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?

 


Ford Moving to Mexico; Trump Says He’ll Stop It

September 15, 2016

http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/15/news/companies/donald-trump-ford-ceo-mark-fields/index.html

The above link will take you to an interview conducted by CNN’s Poppy Harlow with Mark Fields, Ford CEO.  If you have the patience to watch it all the way through, it will be immediately followed by further discussion of Trump’s plans to raise tariffs and bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Trump has long predicted that Ford would be announcing its move to Mexico.  Fields responds that they are only moving its small car production – the Focus and the C-Max (both made at Ford’s Dearborn, MI plant) -to Mexico.  Other models will continue to be made in the U.S.

Ford actually sells six car models:  Fiesta, Focus, C-max, Fusion, Mustang and Taurus.  The Fiesta and the Fusion are already built in Mexico.  Ford’s announcement about the Focus and C-max leaves only two of its six car models that are still made in the U.S. – Mustang and Taurus.  The former is built at its Flat Rock, MI plant and the Taurus is built in Chicago.  Most of its SUVs and trucks are built in the U.S.  There’s a good reason for this.  The U.S. continues to maintain a 25% tariff on all imported light trucks.

The Transit Connect is an interesting exception.  Until 2013, Ford imported the Transit Connect, a vehicle it markets as a commercial van/truck, from Turkey, trimmed out as a passenger van.  It then strips out the passenger interior, removes the windows, and replaces them with metal panels, converting it into a commercial vehicle.  It did all of this to escape paying the 25% import tariff.  In 2013, the U.S. ordered Ford to stop this practice.  Ford still does it, but now it pays the tariff.  It “eats” the cost of the tariff.  It doesn’t pass it on to the consumer.

If elected, Trump has vowed to essentially tear up most trade deals – particularly NAFTA, and will raise tariffs to force companies to re-establish their manufacturing operations in the U.S.  In the case of Mexico, he has suggested a 35% tariff.  During the linked interview, Ms. Harlow asked Mark Shields directly whether he would still move manufacturing to Mexico if that were to happen.  Shields side-stepped the question.  But the answer is obvious.  Of course Ford would not move more production to Mexico if that were to happen.  Quite the opposite.  Production of the Fiesta and Fusion would also return.

Late in the interview, Shields cited the huge savings in labor costs for the move to Mexico, saying that it needed to be done to remain competitive in that segment of the market.  Ms. Harlow failed to follow up with the obvious question:  “So you’ll be reducing the price of the Focus once production has moved to Mexico?”  I would have loved to see him squirm and see the smirk run away from his face when he replied that the price wouldn’t change a bit.

Has any company ever cut the price of any product once its production was moved overseas?  Of course not.  They pocket the extra profit.  Which brings us to one of the arguments employed by economists (and cited in the 2nd CNN segment which starts immediately after the Mark Shields interview) that prices will rise and consumers will be forced to pay the tariffs, hurting the economy and cutting deeply into consumer spending.

That’s absolute nonsense.  Consumers don’t pay the tariffs.  The importing companies pay the tariffs.  Whether or not they elect to pass that extra cost along to the consumer is entirely up to them.  As we saw above with the Transit Connect, Ford doesn’t pass it along.  Sure, that would cut deeply into profits.  By far, the smarter alternative is to move manufacturing back to the U.S.

During the course of the interview, Ms. Harlow repeats a myth about tariffs and their role in the Great Depression.  “… the last time a big tariff was instituted in the United States back during the Great Depression, all the economists agree that it made the Great Depression worse.”  I’ve said it many times but it bears repeating here:  that’s factually false and is absolute nonsense.  First of all, no new, big tariff was implemented during the Great Depression.  The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was a very slight tweaking of the  Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922, raising tariffs overall from 38.5% to 41.4%.  Following enactment of Fordney-McCumber, the economy boomed during the “roaring ’20s.”

By the time Smoot-Hawley was enacted, the Great Depression had already been underway for a year.  During the Great Depression, America’s balance of trade declined by less than $1 billion while GDP fell by $33 billion.  To blame tariffs for the Great Depression is ludicrous.  But that didn’t stop economists from doing it, eager to make a case for their new, untested theory about “free” trade.

In the CNN piece following the Mark Shields interview, CNN reports on dire warnings by economists that Mr. Trump’s tariffs would have disastrous consequences for the economy, cutting GDP by up to $1 trillion and would result in the loss of 4 million jobs.  Such claims are really puzzling, given the fact that economists know very well that a trade deficit is actually a subtraction in the calculation of GDP.  It’s impossible that bringing back manufacturing would do anything other than boost GDP dramatically.  Merely balancing trade in manufactured goods would be an $800 billion boost to the economy.  That would be a 4% jump in GDP which, not coincidentally, is what Trump has targeted for economic growth.  Any further surplus in trade in manufactured goods would boost the economy even more.  And instead of cutting 4 million jobs, it would actually create approximately 10 million jobs.

