Trump on Trade with China: Media Misses the Point

November 10, 2017

http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/08/politics/donald-trump-xi-jinping-statement/index.html

As was widely reported yesterday morning, Trump emerged from two hours of a meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping and had this to say:

I don’t blame China. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
The above-linked article goes on:
Instead of pointing the finger at Beijing for exacerbating trade disputes, Trump blamed past US administrations “for allowing this trade deficit to take place and to grow.”  It was a notable shift in tone from a President who was elected to office partly for his tough talk on holding other countries accountable for practices that disadvantage US workers.
Trump went on:
We want a vibrant trade relationship with China.  We also want a fair and reciprocal one. Today, I discussed with President Xi the chronic imbalance in our relationship as it pertains to trade and the concrete steps it will take to solve the problem of massive trade distortion.
A “notable shift in tone?”  Maybe a shift in tone, but the media is completely missing the not-so-subtle and huge shift in U.S. trade policy that this represents.  Previous presidents have chided China for unfair trade practices like currency manipulation, theft of intellectual property, subsidizing their exports, and manufacturing in sweat shops that also pollute with reckless abandon.  They used to put all of the onus on China for helping to correct our enormous trade imbalance.  The Chinese must have been rolling in the aisles with laughter when our trade negotiators left.
Not this time.  What Trump is saying is that the time has come for the U.S. to take the matter of restoring a balance of trade with China into our own hands.  Trump has been itching to begin levying tariffs on imports from countries that have large trade surpluses with the U.S. and, though he made no mention of tariffs in this speech, his vow to take matters into our own hands should send chills down the spine of Xi.  Restoring balance with China by slowing their exports with the use of tariffs would practically collapse the Chinese economy.
But so far it’s just talk.  What is Trump waiting for?  It seems clear that he’s biding his time with China in the hope that their help with reining in “Little Rocket Man” in North Korea will lead to his demise.  Probably a smart move but, if it doesn’t work by the time North Korea has the ability to put a nuke on an ICBM, the U.S. will have to act and the Chinese will lose whatever leverage holding the North Korean attack dog at bay has afforded them.
In the meantime, our trade deficit in manufactured goods grows worse.  Here’s the latest chart, gleaned from the trade data for September that was released on last Friday:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  Nothing has changed since Trump took office, and nothing will until he stops dithering with pointless negotiations and begins applying tariffs to these countries with bloated labor forces and emaciated markets.  My sense is that that time is growing nearer, but time will tell.
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Auto Industry: “We’re winning with NAFTA.” Seriously?

October 25, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/trade-nafta-autos/auto-industry-tells-trump-were-winning-with-nafta-idUSL2N1MZ028

The above-linked article reports on an effort to generate opposition to the Trump administration’s tough stance on the renegotiation of NAFTA.

Auto trade associations representing General Motors Co Toyota Motor Corp, Volkswagen AG, Hyundai Motor Co, Ford Motor Co and nearly every other major automaker, are part of the coalition dubbed “Driving American Jobs” and backing an advertising campaign to convince the White House and voters that the agreement has been crucial in boosting U.S. automotive sector production and jobs.

“We need you to tell your elected officials that you don’t change the game in the middle of a comeback. We’re winning with NAFTA,” the group said on its website.

OK, wait a minute, domestic auto manufacturers, especially GM and Chrysler.  First of all, you’re not “winning.”  You’re barely hanging on, thanks to a taxpayer-funded government bail-out a few years ago, made necessary by the fact that rotten trade deals drove you into bankruptcy.  What American jobs have come back since then were largely driven by the fact that the United Auto Workers, being one of the stakeholders in the bankruptcy process, demanded that it have some say in the location of new plants.  That’s GM.  And Chrysler?  Part of their pathetic “comeback” required them to be sold to Fiat, globally recognized as one of the shoddiest car-makers on earth.

Ford survived without a bailout, a point of pride for that company, but now finds itself struggling with a shortage of capital to modernize its product offerings.  Not a problem for GM and Chrysler who factored that need into the bailout.

No doubt, NAFTA has played a role in propping up the profitability of these companies.  But to suggest that that somehow is a “win” for American workers is ludicrous.

The campaign comes amid rising concern that the Trump administration could opt early next year to withdraw after giving six months notice, a move that could expose automakers to high tariffs who are building trucks in Mexico and impose new tariffs on parts and cars made throughout North America.

