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.

 


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.


Manufactured Exports Fall to 5-1/2 Year Low

December 7, 2016

Almost seven years ago, in the wake of his disastrous visit to Mexico to address our trade deficit – which resulted in a sharp rebuke from the Mexican president and even higher tariffs on American goods – President Obama decided to turn his focus on exports.  “Why can’t we have an export-driven economy like Germany,” he challenged his economic team.  Evidently, none of them responded that there is no other United States out there to serve as our trade patsy as we’ve done for Germany.  So, in January of 2010, the president proclaimed that, within five years, the United States would double its exports.  This would be the centerpiece of his economic agenda.

Yesterday the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its monthly report of International Trade in Goods and Services.  The overall trade deficit came in at $42.4 billion in October, right in the range where it has been throughout the Obama administration.  There isn’t another economic report that chronicles America’s economic demise as clearly as this one does, yet the reaction was the same as it’s always been:  ho-hum.  Unbelievable.

To get to the real heart of the problem – the siphoning of jobs out of our economy – you have to strip away the “noise” – the trade in services, oil and food.  What’s left is trade in manufactured products, and the picture there grows worse with each passing month.  The deficit in manufactured products was $57.9 billion in October, not far from the record of $62.5 billion set in March of last year.  Check out this chart:  manfd-goods-balance-of-trade.

Especially pathetic is the contribution of declining exports to the increase in the deficit.  In October, manufactured exports fell to $104.3 billion, the lowest level in over 5-1/2 years.  (Exports of manufactured goods were $104.9 billion in March, 2011.)  Manufactured exports have fallen by $10.3 billion since peaking at $114.6 billion exactly two years ago.  To reach Obama’s goal, exports would have had to rise to $171.7 billion.  They never even came close.  Here’s a chart showing both manufactured exports and imports since Obama made his vow to double exports:  manfd-exports-vs-goal.  A complete failure, and no surprise.  The U.S. has no control over exports.  But at least deflecting attention away from the steady growth in imports – and the corresponding steady decline in manufacturing jobs – made things more pleasant for Obama around the punch bowl at G20 meetings.

Frankly, I’m sick of tracking this statistic under the Obama administration, watching it get predictably worse.  Only two full months of data remain – November and December.  Then things get interesting again.  This deep hole that’s been dug under the (lack of) leadership by Obama becomes Trump’s baseline.  How far and how fast can he whittle down this deficit?  Could he even turn it into a surplus, like we used to enjoy forty years ago?  Time will tell.  A deficit of $60 billion in manufactured goods represents a loss of ten million manufacturing jobs, and probably an equal number of jobs in ancillary industries.  Such a demand for labor would mop up every last unemployed person in the country and send wages soaring.  If Trump accomplishes even half of this, people will be stunned at the effect on the economy.

 


Are Americans really ready for what’s to come?

November 16, 2016

Some have described the election of Donald Trump as a “political earthquake.”  That doesn’t begin to describe it.  A more fitting analogy would be the asteroid that struck the earth millions of years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and most other living species.  The world was forever changed.

Sure, the sun came up the morning after Trump’s election and normal life resumed.  People living off the grid would never know that anything had happened. But fasten your seat belts, folks.  You haven’t felt it yet, but the blast wave from that asteroid strike is on its way.  If Trump implements the trade policy he promised during the campaign, we’re in for a very rough ride.  I’m afraid that few people really comprehend what’s coming.

Don’t get me wrong.  It needs to be done.  If Trump doesn’t do it, America will continue to be sucked into the vortex of the poverty-sharing scheme of globalization until we have nothing left.  Incomes will continue to decline.  Health care and college educations will become even less affordable.  Forget any dreams of a secure retirement.  Infrastructure will crumble further while the national debt soars.

So it has to be done, but entire economies – big ones – have been built on manufacturing for export to the U.S.  Globalization won’t go down without a fight.  It’ll begin with sniping from every corner of a vast network of globalization cheer-leaders that support their special interests, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, national leaders, CEOs of global corporations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its local chapters, and economists who can’t come to grips with the notion that everything they’ve learned, taught and fought for was wrong.  Based on past experience with presidents over the past several decades, it’s hard to imagine one that could withstand such withering criticism.

But that’s nothing compared to what will follow.  It seems that Mexico is the first one that Trump has in his cross-hairs.  They may try retaliatory trade sanctions, like big tariffs on food exports.  But they don’t have the wherewithal to present real problems.  China, however – who the Trump administration will turn its sights on next – is another story.  They’ll try retaliatory trade sanctions first but, when you’re the nation with the huge trade surplus, it’s impossible for China to win a trade war.  The thing that Chinese leaders fear the most is not the U.S., but civil unrest among its own people.  Big tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. would shift the now-booming Chinese economy into reverse.  Conceivably, it could collapse their economy.

The Chinese people have become conditioned to feel entitled to a booming economy and to preying on the U.S. market.  They’ll be angry as hell and will demand action from their government.  Rioting may break out.  In its death throes and desperate to placate their demands, the Chinese regime may turn to military action.  It’s impossible to predict how something like that might unfold.

There are those already saying that tariffs against Mexico can’t work – that forcing the manufacturing of American cars and parts back into the U.S. will only make them uncompetitive with other auto imports.  And they are right.  In order to succeed, Trump will need to expand the use of tariffs to include other countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and others.  Now we’ll have more unhappy campers who may be willing to form a new alliance against the U.S.  Are Americans prepared for this?

And are they prepared for some gut-wrenching changes in our own economy?  It’s true that tariffs will drive up prices for U.S. consumers and, in many cases, there are no American manufacturers ready to fill the void.  It’s going to take some time to design, build and start up new plants.  Will Americans have the patience to endure a burst of inflation and very likely a recession until wages catch up and offset the higher cost of goods, or have we become too spoiled for that?

I wonder if even the most strident Trump supporters have anticipated these ramifications and whether they’re willing to endure the pain.  It’s easy to say “make American great again” but making it happen is going to be a long and very difficult process.    It’s going to take a virtual war-footing mentality among Americans.

And what about Trump?  Will he be a strong enough leader to maintain the support of the people through all of this?  Based on what we’ve seen from Trump, we can expect that, when foreign leaders lash out at him, he’ll hit back just as hard.  No one should doubt his ability to win.  It’s the American people I’m more worried about.  Will they be ready to jump ship at the first sign of adversity, or are they tough enough to stand by Trump and see this through?