Tariffs Working. Trade Deficit and Unemployment Down in November.

December 7, 2019

As announced by the Commerce Department, the trade deficit fell again in October to $47.2 billion, the lowest since March of 2018.  And the all-important deficit in manufactured goods fell to $66.9 billion, the lowest level since June of 2018, and nearly $10 billion less than the record set one year ago.  Most notably, thanks to the tariffs enacted on Chinese imports, the deficit with that country fell to $31.3 billion.  Year-to-date, the deficit with China is $294.5 billion, down by over $50 billion from the same time last year.  This is proof positive that the tariffs enacted by the Trump administration are working.

What about the effect on America’s farmers?  Contrary to reports about how much they’ve been hurt by retaliation by the Chinese, overall exports of foods, feeds and beverages are actually up by $59 million year-to-date.  And soybean exports are up dramatically by $3.2 billion to $20.3 billion year-to-date.  See for yourself on page 20 of this report from the Commerce Department: https://www.bea.gov/system/files/2019-12/trad1019_2.pdf.   How can this be, when the media is constantly reporting that farmers are angry over lost exports due to Trump’s tariffs?  As in all occupations, some farmers are Republicans and some are Democrats.  Some are doing well, some not so well.  If you cherry-pick which farmers you want to listen to, you can build a narrative that makes it sound like the farming industry is being hurt by the tariffs.  The real data paints an entirely different picture.

Before I leave the subject of the trade report, it’s worth noting here that, year-to-date, imports of “automotive vehicles, parts and engines” stands at $316.7 billion (page 23 of the report), vs. exports of only $136 billion (page 21) – a deficit of nearly $180 billion for that one category of products alone.  The Trump administration has been threatening to levy a 25% tariff on all auto imports.  I can’t understand what in the world he’s waiting for!  Such a move would rapidly shift demand toward domestic makes in a big way.  The tariffs should be applied to Mexico as well.  If President Trump wants to get the new USMCA agreement with Mexico and Canada passed by Congress, who’s been sitting on it for over a year now, just tell them that the tariffs on Mexican imports will stay in place until USMCA is passed, and then watch how fast Congress moves!

The news on unemployment was just as good.  The economy added 266,000 jobs in November, and September and October were revised upward by 41,000 combined.  Here’s the report:  https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm.  Unemployment fell to 3.5%.  And per capita employment held at 48%, it’s highest level in almost ten years.  Here’s a chart:  Per Capita Employment.

This is all great news and none of it would be happening without the U-turn on trade policy that the Trump administration made when it started levying tariffs.  We need more tariffs, applied to more countries that are running big surpluses with the U.S., until a balance of trade is restored.


Why Population Density Drives America’s Trade Imbalance

November 21, 2019

The Problem:

In my last few posts, we’ve seen a powerful correlation between America’s trade imbalances and the population density of its trading partners.  But how does that work?  It seems odd – something that seems highly unlikely to be a factor.  And you’ve likely never heard of it before.  What you have heard about are a host of other “factors,” things like low wages, trade barriers, intellectual property theft, lax labor and environmental standards, just to name a few.  All of them seem like more plausible explanations for trade imbalances than something like “population density.”

The reason population density has such a powerful effect on trade is what it does to the per capita consumption of products.  Beyond a certain critical population density, over-crowding begins to rapidly erode people’s need for and ability to use (or “consume”) virtually every product you can think of, with the exception of food.  At first glance, you might think that’s a good thing.  Everyone lives more efficiently, reducing their environmental footprint and their demand for natural resources.  However, the real problem is that per capita employment is tied directly to per capita consumption.  Every product not bought is another worker that is out of work.  As population density continues to grow beyond that critical level, an economy is rapidly transformed from one that is self-sufficient and enjoys full employment to one with a labor force that is bloated out of proportion to its market, making it dependent on other nations to sop up its excess labor or, put another way, making it dependent on manufacturing products for export to rescue it from what would otherwise be an unemployment crisis.