Free trade advocates claim that manufacturing jobs don’t matter any more, that most manufacturing is automated and there are few jobs there to be had.  If that’s true, then why do so many badly overpopulated nations with huge, bloated work forces cling so desperately to the manufacturing that they do for the American consumer?  Certainly, automation has improved productivity in manufacturing, but not nearly to the extent that free traders would have you believe.  Consider the production of the supposedly high-tech cell phones like the i-phone.  Their manufacture is about as low tech as you can get – thousands of people assemble the circuit boards by hand in China.

During one of the CNN segments, the reporter comments that “cars aren’t really built from scratch any more.  They’re assembled.  Those plants in Mexico will be assembling them from American-made parts.”  As if the process of assembly requires no effort, and as if cars haven’t been built that way since Henry Ford invented the assembly line.  I can tell you from personal experience, having toured the Dearborn plant where Ford builds the Focus, that it takes a lot of workers to make an assembly plant “tick.”  Watching a stack of sheet metal being turned into a finished automobile in less than 24 hours is truly awe-inspiring.  Having toured both auto assembly plants and electronics manufacturing, I can tell you that an auto assembly plant is far more “high-tech” than electronics production.

Trump’s plans to use tariffs to return manufacturing back to the U.S. is exactly what the American economy needs – and is exactly the thing that globalists fear the most.


Labor Market Sputtering

September 9, 2016

Following two months of impressive gains, the employment report released a week ago by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was rather unremarkable.  According the the establishment survey, private payrolls added only 126,000 jobs in August, while government employment rose by 25,000 to bring the total job gains to 151,000.  According to the household survey, the employment level rose by 97,000.  These figures are just enough to keep pace with the growth in population.  So unemployment held steady at 4.9% for the third month in a row – a figure held artificially low by the “vanishing work force” trick used throughout the Obama administration.  Otherwise, the figure would be 8.0%.

It wasn’t a bad report, but there are some causes for concern:

  • The average work week fell by 0.1 hours.  For manufacturing workers, it fell by 0.2 hours.
  • Average hourly earnings rose by only 3 cents.  That’s an annual rate of gain of just over 1%.  It had been running at 2.4%.  It lagged the rate of inflation in August, meaning that American workers grew slightly poorer.
  • Hiring gains were led by restaurants and bars, a segment of the economy that may be built to over-capacity and is ripe for some contraction, especially as the economy begins to slow.
  • Manufacturing employment was flat again and is down by 37,000 compared to a year earlier.
  • Health care employment rose by only 14,000 – well below the average monthly gain of 39,000 for the prior twelve months.

That last item could be an early indication that the economic boost from Obamacare has just about run its course.  Obama has avoided the economic funk that typically plagues administrations as they near their end.  Typically, an administration begins to rein in the deficit spending that was driven by stimulus programs enacted early on, as pressure builds to cut the deficit.  But “Obamacare” was a whopper of a stimulus program, continuing to pour trillions of dollars into the economy.  But the process of scaling up the health care industry to meet the new demand fueled by that program may now be nearly complete.  We’ve even heard of insurers exiting the program, citing unexpected losses.

So far this year, job gains have averaged 181,000 per month, down from 229,000 in 2015, which was down from 251,000 in 2014.  August gains lagged the average for 2016.  The labor market is clearly slowing.  Obama’s adminstration may catch the late-term economic flu yet.

 


Deficit Spending Holding Recession at Bay

August 26, 2016

It’s been a long time since I posted on this subject – about a year and a half.  Some discussion about the national debt jogged my memory, and I was curious to see how my chart would look now.

The following chart tracks the growth in the national debt vs. the “cumulative trade deficit.”  It’s an important metric because the trade deficit siphons money from the economy – money that is subsequently pumped back into the economy by federal deficit spending.  Countries who run a trade surplus with the U.S. repatriate those dollars primarily through the purchase of U.S. government bonds – bonds that are used to finance deficit spending.

Over the years, these two metrics have tracked very closely together, but not perfectly.  Sometimes deficit spending outpaces the trade deficit.  Sometimes it lags.  But any time that deficit spending lags the trade deficit, a recession is always right around the corner, since the net effect is a drain of money from the economy.

Typically, toward the end of a president’s administration – especially if it’s been a 2-term administration, deficit spending begins to decline as stimulus programs implemented at the beginning of a new administration expire and as pressure builds to rein in the deficit.  It happened at the end of the Clinton administration and at the end of the George W. Bush administration.  For this reason, I’ve been predicting that the Obama administration would end the same way.

