Is the “Phase 1” trade deal with China a bad deal?

January 20, 2020

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-details-factbox/whats-in-the-u-s-china-phase-1-trade-deal-idUSKBN1ZE2IF

The above-linked Reuters article provides a breakdown in basic terms of what’s included in the “Phase 1” trade deal with China.  To make it easier to understand – and in preparation for tracking progress – I’ve created this spreadsheet, which shows what China has agreed to in terms of boosting its imports from the U.S.  Phase 1 China Trade Deal.

In addition, China agreed to:

… stronger Chinese legal protections for patents, trademarks, copyrights, including improved criminal and civil procedures to combat online infringement, pirated and counterfeit goods.

…  follow through on previous pledges to eliminate any pressure for foreign companies to transfer technology to Chinese firms

… refrain from directly supporting outbound investment aimed at acquiring foreign technology

… refrain from competitive currency devaluations

China’s retaliatory Dec. 15 tariffs, including a 25% tariff on U.S.-made autos, have been suspended.

So what did the U.S. give up in return?

… will cut by half the tariff rate it imposed on Sept 1. on a $120 billion list of Chinese goods, to 7.5%.

Tariffs that were scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 15 on nearly $160 billion worth of Chinese goods, including cellphones, laptop computers, toys and clothing, are suspended indefinitely.

That’s the deal in a nutshell.  On the surface, it sounds like a good deal, boosting exports by $200 billion per year.  But don’t be fooled.  This deal rolls back some existing tariffs and suspends new tariffs – tariffs that were making rapid progress toward restoring a balance of trade with China – in exchange for nothing more than promises, and China has a long history of breaking its trade promises.  China got exactly what it wanted – time – more time to continue business as usual.

With this deal, the U.S. is once again trying to export its way out of its massive trade deficit.  It’s similar to the vow that Obama made in January of 2010 to double export within five years.  It didn’t happen.  Not even close.  It’s impossible to export your way out of a trade deficit with nations whose gross over-crowding makes them utterly dependent on manufacturing for export to sustain their bloated labor forces.  And that’s China, among others.

Aside from their promise to boost imports, that promise about protecting intellectual property has been made many times before.  It’s untrackable and meaningless.  And currency manipulation?  The data proves that trade deficits have nothing to do with currency valuation.

The only hope is that the Trump administration will be more diligent than previous administrations in holding China’s feet to the fire, returning to the use of tariffs when China fails to meet its commitments.  China’s betting they won’t, and that future administrations will roll over like previous administrations.

I’ll begin tracking China’s progress on meeting its import commitments (or lack thereof) beginning with the January trade data, which isn’t released until March.


November Trade Report Best in Two Years

January 11, 2020

https://www.bea.gov/system/files/2020-01/trad1119.pdf

… or three years, depending on how you look at it.  In terms of the overall trade deficit, it was the lowest since October of 2016.  More importantly, the deficit in manufactured goods, at $63.2 billion, was the lowest since September of 2017 – good news, but that’s still a horrible deficit.  (A link to November’s report is attached above.)  Check out this chart of the balance of trade in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.

The drop in the deficit is due entirely to a decline in imports.  (Exports remain flat.)  Most notably, the deficit with China shrank to $26.4 billion, the lowest reading since March, and down from $37.9 billion during the same month in 2018 – a 30% drop.  This is solid evidence that the tariffs on China are having the desired effect.

In related news, this Reuters article reports that tariffs – primarily the tariffs on China – have cost U.S. companies $46 billion.  That’s actually good news.  It means that they’re “eating” the cost of the tariffs and not passing it on to consumers.  It also means that U.S. companies are evaluating what to do about it.  Should they keep their manufacturing in China in the hopes of waiting out the “trade war” for the tariffs to come down?  Or do they begin implementing plans to shift manufacturing to other locations?  If they choose the latter, do they move operations to some other country and risk facing tariffs there too?  Or do they bite the bullet and move operations back to the U.S.?  If the U.S. is serious about cutting its trade deficit, it has to remain committed to tariffs and implementing them on a much broader scale.  If they do, moving manufacturing back to the U.S.  is the only logical choice for U.S. companies.  Adapt or just keep “eating” those billions of dollars.