Let’s consider an example.  The dwelling space of the average citizen of Japan, a nation ten times as densely populated as the U.S., is less than one third that of the average American.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  In such crowded conditions, it’s only natural that people will find it impractical to live in single-family homes in the suburbs and will instead opt for smaller apartments.  Now think of all the products that go into the construction of dwellings – lumber, concrete, steel, drywall, wiring, plumbing, carpeting – literally thousands of products.  And think of furnishings and appliances.  A person living in a dwelling that is less than one third the size of another consumes less than a third of all of those products compared to someone living in less crowded conditions.  And what about the products used to maintain the lawns and gardens of single-family homes?  Consumption of those products doesn’t just reduce – it vanishes altogether.

Consequently, per capita employment in those industries involved in building, furnishing and maintaining dwellings in Japan is less than a third of that in America.  So what are all of those unemployed Japanese to do?  Will they be put to work building cars for domestic consumption?  Hardly.  As you can imagine, the per capita consumption of vehicles by people living in such crowded conditions is impacted dramatically as most opt for mass transit.  So emaciated is the Japanese auto market that even Japanese automakers have trouble selling cars there.  So now add to the workers who aren’t employed in the home industry those workers who also aren’t employed building cars for their domestic market.

And so it goes with virtually every product you can think of.  Japan is an island nation surrounded by water.  Yet their per capita consumption of products for the boating industry is virtually zero compared to other nations, simply because it’s so crowded.  There’s only so much marina space to go around.  Put a town of 100 families next to a marina with 100 slips and it’s likely that every single family will own a boat with a motor and fishing gear.  Put a city of a million families next to that same marina and, though the marina is still full, on a “per capita” basis boat ownership has effectively fallen to zero.

Japan’s only hope for employing its badly under-utilized labor force is to use them to manufacture products for export.  This is exactly why America’s second largest trade deficit in manufactured goods is with Japan.  It’s not so much that we buy too much stuff from Japan.  The problem is that Japan buys so little from us in return.  It’s not that they don’t want to.  They can’t.  Their market is so emaciated by over-crowding that they can’t even consume their own domestic production.  Why would they buy more from us?  The same is true of nearly every major U.S. trading “partner” that is badly over-crowded.  Attempting to trade freely – without tariffs or other barriers – is tantamount to economic suicide.  It’s virtually certain to yield a huge trade deficit.

Why have I never heard of this before?

Few, aside from those who follow this blog or have read my book, have ever heard of this before.  Even if you have a degree in economics, you’ve never heard of it.  In fact, you were likely taught the opposite.  If you studied economics, at some point you were surely introduced to the late-18th century economist Malthus, and were warned to never give any credence to any theories that revolved around over-population, lest you be derided as a “Malthusian,” which would surely doom your career as an economist.

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus published his essay titled “Essay on Population” in which he warned that a growing population would outstrip our ability to meet the need for food, effectively dooming mankind to a fate of “misery and vice.”  This led to the field of economics being dubbed “the dismal science,” something that really rankled other economists.  Yet, the idea gained some traction until, that is, as years passed and improvements in farming productivity exceeded the requirements of a growing population.  The other sciences mocked the field of economics unmercifully, proclaiming that mankind is ingenious enough to overcome any and all obstacles to growth.  Economists acquiesced and vowed to never, ever again give any consideration to any concerns about overpopulation.

And so it is today that economists have a huge blind spot when it comes to the subject of population growth.  You can’t discover something that you’re not even willing to look at.  It’s not unlike the medieval Catholic Church labeling Galileo a heretic for theorizing that the earth revolved around the sun instead of vice versa.  Where would we be today if the study of astronomy ended at that point?  Where would we be if Newton was mocked for his theory of gravity and the field of physics ended at that point?  That’s what economists have done.  They’ve turned their backs on what is arguably the most dominant variable in economics.

What does this mean for trade policy?