It doesn’t look like it will.  Take a look at the chart:  growth in nat’l debt vs cumulative trade deficit.   Clearly, the Obama administration has felt no compulsion to rein in deficit spending like his predecessors.  When it comes to deficit spending, President Obama has kept his foot on the throttle like no other before him, pouring money into the economy.  In light of this, it’s not surprising that the economy has managed to hang on by its fingernails to avoid another plunge into recession.

Where has all the concern about fiscal restraint gone?  In the early ’90s, during the George H.W. Bush administration, deficit spending raced ahead of the trade deficit.  By the time Clinton took office, there was a lot of concern about the exploding national debt, so Clinton worked with Republicans to rein in the spending and actually balance the budget (on paper, at least).  He could afford to do it.  Thanks to the explosion in personal computer and cell phone technology and manufacturing, the economy hummed along at a brisk pace.  But by the end of his administration, the tech bubble burst, the trade deficit began to explode (thanks to NAFTA and China’s admission to the WTO – both of which were Clinton’s progeny), and there was little deficit spending to pick up the slack.  His administration ended in a bad recession.

So what’s different now that makes Obama immune to the exploding deficit?

  • Interest rates have fallen to near zero.  So interest payments on the national debt have actually declined in spite of a growing debt.  Zero percent of any amount, no matter how large or small, is still zero.  In fact, there’s even some talk of the possibility of interest rates going negative, as they have in Japan.
  • Perhaps because of the above or, for whatever reason, all political pressure for fiscal restraint has vanished.  No one – not even Republicans – even mention it any more.  No one seems to care.
  • Central banks around the world – and that includes the U.S. – are getting very skittish about the potential for another recession at a time when their recession-fighting ammo is all spent.  They’re pressuring governments to actually step up deficit spending.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that the recession I’ve been predicting hasn’t yet taken hold.  What is surprising is that the economy isn’t doing better than it is.  Twenty years ago, if you had told economists that the federal government would be running a $1 trillion/year deficit, that interest rates were near zero, that the Federal Reserve would have a $4.5 trillion balance sheet, and that the result of all of this was GDP growth of only 1%, they’d have told you that you were crazy – that it was impossible.  Yet here we are.

It’s surprising to many, perhaps, but not to those of us who understand the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption, and that all of our efforts to prop up the economy with rampant immigration-fueled population growth are actually eating away at consumption as fast as we can add new “capitas.”  The end of growth is at hand.  It has often been said in the corporate world that “if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”  The day may be coming when even a “no growth” economy might look good.

 


Globalism Establishment Starts to Sweat as their Regime Begins to Crumble

July 26, 2016

These three articles appeared in the news a couple of days ago almost simultaneously in the wake of the Republican convention.

In this first article, finance ministers and central bankers from the G20 nations pledge to “share the benefits of global growth more broadly.”  The article focuses on concerns surrounding “Brexit,” Great Britain’s vote to pull out of the European Union over dissatisfaction with the EU’s open border policies and with being fleeced to prop up the economies of other EU nations.  But the article also takes note of Trump’s vow to pull out of trade agreements.  The G20 is starting to sweat.

In the 2nd article, U.S. Treasury Secretary Lew is reported as saying that it’s time to “redouble our efforts to use all of the policy tools that we have to boost shared growth.” Why is it time to do that now?  Why weren’t we doing this all along?  It’s because it’s now clear that “free trade” policy is becoming more widely opposed, with the political left now opposing the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) and with the right going further, vowing to pull out of all existing free trade deals.  The globalist Obama administration is also starting to sweat.

And further evidence comes in this 3rd article about a meeting on Friday between President Obama and his Mexican counterpart.  Don’t be fooled.  This wasn’t just a meeting designed to stress the importance of the relationship between these two countries.  Both are beginning to sense the very real possibility that their trade regime is nearing it’s end.  I predict that, sometime between now and the election, there will be an announcement of some deal, a deal that had its genesis in this meeting, that will move some token manufacturing back from Mexico to the U.S. in an effort to blunt some of the trade anger.

I have written occasionally about cracks that were beginning to appear in globalization – like more and more economists beginning to openly question whether donor countries like the U.S. and Britain were really seeing any benefit at all from these trade agreements and whether they have been, in fact, a net drag on their economies.  The globalization story has been very much like the annual reports that emanated from the now-defunct Enron Corporation.  We were told by Enron that their business was very complicated – too complicated for analysts outside the company to understand.  As it turned out, it wasn’t really complicated.  It was a scam.  People will only buy into such scams for so long.  And so it is with globalization.  The British people could no longer take it.  Nor can Americans.

Without the support of its donor nations and the continued subservient acquiescence of its citizens, the globalization scheme is doomed.  Good riddance.