Why David Blond is Wrong on Trade

Author: Robert Brusca, Post Date: March 30, 2018
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We thank readers for their thoughtful responses to David Blond’s guest paper on trade and tariffs, Winners and Losers from Global Trade. That paper triggered debate. Below is Bob Brusca’s rebuttal. Enjoy the debate as each person can decide her/his own viewpoint.

David R. Kotok
Chairman and Chief Investment Officer
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Why David Blond is Wrong on Trade

 

I have just been sent a link to this paper, Winners and Losers from Global Trade, by David Blond. Reading it so upset me that I have prepared a rejoinder…

There is nothing an economist likes more that to use a number of quantitative techniques and numbers to dazzle people when some simple understandable observations would do just fine.

I do not need to think about input-output tables or to look at employment output vectors to know that the US is more trade dependent on the import side than just about anybody else and will be hurt a lot by a trade war.

The US has been riding massive consistent deficits on current account since the early 1980s.

There are several points to be made about trade and Free trade quite apart from Mr. Blond’s approach.

The first is to note that however you want to think about a trade war, the best way is to consider that it is being contemplated by adults with some understanding of the process and not to plow straightaway into a ‘I hit you’, ‘you hit me’, so ‘I hit you back’ exchange. We know where that leads.

Before Daniel Ellsberg was known for the Pentagon Papers he was known for some insightful thinking about statistics and for thinking about thermonuclear war. Ellsberg pointed out that the ‘usual approach’ to look at the expected value from this conflict made no sense since the condition really had no real probability distribution. It was not an ‘experiment’ that would be run over and over. It either would happen or it would not. It was binary in nature. And that if it happened the destruction would be terrible all around and if it did not happen, life would go on untainted by it. So he concluded that you have to think about thermonuclear war in a different way and one cannot think in terms of expected values.

I would argue that the same is true of trade and trade wars. You do not threaten one to start one any more that Kim Jung Un is really threatening that he will launch a missile at the US. He has a different objective in mind. He is trying to get our attention. Job done.

Trump did push Europe over NATO. And this I think is the model for trade. The US was in the right on NATO. Europe and Germany were in the wrong. The US funds most of NATO but each member is supposed to spend monies on defense as well. Obama had pushed Germany to no avail. Other US presidents before him had pushed them to spend more too. But Trump put his foot down prompting Angela Merkel to call Trump and the US a bad ally. Really? I bet that that is not how history will see it.

So this is a similar strategy to the NATO gambit applied in another situation where the US (or Trump and his advisors if you prefer) think America has gotten a bad deal.

One thing Blond does not do is to look at the trade system or result and critique it. He runs models and accepts today’s factor prices as a baseline…WHY?

The export-led growth model
The world matrix of trade we have today is not what any free trader would have expected or would recognize. We have countries that run unstoppable deficits and others with relentless surpluses. The question is not can a country get better growth by having export led growth. It is think obvious that an export led growth economy is easy to maintain and one of the easiest ways to jump-start growth in an underdeveloped region. That does not make it right. You get foreign technology and capital to come in and combine it with your cheap labor. They train your labor force that uses their technology. If you are unscrupulous you also steal their technology… They make stuff export it cash rolls in, Viola! The exporting nation needs to manage its exchange rate so that it does not get too strong from all the exporting. And it needs to make sure wages do not rise too fast. But there is not much internal balancing required.

Unbalanced prices and wages stem from unbalanced development!
Blond speaks of the imbalance between wage and prices. Well this is a problem if you run a balanced growth model. You need wages cheap enough to continue to export but high enough to afford a domestic demand for your people to buy some of the things they make. I don’t think that because China wanted to develop so fast that it should be allowed to run roughshod over what used to be free trade rules. Blond seems to want to defend that. But in free trade with a market-determined exchange rate, rapid production in China would cause its exchange rate to rise and increases wealth in China would permit the consumption of more good including imports and likely undercut competitiveness and lower the proportion of growth that could be achieved by an export-led program. Blond seems to be looking at China’s numbers and arguing BACKWARD that because China has done this we have to let it go on because the export to price ratio is out of whack. Really? What else could have happened under that strategy?

I refuse to take the current ‘market’ prices and wages as given. Why do China’s actions that have created all these factor price relationships become enshrined? China has acted in a very, shall I say, China First fashion. And some will say that developing economies have always been allowed to play by ‘special rules.’ And I will not deny that. But China, as such a huge country, has a much more pronounced impact on the global economy than Thailand or Taiwan or South Korea.