In the wake of the Great Depression, soon followed by World War II, economists disingenuously laid blame for what had transpired on U.S. tariffs and, eager to put to the test the theory of free trade, promised that it would put an end to such wars and depressions.  So, in 1947, the U.S. signed the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, taking the first step to implement the concept of free trade on a global basis.  Within three decades, the trade surplus the U.S. had enjoyed was wiped out.  In 2018, the U.S. ran its 44th consecutive annual trade deficit which, by the way, set a record in 2018 and continues to worsen.

The problem is that the concept of free trade doesn’t take into consideration the role of population density in making over-crowded nations absolutely dependent on running trade surpluses in manufactured goods, and simultaneously sapping the life from the manufacturing sector of other nations.  No amount of trade negotiations can correct this imbalance.  No nation that is dependent on manufacturing for export would ever agree to anything that would slow their exports and it’s impossible for them to increase their imports because, after all, it’s their emaciated market that has caused the trade imbalance in the first place.  The only way to restore a balance of trade is to force the issue through the use of either tariffs or import quotas.  Any trade policy that doesn’t employ those tactics when trading with badly over-crowded nations is doomed to failure and puts our overall economy at risk.

Since World War II, other presidents have tinkered with tariffs in those rare instances when the World Trade Organization has green-lighted their use to correct for some other nations’ trade transgressions.  But President Trump is the first president in seven decades to implement a significant tariff program aimed at reducing our trade imbalance with China.  But much, much more needs to be done.  There are many other nations whose trade imbalances on a per capita basis are much worse, nations like Germany, Japan, Mexico, Ireland, South Korea, Taiwan and a host of others.  While many are allies, none of them are “allies” when it comes to trade.  All are eager to sustain and even grow their trade imbalances at the expense of American workers and families.  All want the U.S. economy to bear the cost for their overpopulation.  None want to face their own problems.  The U.S. needs to put an end to pointless – even counterproductive – trade negotiations, and do the things that are within our power to force the restoration of a balance of trade.

 


Economist Ivanovitch Calls for China to “Get Out of its Huge U.S. Trade Problem”

March 18, 2019

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/18/china-should-quickly-get-out-of-its-huge-us-trade-problem-commentary.html

In the above-linked opinion piece, economist Dr. Michael Ivanovitch calls for China to “get out of its huge U.S. trade problem.”  It’s significant that economists of Dr. Ivanovitch’s ilk, a former economist for both the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the New York Federal Reserve, are beginning to recognize the unsustainability of China’s reliance on its massive trade surplus with the U.S. and the threat it could ulitmately pose to peace between the two nations.

Ivanovitch argues that China’s surplus with the U.S. is unsustainable and the longer it attempts to sustain it with endless talks and negotiations, the more it runs the risk of the U.S. seeing China as an existential threat for which it must prepare militarily.

Like all excesses, this one too can badly backfire on China. And it’s not clear what China’s economic and political interests are served as Beijing keeps deliberately pushing the U.S.-China trade relationship into a growing and unsustainable imbalance.

No, China should know that, at some point, the abused party wants out — sometimes violently.

It’s great that economists are beginning to see a danger here, but what they fail to understand is that reducing its surplus with the U.S. isn’t a choice China can make without devastating its economy.  China is no different than other badly overpopulated nations – like Japan, Germany, South Korea and many others – in that they either depend on manufacturing for export in order to sustain their bloated labor forces, or they are doomed to abject poverty.  Economists don’t recognize the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption, and the role it plays in driving up unemployment and poverty.  They don’t recognize it because they refuse to even ponder the ramifications of human population growth out of fear of being labeled “Malthusians,” a virtual death sentence for an economist’s career.

China may not understand it either, but they do understand how heavily dependent they are on the export market – especially the U.S. – and they understand that, for reasons that may escape them, it’s proving impossible to transform to an economy driven more by growth in their own domestic consumption.

China will never willingly cede any of its surplus with the U.S.  If the U.S. wants to move toward a balance of trade with China, it must take matters into its own hands, and the use of tariffs is the only tool at its disposal.  It’s time for Trump to stop being suckered by China’s willingness to engage in talks that drag out forever.  Lay down the law, slap 25% tariffs on all Chinese imports, and tell China they will only be reduced when a balance of trade has been established, and even then by just enough to assure that such a balance is maintained.