WTO Gutted by Trump Administration

December 11, 2019

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-wto/u-s-trade-offensive-takes-out-wto-as-global-arbiter-idUSKBN1YE0YE

Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about when I say that the media slants its coverage of Trump, ignoring accomplishments and anything that puts the Trump administration in a positive light.  At the same time, it’s also an example of my complaint that Trump isn’t an effective communicator.

The above-linked article reports on one of the most significant milestones of the Trump administration.  As of yesterday, the World Trade Organization, or “WTO,” has been effectively gutted by the Trump administration’s blocking of appointments to its “Appellate Body,” rendering it unable to rule on trade disputes.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this milestone.  The WTO was founded in 1995, but its roots go back much further, to the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (or “GATT”) in 1947.  Its mission has been to advance the cause of undeveloped and underdeveloped countries through the transfer of industry and wealth from the United States.  As a result, the U.S. has run a trade deficit every year since 1976, a deficit that set a new record in 2018, reached a cumulative total of over $16 trillion and is responsible for 80% of our national debt.  It has shifted millions of high-paying manufacturing jobs overseas and left many millions of Americans unable to afford health care or to save for retirement.  Decades of mush-headed presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have stood idly by while “economists,” bought-and-paid-for by global corporations, assured them that such “free trade” was in our best interest.

Yesterday should have been celebrated like the end of a major war.  Yet there was little mention of it in the media and no mention of it by Trump, who should be credited with one of the biggest achievements by an American president in decades.  I was lucky to stumble across this article on Reuters where, only an hour later, it was gone from the their web site and I had to do a search to resurrect it.

No country should ever hand over its economy to any global organization that is dedicated to managing it in favor of other countries to its own detriment, but that’s exactly what the U.S. did.  As of yesterday, Trump has effectively put an end to it.


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.

 


Population Density Effect on Trade Imbalance Intensified in 2018

November 18, 2019

In previous posts, we’ve noted the apparent role of population density at both ends of the spectrum of our trade imbalances – the top deficits and surpluses in manufactured goods.  Now let’s look at the world as a whole.  Let’s include all 165 nations in the study and let’s divide those nations equally around the median population density (which is 192 people per square mile), such that there are 82 nations with densities above the median and 83 nations below the median.  Look at this chart:  Deficits Above & Below Median Pop Density.

With the half of nations with population densities above the median we had a deficit of $815 billion in manufactured goods in 2018.  With the other half of nations we had a deficit of only $0.5 billion (the first deficit with that group of nations since 2005).  $815 billion vs. $0.5 billion.  Same number of nations.  How much more obvious can it be that population density is, by far and away, the single biggest force in driving trade imbalances?  How much more evidence do you need?

More?  “That’s not a fair comparison,” you might say.  “The half of nations that are more densely populated have a lot more people than the other half.  There needs to be the same number of people included in each group.”  OK, fair enough.  Let’s divide the world in half by population.  Half of the world’s population lives in more densely populated conditions, and half lives in less densely populated conditions.  In order to divide the world that way, however, the dividing line falls on China.  Not surprising since that country has one fifth of the world’s population.  So to make the populations of the two halves equal, almost 40% of China’s population – a nation with a population density four times that of the U.S. – must be included with the half of people living in “less densely populated” conditions.  Nevertheless, if we do that, and if we allocate 40% of our trade deficit with China to the less densely populated half, the result is that we still have a trade deficit (in manufactured goods) of $557 billion with the half of people living in more densely populated conditions and a trade deficit of $259 billion with the less densely populated half of the world’s population.  The trade imbalance is still more than double with the more densely populated half.

If we include all of China in the more densely populated half of people, then the split of people is 4.15 billion vs. 3 billion.  If we do that, the deficit with the more densely populated “half” of people is $730 billion vs. $86 billion for the less densely populated “half” – 8-1/2 time bigger.