This coalition would like you to believe that automakers would have no “plan B” to counteract tariffs.  That they’d have no choice but to continue building in Mexico, forcing consumers to pay the tariffs.  Don’t be ridiculous.  Production would be moved back to the U.S. to avoid the tariffs and the impact on production costs would be largely offset by reductions in shipping an other supply chain costs.  The impact on consumers would be virtually zilch, and the impact on the American labor force would be an upward pressure on wages.

I don’t understand why the Trump administration is even wasting its time with trying to renegotiate this agreement, whose sole purpose was to boost Mexico’s economy, in line with the United Nations’ push to raise living standards in underdeveloped countries.  I suppose to be able to at least say, “we tried.”  But there’s nothing to negotiate.  Just impose the tariffs and watch them work their magic.

 


How’s Trump Doing?

October 3, 2017

With some slack time on a rainy day in the north woods, I thought I’d take a few moments to share some thoughts about Trump and his policies to date, as they relate to the economic problems wrought by worsening overpopulation: falling per capita consumption and the inevitable trade deficits caused by attempting to trade freely with badly overpopulated nations. So here goes:

Immigration:
Still no border wall. Other than that, I’ve been quite pleased with his other actions – the travel ban, the dramatic slowdown in visa processing, going after sanctuary cities, deporting illegal aliens, and so on. I also applaud him for his stance on the “dreamers,” those brought here as young children by their illegal alien parents. It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually in favor of allowing them to stay, even providing them a path to full citizenship. By all accounts, we’re talking about 800,000 people here. But it needs to be a one-time program. And it needs to be part of a bigger immigration reform that includes dramatic cuts in legal immigration – at least 50% (including student visas), and an end to the pyramid scheme of “family preferences” that, within a few generations, would make virtually every person on earth a candidate to become a permanent legal resident in the U.S. Trump is right to kick this issue back to congress and to demand action, but I don’t understand why he’s “selling it” so cheap. By demanding the above reforms, he could put an end to our out-of-control immigration. No senator or congressman would dare vote against it because all anyone would ever remember is that they voted against the “dreamer act” and in favor of deporting the dreamers.

Trade:
Here I have to say that I’m “hugely” disappointed in Trump’s failure to deliver on his promise to raise tariffs and/or border taxes in order to rebalance trade. But perhaps I’m impatient for action on this issue. His administration has taken some tough stances and is in the process of renegotiating NAFTA while also trying to reform the World Trade Organization. Last week it was revealed that the U.S. has been quietly blocking the filling of vacancies on the panel of appeals judges at the WTO and is now trying to assume a veto power if judges aren’t available. Reportedly, Trump told John Kelly, his new chief-of-staff, that he wants someone to bring him some tariffs. And most recently, when Boeing complained of Bombardier “dumping” planes on the U.S. market, the Trump administration promptly levied a 216% tariff on Bombardier planes. So there’s still reason for optimism.

Tax Reform:
Though this is the issue that excites the business community, the media and maybe even average Americans the most, for me it’s a non-issue unless a border tax is included as part of the reform. Dramatic cuts to corporate taxes, combined with some minimal cuts for average taxpayers, will blow a huge hole in the budget, just like it did when Reagan did the same thing back in the ‘80s. Sure, it’ll stimulate economic growth just a little, but no more than the amount of tax reductions that are plowed back into the economy. To expect a trillion dollar tax cut to generate economic growth of $4 trillion (the amount of growth it’d take to make it revenue-neutral) is a hocus-pocus fairy tale. And cutting corporate taxes that much will simply leave corporations with more money to invest in more job-killing manufacturing overseas. But all of that would change if a border tax were part of the package. Then it would truly be revenue-neutral and would fuel an explosion in economic growth. Trump is missing a huge opportunity by not insisting that a border tax be part of the package.

Paris Climate Accord:
Trump was 100% right to pull out of this agreement. Ask anyone and everyone the purpose of that agreement and every single person will tell you that its goal is to stop climate change. And every one of them would be wrong, because they haven’t read the stated mission of the accord, which is to merely slow climate change to a pace that would allow “sustainable development” to continue and, by the way, would essentially “tax” Americans to help fund that development in the rest of the world. “Sustainable development” is the very reason the world now finds itself in this global warming fix – because what world leaders thought was “sustainable” has proven not to be. So if global warming is slowed so that “sustainable development” can continue unabated, then every other problem associated with our exploding population – environmental and otherwise – will worsen, including mass extinction as habitat loss accelerates, more landfills, more trash in the ocean, more underground disposal of various hazardous wastes (including nuclear), and now a new one – the underground disposal of CO2 removed from exhaust streams. Where does it end? It needs to end now, and just maybe mother nature is doing us a favor by using climate change to wake us up. With all of that said, it disturbs me to hear that Trump may consider re-entering a renegotiated climate accord.