How did unemployment fall in February?

March 13, 2019

On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the economy added only 20,000 jobs in February.  In spite of that number being significantly lower than what’s needed to keep pace with growth in the labor force, unemployment fell – not by just 0.1%, but by 0.2% – to 3.8%.  How can that happen?

It happened in large part because of some really good news – a piece of data that isn’t even a part of the unemployment report.  The official explanation is that the labor force actually shrank a little in February, while the employment level, as measured by the household survey portion of the report, actually grew by 253,000 workers.

But you have to look beyond the employment report to find the really good news that made this happen.  The employment report depends a great deal on the population estimate determined by the Census Bureau.  And in December, the Census Bureau adjusted it’s estimate downward by nearly 1.2 million people – an unusually large adjustment.  Why?  A combination of factors that include the birth rate, death rate and, probably most importantly, the growth in the immigrant population, whether through legal or illegal immigration.  It’s evidence that Trump’s crackdown on both categories of immigration is beginning to have an effect.

As a result, per capita employment has now grown for six consecutive months – something that has happened only  three times in at least the past twelve years.  (The longest such streak was July, 2011 through March, 2012 which occurred as the U.S. emerged from the “Great Recession” of 2008.)  Here’s a chart of per capita employment since November, 2007:  Per Capita Employment.

In addition, the Labor Department reported that hourly wages rose by an annual rate of 3.4%, the fastest pace of increase in quite a long time.

The point of all of this is that, in spite of the rate of growth in the U.S. population slowing and contrary to assertions by economists that population growth is vital to economic growth, there’s been absolutely no negative impact on workers or on the economy.  Per capita employment is rising, along with wages.  It’s evidence that the scheme of using high rates of immigration to suppress wages is beginning to unravel.


Economy’s Good, Not Great. Tariffs Not Yet a Factor.

October 20, 2018

I’m back from my annual fall fishing trip up north.  Much has happened and it’s time to get caught up.

The economy’s doing quite well.  In September, the unemployment rate fell yet again to 3.7%.  Economists are wringing their hands over the tight labor market.  Every month, the Federal Reserve proclaims the economy to be at “full employment,” a condition likely to yield rising labor costs, fueling unwelcome inflation.  Yet, every month the economy adds more jobs and somehow manages to find workers to fill them.  Now we’re really at full employment, says the Fed.  Another month.  More jobs added.  “Now we’re really, really at full employment.”  And on it goes.  This supposedly tight labor market is the Fed’s chief justification for raising interest rates.

It’s almost as though there’s a conspiracy to stir up hysteria about an over-heating economy.  On Tuesday, the Fed released its “JOLTS” report of the number of job openings, noting that the number of job listings exceeded the number of people reported to be actively seeking employment.  What they don’t tell you is that that’s perfectly normal.  “Job seekers” is a figure taken from the unemployment report.  But if you’re simply changing jobs and never filed for unemployment, you’re not counted.  Many job opening listings are simply positions opened up by people who have left for other jobs, often because they have decided to simply relocate from one place to another.  It’s a weak measure of the health of the economy.  Nevertheless, ECONODAY had this to say about the report:  “Jerome Powell (head of the Federal Reserve) concedes that it’s a mystery why wages haven’t been going up very much as demand for labor grows and the supply of labor declines. Yet sooner or later, the law of supply and demand is bound to assert itself, at least this is the risk that the Fed is guarding against in its rate-hike regime.”

Yesterday, commenting about the weak report of existing home sales, ECONODAY had this to say: “The lack of wage gains, however, is a negative for home buyers not to mention a great mystery of the 2018 economy given the increasing scarcity of available labor. And another great mystery of this year’s economy is the lack of interest in home ownership.”