The knock against Trump is not that he wants to start a trade war although I am aware that he says that they are good and easy to win. They are not good nor are they even winnable.

The fact that a tit-for tat trade war makes everyone worse off is not the point either. There is plenty of literature from collective bargaining that shows that strike behavior by unions usually makes both the firm and the union worse off in the long run even if the union gets better benefits for its members. There is the loss of income/output from having a strike to be considered.

Strike or trade confrontations are usually about a lack of information or about credibility. I think that as in the case of NATO, the US complaint that trade is not free or fair is obvious. That US jobs are lacking because of it is obvious- so obvious as to not even need any statistical work to prove it! What is it about 35 years of unrelenting current account deficits that does not look like free trade to you?

What has been expected?
When fluctuating exchange rates were considered it was thought that exchange rates would shift to balance current account deficits. But that is not the case. Countries with export-led growth models hang on to their ‘excess dollars and reinvest them in the US effectively doing an end run around the exchange rate adjustment mechanism. The Chinese do not buy our treasury securities because they are trying to help us. They are trying to help themselves (…to our demand and to our jobs). And if they could find a way to do it without buying so many US securities you can bet they would!

My point is that you cannot BEGIN to understand the current global trading system without understanding what drives it and what sustains it. And if you want to be an advocate for manipulated trade you can join Mr. Blond and support China and others. You may support Germany with the largest current account surplus to GDP ratio among all developed countries.

I suppose one problem with ex-ante thinking about the exchange rate system is that it was done by academics in a fixed rate regime/gold standard where current account balance really meant something.

Many actors and interests
The politics of trade are complicated. US multinational corporations have been active forces in using cheap production locations overseas to beat down unions in the US and curtail wages. Why do you think that the Phillips curve no longer works. XYZ Corp, Inc. can just pick up the phone and order output from China instead of paying a penny more in the US.

Chuck Schumer every year would rattle his saber on FX manipulation then do nothing as he and fellow Democrats pocketed millions in campaign donations from multinational ‘free trade loving’ (wink, wink) corporations.

If there were a real trade war I doubt that anyone would fare well – I don’t need a model to see that. China would be less affected because its import side is not so stacked, But its exports (read jobs, output and income generation) would come to a halt and that would not be good. Americans would spend more time trading with one another on eBay. We have so much surplus stuff a fashion industry could rise up on the idea of recirculation. We have food and oil. We are militarily strong. Really who is going to be hurt the most?

No I do not think the input-output tables tell the tale of who gets hurt in a trade war-not really.

But I still think that this is not about trade warfare. I think Trump picked a few innocuous industries to make a point. The Chinses previously were flooding the market with cheap solar panels. And yes it was nice to buy them cheap- but it’s not fair. China has been dumping steel made in outmoded plants forever!

I think it is very hard to envision a world with real fair trade.

Dollar supply?
As for the argument that we need to supply dollars to the world, that is bogus. Right now so many countries are adding dollar assets only because they have to in order to keep their desired foreign exchange peg. Dollars are not created by a current account deficit they are created by the Federal Reserve and by a fractional reserve banking system. His dollar supply argument is upside down and wrong. We do not need to ‘supply dollars through our current account deficit. Besides… the current account deficit implies a capital account surplus: monies are flowing INTO the US to fund our Current Account deficit and to fund our fiscal deficit and to keep our interest rates low and to keep the dollar from falling and becoming cheap and undercutting competiveness overseas.

A lot of observers try to salve our pain about having a large deficit by arguing that the strong dollar gives the US great purchasing power. Well that is great if you have dollar assets and dollar income and want to buy stuff. But if you are a worker and need a job that strong dollar prices you OUT of the global labor market. The strong dollar does make imports cheap and that encourages us to over consumer and to under save. And it reinforces a lot of bad habits we need to break. So where is the advantage?

Hoodwinked?
This past week I wrote about the consumer sentiment index with some record high standing components. How is that possible? Real wage growth has been stunted. Real wages are not growing well at all. There are myriad jobs available but few of them good. Yet since Trump took office and started to verbally warn companies about going overseas and targeting Mexico and trying to stop the outflow of manufacturing, the growth in manufacturing employment has been rising more rapidly. The service sector job creation rate has slowed but goods sector job creation is up. Still, it is such a small portion of the economy that it will win Trump few plaudits and does not explain the reading for consumer sentiment which to me is a reflection of reduced expectations. Young people do not realize how much the President and Congress are mortgaging their future based on the debit profile we now have and the off balance sheet liabilities of government. How can people claim to feel so good when things are so mediocre?

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