I would argue that an even better comparison is to divide the world in half by land area:  the half of the world that is more densely populated vs. the half that is less densely populated.  If we factor out Antarctica and the United States (because we are evaluating our trade partners), the world’s land surface area is 47.3 million square miles.  If we divide that in half by population density, we find that 6.66 of the 7.15 billion people occupy the more densely-populated half of the world’s surface area while the other half of the world holds only 0.49 billion people.  With that more densely-populated half of the word we have a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $923 billion and a trade surplus of $107 billion with the less densely populated half.  That’s a difference of over one trillion dollars in trade with the more densely populated half of the world vs. the less densely populated half.

Finally, let’s look at one more split – probably the most relevant:  the nations more densely populated than the U.S. vs. the less densely populated nations.  The U.S. has a population density of approximately 92 people per square mile.  114 of our trading partners are more densely populated and 41 are less densely populated.  With those more densely populated we have a trade deficit in manufactured goods of $934 billion vs. a surplus of $119 billion with those less densely populated.  Again, that’s a difference of over one trillion dollars!

Clearly, any trade policy that doesn’t take population density into account is virtually guaranteed to yield absolutely horrible results, yet that’s exactly what the U.S. does.  It completely ignores population density and attempts to trade freely with everyone regardless of population density.  And in a few decades it’s transformed the U.S. from the world’s preeminent industrial power and the wealthiest nation on earth into a virtual skid row bum, plunging us into $20 trillion of debt.

But why is population density such a factor?  I could write a book on the subject.  Actually I already did.  It’s what this blog is all about.  But I’ll summarize it for you in the next post.  Stay tuned!


America’s Best Trading Partners

November 12, 2019

In my last post, we looked at a list of America’s worst per capita trade deficits (in manufactured goods) in 2018 and found a strong correlation with population density.  Nearly every nation on the list was much more densely populated than the U.S.  Conversely, there was virtually no correlation with low wages, as measured by those nations’ “PPP” or Purchasing Power Parity.

Now it’s time to look at the other end of the spectrum – America’s best per capita trade surpluses in manufactured goods.  If population density is a factor in driving trade imbalances, then this list should be populated with more sparsely populated nations.  Here’s the list:  Top 20 Per Capita Surpluses, 2018.

Well, we do indeed see many nations that are more sparsely populated, but there are some very densely populated nations on this list too.  Many of them can be explained by the fact that they’re net oil exporters and, as we established in my post from October 23rd about our largest trade surpluses, oil exporters use their “petro-dollars” to buy American-made goods.  In that same post, we also noted that The Netherlands and Belgium appear on this list because they take advantage of their location to make themselves into European trading hubs and, as such, are a destination for American goods that will ultimately be distributed throughout Europe.

Still, there is solid evidence that population density plays a major role in driving trade imbalances on this list, just as it did on the list of our worse deficits, but this time driving surpluses in our favor.  Here are more observations that support that:

  • The average population density on this list is 216 people per square mile, compared to an average of 540 people per square mile for the nations on the list of our largest per capita trade deficits.  The population density of the nations on the list as a whole – total population divided by total land mass – is only 22 people per square mile.  Compare that to the population density of the twenty nations on the list of our biggest per capita deficits, which is 377 people per square mile.
  • The average PPP for the nations on this list is $45,995.  Factor Qatar out of this list and the average drops to $41,842 – nearly the same as the average PPP of $39,040 for the nations on the list of our biggest per capita deficits.  So which seems more likely to be driving trade imbalances – the 1600% disparity in population density or the 18% disparity (leaving Qatar in the average) in PPP?
  • Over the past ten years, our per capita surplus in manufactured goods with the top twenty nations has grown by 84%.  Meanwhile, our per capita deficit with our worst trading partners has grown 114%.  Our trade deficit is eroding the manufacturing sector of our economy, leaving us with fewer and fewer products to export.

That’s the two ends of the trading spectrum, a total of forty countries with whom we have the biggest per capita deficits and per capita surpluses in manufactured goods.  It’s already pretty strong evidence that trade imbalances are driven almost entirely by population density and by very little else.  But what about the other 124 nations that are included in the study?  Will the correlation look as strong when we throw them all together?  Stay tuned, that’s coming up next.