Is it a lack of interest in home ownership, or a lack of the wherewithal to buy a home in the face of rising interest rates (driven by the Fed) combined with the “great mystery” of a “lack of wage gains?”  People don’t just lose interest in owning a home.  Everybody wants a place they can call their own.  The problem is that not everyone can afford it.

There’s really no mystery here.  Anyone who has followed this blog or has cast a cynical eye on the employment statistics ever since the “Great Recession” knows that the unemployment rate is completely bogus, driven down artificially by the Labor Department claiming that people have dropped out of the labor force.  During the Obama administration, 6.4 million workers mysteriously vanished.  Since Trump took office, that figure has shrunk by over a million workers, but an honest tally of the unemployed still stands at 11 million workers (including those who were unemployed before the “Great Recession”) and unemployment is actually at 6.6% instead of 3.7% – a rate nowhere near low enough to begin driving wages higher.  Per capita employment remains exactly 1% below the level it was at before the onset of the “Great Recession” – a figure that was already depressed.

So the economy is doing well – better than it has done in the past ten years – but that’s not saying a lot.  The tax cut that went into effect this year gets the credit, but that will only carry the economy so far.  To keep it going – to accelerate the economy even further – we need progress toward cutting the trade deficit, especially the deficit in manufactured goods.  The Trump administration has made a lot of moves in that direction, imposing 10% tariffs on steel and aluminum, tariffs on $25 billion of Chinese imports, followed by 25% tariffs on an additional $225 billion of their imports, the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and threats to impose tariffs on all auto imports.

But there’s no evidence of any improvement in our trade situation, at least not yet.  The most recent trade data show that the rapid erosion of American manufacturing continues, yielding a trade deficit of $70 billion in manufactured goods in August – a new record – with new record trade deficits with China and Mexico.

That’s not an indication that Trump’s tariffs are a failure.  Aside from the small tariffs on aluminum and steel, none of the above-mentioned initiatives have taken effect yet.  The biggest chunk of the tariffs on China went into effect in September, so the effect on trade with China won’t show up until new trade data is released next month.  The “USMCA” agreement – the replacement for NAFTA – hasn’t been enacted yet.  And the trade deficit with China was artificially swollen by a rush to beat the tariffs.

It’s going to take a lot of patience to realize the real benefits of Trump’s trade policy.  The purpose of tariffs is to provide an incentive to manufacture products domestically.  The immediate effect will be to raise prices for American consumers, just as economists have warned.  Longer term,  companies will begin to realize that they can improve profits by manufacturing in the U.S., thus avoiding the tariffs.  It’s going to take time for that realization to sink in, and time for companies to implement plans to build factory capacity in the U.S.  Ultimately, when that capacity comes on line, we’ll see a real boom in the demand for labor and a corresponding rise in wages, more than offsetting any increase in prices.

Hopefully, the Federal Reserve won’t torpedo the economy in the meantime.  It can’t have any impact on price increases driven by tariffs, so it would be pointless to even try.  All they can do is drive the economy into recession with their high interest rates, raising doubts about the president’s economic policies, and increasing the chances that America will shrink back into its role as host in the global host-parasite trade relationship.  That would be a disaster.

Again, it’s going to take time and patience.  It took seven decades of globalism (beginning with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – GATT – in 1947) to get us into the fix we’re in.  It’s going to take more than a year or two to get us out.


The Federal Reserve Thinks Unemployment Is Too Low!

September 13, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fed-rosengren/fed-says-it-whipped-u-s-unemployment-maybe-too-well-idUSKCN1LT0F0

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, Boston Fed bank president Eric Rosengren worries that the Federal Reserve has been “too successful” is lowering unemployment.  He explains:

“The recurrent pattern (of recessions) was one where the tightening of monetary policy was expected to slow the economy down gently…to full employment,” Rosengren and three Boston Fed co-authors noted. But “Once the unemployment rate starts to rise by a relatively modest amount, dynamics take hold that tend to push the economy into a recession.”