Repeal and replace “Obamacare”:
For me, this is another non-issue. The unaffordability of health care is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem, namely that every year the U.S. economy is drained of about $800 billion through the trade deficit, making everyone poorer and more dependent on deficit spending by the federal government to maintain an illusion of prosperity. Fix the trade deficit and the whole health care issue will go away.

So that’s it. Although I never really liked Donald Trump very much, and cringe at a lot of his “tweets” and some of the things he says, overall I’ve been pretty pleased with where the country is headed under his direction. But the trade/tariff/border tax issue is critical. If we don’t see action on reducing the trade deficit in manufactured goods, I fear that all will be lost. Like you told John Kelly, Mr. Trump, “we want tariffs and we want them now!”


Tax Reform Needs Border Tax to Work

September 13, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-tax/trump-says-rich-might-pay-more-in-taxes-talks-with-democrats-idUSKCN1BO1HM

Trump and Congress are now hard at work on tax reform, promising huge cuts in both corporate and individual taxes.  How is that possible without blowing a gigantic hole in the budget and sending the national debt on a new trajectory?  Here’s how Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin explains it in the above-linked article:

Mnuchin told Fox the administration would use its own economic assumptions to gauge the impact of its tax cuts on the federal budget deficit and the $20 trillion national debt, a key issue in Washington’s intensifying tax debate.

“It will be revenue neutral under our growth assumptions,” Mnuchin said. The administration believes that tax cuts will lead to much faster growth than do congressional analysts or private forecasters.

“So, we can pay for these tax cuts with economic growth,” he added.

That’s absolute nonsense, and he knows it.  Yes, cutting taxes will boost economic growth, but only by the amount of the tax cut.  Suppose that the combined corporate and individual cuts result in a cut of $1 trillion per year.  If every dollar of that was spent domestically and not put into savings, then GDP (gross domestic product) would grow by $1 trillion. And let’s suppose that this is taxed at a rate of 25%.  That’s federal revenue of $0.25 trillion.  So revenue would actually decline by $0.75 trillion.  The only way for it to be revenue neutral would be if the $1 trillion tax cut mysteriously generated $4 trillion in spending.  That’s impossible.  It’s simple math.

However, there is a way to make these tax cuts revenue neutral.  Include a new source of revenue by taxing foreign exporters who are getting a free ride in the American economy.  Last week, the Commerce Department released the trade figures for the month of July.  Contrary to Trump’s promise that this “stops right here and stops right now,” the deficit in manufactured goods has actually gotten worse.  Take a look at this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  The deficit in manufactured goods is now running approximately $63 billion per month, or $750 billion per year.  Exports haven’t risen one iota in six years, while imports have soared by $25 billion and are running approximately $2 trillion per year.

Now, consider what a 30% tariff (or border tax) would do.  First of all, it would drastically reduce imports  – by half, let’s say.  That means that $1 trillion of manufacturing would return to the U.S.  That’s how much the GDP would grow.  Taxed at 25%, that would be a new stream of revenue of $250 billion.  That leaves $1 trillion in imports that would be taxed at 30% – another new stream of revenue that totals $300 billion.  Add these revenue streams totalling $550 billion to the revenue generated by the increase in GDP created by the tax cut – $250 billion – and you have revenue of $800 billion – nearly off-setting the loss of revenue caused by the tax cut.

In late August, Trump reportedly told John Kelly, his chief of staff, that “I want tariffs.  Bring me some tariffs!”  Now’s the time to do it.  Roll the tariffs into the tax reform package and no senator or congressman will be willing to tell his/her constituents that “I voted to keep your taxes high because I don’t like tariffs.”  It’d be political suicide.

The time has come to make foreign manufacturers pay their fair share for access to the American market.


Trump: “I want tariffs. ….bring me some tariffs.”

September 1, 2017

https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/27/trump-reportedly-demands-china-action-i-want-tariffs-and-i-want-someone-to-bring-me-some-tariffs.html

With trade negotiations with both China and Mexico bogged down in trivial minutae, it was beginning to appear that Trump’s campaign promise to impose tariffs on both was nothing more than a ploy to win votes.  After all, we’ve seen this movie dozens of times over the past decades:  endless talk about intellectual property rights, labor laws, unfair government subsidies.  The list goes on and on and, in the end, our trade deficit gets bigger and bigger while our manufacturing sector withers.

