, warning of a 0.2% “hit” on U.S. GDP (gross domestic product) if the U.S. walked away from NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has resulted in a huge trade deficit with Mexico.  The argument is that the U.S. will be less competitive with the rest of the world without access to the cheap labor in Mexico.  Making autos and parts in the U.S. will raise costs, making American autos more expensive relative to imports from Japan, South Korea and Europe.

That’s probably true, but the answer to that is fairly simple.  Raise tariffs on products from those regions as well.  The trade deficit has never been about “competitiveness.”  Rather, it’s the result of attempting to trade freely with badly overpopulated nations who come to the trade table with a gross over-supply of labor and markets plagued by low per capita consumption.  I’ve always maintained that a piece-meal approach to addressing this problem can never work.  Tariffs need to be applied universally to every country whose emaciated markets are out of balance with their over-supply of labor.

One might question whether this will result in higher prices for American consumers.  Sure it will.  But the explosion in the demand for labor to make all these products in the U.S. once again, as we did decades ago, would drive wages higher even faster, making products more affordable in spite of higher prices.

President Trump has long promised to “put America first” in trade by withdrawing from NAFTA and even the World Trade Organization, and by then levying tariffs as necessary to restore a balance of trade.  During his recent trip to Asia, he made it clear once again that that will be our approach to trade from now on.  This is exactly what’s needed to halt the parasitic drain of the life blood from our economy.  The time has come, Mr. Trump.  Do it.

 


Low Wages Play Little Role in Trade Imbalances

July 20, 2017

In my previous two posts in which we examined the lists of America’s worst trade deficits and best trade surpluses in manufactured goods, it seemed clear that low wages were not a factor.  Many of our worst trade deficits were with wealthy nations like Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Japan and South Korea.  The list of our best trade surpluses was also dominated by wealthy nations.

Let’s take a closer look at the issue.  If we sort a list of nations by purchasing power parity, or “PPP” – a factor roughly analogous to wages, and divide them equally into five groups, ranging from the wealthiest nations to the poorest, here’s what we find:

  • Among the 33 wealthiest nations, whose PPP ranged from $129,700 (Qatar) to $34,400 (Cyprus) in 2016, the U.S. had a trade deficit in manufactured goods with 15 of them.
  • Among the next 33 nations, whose PPP ranged from $33,200 (Czech Republic) to $16,500 (Iraq), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 13 of them.
  • Among the next 33 nations, whose PPP ranged from $16,100 (Costa Rica) to $8,200 (Ukraine), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 10 of them.  China is near the top of this group.
  • Among the next-to-last poorest group, whose PPP ranged from $8,200 (Belize) to $3,100 (Lesotho), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 13 of them.
  • Among the very poorest nations, whose PPP ranged from $3,100 (Tanzania) to $400 (Somalia), the U.S. had a trade deficit with only 4 of them.

So if low wages cause trade deficits, why aren’t our trade deficits concentrated among the poorest nations instead of that group actually representing the fewest deficits by far.  And why does the richest group of nations include the most (and some of the biggest) deficits?

There’s no denying the fact that, among the poorest nations, the U.S. had a deficit in manufactured goods with 17 of them.  Included in that group are Vietnam and India.  But both rank among the top 25 nations with the fastest growing PPP (146% and 145% relative to the U.S., respectively) over the past ten years.  Since incomes are rising so fast in those countries, then if low wages are a factor in driving trade imbalances, shouldn’t our deficits with those countries be declining?  They’re not.  Quite the opposite is happening.  Our deficits with both have exploded over the past ten years, by 349% with Vietnam and 250% with India.  Our trade deficit is making them wealthier.

It’s difficult to argue that low wages play no role whatsoever.  Mexico is an obvious example of where American companies are setting up shop there, just across the border, for no other purpose than to save on labor.  Everything made there comes back into the U.S.  Virtually none of those products are sold into the Mexican market.  While many of the other manufacturing operations built in other countries like China are put there primarily in pursuit of those markets, that’s not the case with Mexico.  And mysteriously, the increased demand for labor in Mexico doesn’t seem to do much to raise wages there.  Mexico is being used as a virtual slave labor camp and, by all appearances, there must be some collusion between American companies and the Mexican government to keep it that way.

Aside from the glaring example of Mexico, low wages play no role whatsoever in creating our massive trade imbalance in manufactured goods, as proven by the fact that the vast majority of our worst trade imbalances are with wealthy nations.  Instead, trade imbalances are caused by high population densities that make our trading partners incapable of consuming products anywhere close to their productive capacity.