The Fed considers an unemployment rate of 4.5% to represent “full employment.”  The current rate of unemployment, as reported by the Labor Department on Friday, is 3.9%.  So the Fed worries that there’s no place for the unemployment rate to go but up, and even a small rise could start a recessionary downward spiral in the economy.

This is ridiculous for two reasons:

  1.  The Fed ignores its own role in choking off the economy and precipitating recessions by constantly tightening monetary policy (i.e., raising interest rates) as unemployment drops, and
  2.   The Fed has bought into bogus employment figures propagated by the Labor Department in an effort to stabilize confidence in economic policy in the wake of the Great Recession.

Regarding point 2 above, consider the following:

  • In November of 2007, just before the collapse of Lehman Bros. triggered the Great Recession, 48.4% of the U.S. population was employed and the unemployment rate stood at 4.7%.
  • As of August of 2018, the U.S. population has grown by 25.6 million people.  But, according to the Labor Department, the work force has grown by only 7.9 million workers, and the nation’s employment level has grown by only 8.9 million workers.  And in August of this year, only 47.4% of the population was employed.  Yet, thanks to the unnaturally low rate of growth in the labor force reported by the Labor Department, instead of rising, official unemployment has fallen to 3.9%
  • An honest accounting of the labor force that grows proportionately with population growth would produce a current  unemployment rate of 6.8% – nowhere close to “full employment.”
  • In spite of the decline in unemployment, wages have barely risen, confounding economic experts.  They haven’t risen because unemployment is still quite high – not anywhere close to being low enough to put upward pressure on wages.

Even the definition of “full employment” used by the Fed – 4.5% – is subject to debate.  If that level is “full employment,” how do you explain that some states and some countries routinely operate well below that level?  During World War II, unemployment fell to approximately 1% in the U.S.

The Federal Reserve is making a big mistake with its program of hiking interest rates just because the economy is doing better.  President Trump has been right to criticize its policies.  How can he “Make America Great Again” when the Fed’s policy is to “Let America Get Just a Little Bit Better – But Not Much?”


U.S. Employment Picture Darkening?

May 9, 2018

There was a lot of hoopla that accompanied the April employment report, released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The economy added another 164,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 3.9% – the lowest rate since December of 2000.  Much discussion ensued in the media over the effects of “full employment.”  Will there now be upward pressure on wages, prompting the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates?  Where will employers find the workers they need?  Will the shortage of labor constrain economic growth?

Less notice was taken of some not-so-rosy news in the report.  Wages rose less than expected – only 0.1%.  The labor force participation rate fell by 0.1%.  And literally no one took notice of some even darker news in the report.  The employment level (from the household survey) rose by only 3,000 after falling by 37,000 in March.  And the civilian labor force has fallen by nearly 400,000 over the past two months, reversing much of the spike that occurred in February, and contributing to the drop in unemployment.  Without that decline in the labor force, unemployment would actually have risen by two tenths over the past two months.

In fact, per capita employment has risen only twice in the past seven months – a two-month spike that occurred in January/February – and remains at exactly the same level as in September.  And the number of unemployed has actually risen slightly.

The fact is that there remains a lot of slack in the labor force.  An accurate reading of unemployment – one that grows the labor force along with growth in the population (instead of erasing people from the labor force if they give up looking for work) – has unemployment at 6.8% and U6 unemployment (a less reported measure that includes discouraged workers) at 12.0%.  This Reuters article, contrary to the title of the article, admits as much – that the job market is “hot” only if you don’t count all the people who have been left behind.

The current expansion is among the longest ever and brought national unemployment to an 18-year low. Yet over 6.3 million are still out of work, many of them clustered in cities with chronic, high unemployment.

6.3 million people is the number that were unemployed before the “Great Recession” of 2008.  It doesn’t even count the additional 5 million people who still haven’t been put back to work since then.

None of this is surprising.  Though the Trump administration is making moves in the right direction with the process of renegotiating NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), with the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum, and with threats of a trade war with China, there has yet to be much in the way of meaningful results.  Our trade deficit is as bad as ever.  Further delay in progress on trade will risk a return to a stagnating economy.