Then, a few days ago, the above-linked report appeared.  Perhaps Trump has just been giving the “globalists” one last shot at negotiating something meaningful so that, at least, they can’t say he didn’t try.  But it seems that he’s getting fed up with the lack of progress.

Reportedly, in the presence of the “globalists” on his economic team – U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Economic Council director Gary Cohn, among others (which perhaps included daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner?) – Trump told chief of staff John Kelly:

So, John, I want you to know, this is my view. I want tariffs. And I want someone to bring me some tariffs … I know there are some people in the room right now that are upset. I know there are some globalists in the room right now. And they don’t want them, John, they don’t want the tariffs. But I’m telling you, I want tariffs.

Do it, John!  Draw up a tariff plan.  Help President Trump implement it and our long, long nightmare of trade policy idiocy will finally be over!  Then, instead of debt ceiling and budget negotiations getting deadlocked over how to pay for everything, our congressmen will have a new problem – what to do with all the additional revenue.

Let’s not give up hope yet.


Seven Months Into Trump’s Administration, Has Anything Changed?

August 14, 2017

I’m back from a hiatus at my north woods retreat, and there’s a bit to catch up on.  For now, however, I’m wondering what has really changed in terms of the economy since Trump took office seven months ago.  Let me begin by sharing a recent experience.

My wife and I stopped into a small restaurant in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin for dinner one evening earlier this week.  Boulder Junction is a tiny town in Vilas County in northern Wisconsin, a popular vacation area frequented mostly by folks from Chicago and Milwaukee.  A polite Asian lady, speaking broken English, seated us and told us the waitress would take our order shortly.  Upon ordering, the waitress assured us that our order would be prepared as we had requested.  It wasn’t.  When we complained, the waitress – without even offering to make it right – apologized and explained that there was a “language barrier” in the kitchen.  A language barrier in Boulder Junction!  I couldn’t believe it.

Another old lodge that we visit for dinner is staffed with waiters and waitresses from Lithuania.  They just can’t find reliable help in the north woods of Wisconsin, they explain.  However, another restaurant just up the road seems to have no problem.

I know what’s going on here.  These little businesses don’t have the wherewithal to recruit foreign laborers.  So how do they get them?  While I can’t provide proof, I’m certain that the Chamber of Commerce is importing foreign labor and pushing them on these businesses, or making them available at rates so cheap that these businesses don’t even have to bother with trying to hire locally.  So, when it comes to Trump’s promises to stop these kinds of practices, there’s no evidence that anything has changed.

Changing gears, the Commerce Department released the June trade figures last week.  Here’s a chart that shows the balance of trade in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  As you can see, it continues on the same downhill trajectory that it’s been on throughout the Obama administration.  In fact, in the 2nd quarter of 2017, the deficit in manufactured goods set a new record of $185.6 billion.  In other words, contrary to Trump’s inaugural vow that:

“… rusted out factories scattered like tombstones … stops right here and stops right now!”

matters have actually gotten worse.  While the Trump administration is currently involved in renegotiating NAFTA and in negotiations with the Chinese, and the U.S. negotiators are reportedly taking a much harder line in these negotiations, I’m very pessimistic that any improvement in our balance of trade will result.  Why?  Because there’s nothing to negotiate.  The ONLY thing that will make a difference in America’s favor is tariffs, something that no nation would agree to in “negotiations.”  Anything they will agree to will be totally unenforceable and any attempts to enforce them would be met with whining and, more importantly, a cut-off in funding of candidates unless they pressure the Trump administration to back off of enforcement actions.  These same kinds of negotiations have been tried and have failed for decades.  Most recently, Obama’s deal with South Korea, which he hailed as a “big win for American workers,” has actually proven to be a disaster.

In the meantime, the “new normal” economy that emerged during the Obama administration, in the wake of the Great Recession, goes on.  GDP growth remains stuck in the 1-2% range, wages are stagnant and job growth (when viewed in the context of the “100,000 jobs is the new zero” economy) is anemic at best.  The economy is being kept afloat by deficit spending (up 10% so far this year), a once-again growth in credit and an inflated stock market.  The illusion of good times isn’t going to last.

I’m growing impatient with the Trump administration’s dithering on these issues.  Can you tell?


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.