Saturday, June 25, 2016

Taking the Low Road on Free Trade

By Chris Baecker at FEE. He manages fixed assets for Pioneer Energy Services and is an adjunct lecturer of economics at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio. Excerpts:
"Why threaten the American consumer with price hikes? Why not, for example, allow domestic steel-input consumers to benefit from rock-bottom prices that result from Chinese overproduction? How does it make sense to protect the American steel industry with a tariff of more than 500% if employment in, and value produced by, those input consumers is greater?

The answer also happens to explain why we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in the sugar trade: concentrated benefits (domestic industry) vs. dispersed costs (artificially inflated prices for consumers). Such beneficiaries typically have more clout with policymakers than consumers do. It’s this kind of rent-seeking that prevents us from being able to take advantage of the shortcomings of a centrally-planned (though certainly less so than a couple generations ago) economy like China’s, or the fact that some countries just flat out produce something more efficiently than we do.
 
Ironically enough, if Mr. Trump is so concerned with illegal immigration from our south, perhaps he should first take a look at the agricultural and dairy subsidies Uncle Sam doles out that put Mexican farmers out of business and drive them north to get a piece of our artificially- inflated industry."

"after the war, the world moved toward freer trade. In that time, our real exports of goods and services rose steadily, accelerating in the mid-1980s, belying the claim that “we don’t make” stuff.
 Real Exports of Goods and Services

As Harvard professor and former Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers Greg Mankiw recently pointed out in The New York Times, manufacturing is currently at an all-time high. The problem, as it were, is that we’re doing it with less manpower."

That very transformation is currently underway in the energy industry. Even after the price of oil started tanking, and rigs were idled, and jobs were being eliminated, production still increased. We became more efficient. It won’t take the same quantity of capital and labor to respond to $50 oil the next time it rises to that level. The displaced resources can be redeployed to other areas of the economy.  

There are undoubtedly industry shakeups in freer markets. Labor, capital, and entrepreneurs are reshuffled. But our society encourages innovation by safeguarding intellectual and property rights. That allows us to find new and better ways of doing things."

"
Nevertheless, more trade liberalization is afoot. My industry has a new market: the rest of the world, thanks to the repeal of the oil export ban last December. That’ll surely alleviate something else nearly all our leaders are prone to complain about: our trade deficit.

Current Account Balance for the United States

It’s a curious thing that you rarely hear that it’s actually only half of an equation, but it is.
The balance of payments (BoP) is basically an accounting of our international transactions. The current account (trade) is the one we always hear about when it’s in deficit. Interestingly enough, it tends to trend back toward break-even only when we’re heading toward recession. It makes sense that imports rise in good times. “We’re Americans,” I tell my students, “we like to buy stuff. We like to buy stuff so much, we rent storage facilities in which to put all our extra stuff!” Regardless, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a trade deficit.
The counterbalance is the capital account. We have a big example of that in our backyard: the Toyota plant in south San Antonio. This is foreign direct investment. That plant is in the heart of truck country. It gives Toyota direct access to that market here. And, they employ highly-skilled Texans. That seems like a win-win, a sign of strength perhaps, when a foreign company wants to locate operations here.

Foreign Investment into the USA
You actually contribute to the capital account when you crack open a Bud Light after feeding Purina to Scooby, who was hungry because you forgot to feed him while you were eating a Smithfield ham steak (that had been stored in a GE freezer) for dinner before going to see “X-Men: Apocalypse” at the AMC Rivercenter 11. All those companies are foreign-owned. The profit portion of the prices paid for those goods is exported to another country. Foreign entities saw value in the brand recognition of items Americans know and love. And they were able to buy those companies in part because they do more of something that we don’t: save.
When the consumer expenditure portion of the Gross Domestic Product [GDP] started climbing in the 1980s from 60% to almost 70% today, it was arguably fueled by the concurrent proliferation of the all-purpose credit card. Perhaps it goes without saying, but when you’re spending, you’re not saving. And when you’re borrowing, you are dissaving. Much of the consumer savings derived from more efficient global production of goods could go to more savings. Instead, it seems to go toward buying more stuff.

Consumer Credit

When you think about it though, our incentive to save has slid right alongside available interest rates.

Federal Fund Rate

A couple years after they were pushed way up to break the inflation of the 1970s, interest rates have been on a steady march downward: ~7-8% in 1980s, ~5% in the 1990s, half that in the 2000s, and now near 0%. Monetary policy that could be enticing us to invest in learning new skills, opening a new business, guarding against unforeseen events, etc., instead has nudged us toward $1,000,000,000,000 in both credit card and automobile debt this year. What was the current trade deficit again?

If bringing down the trade deficit is the goal, increasing domestic savings and investment is preferable to erecting trade barriers. And if curbing interest-bearing consumer indebtedness happens as well, all the better."

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