, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Do you want to know how slipshod a new post from the New York branch of the Federal Reserve on tariffs and trade deficits is? I’m not a Ph.D. economist, and it took me about thirty seconds to spot no less than four fatal flaws.

The post, written by a senior Fed economist and three academic colleagues (including one from a Chinese university), argues that President Trump’s tariff-heavy trade policies are likeliest to backfire on the administration and the entire U.S. economy by widening, not narrowing, the country’s trade deficit. Their main evidence? The experience of China after it entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the end of 2001.

According to the authors:

While more costly imports are likely to reduce the quantity and value of imports into the United States, the story does not stop there, because we cannot presume that the value of exports will remain unchanged. In this post, we argue that U.S. exports will also fall, not only because of other countries’ retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports, but also because the costs for U.S. firms producing goods for export will rise and make U.S. exports less competitive on the world market. The end result is likely to be lower imports and lower exports, with little or no improvement in the trade deficit.”

The Chinese example, they claim, supports this hypothesis because China significantly reduced its tariffs following WTO entry (i.e., pursued a policy exactly the opposite of that sought by Mr. Trump), and both its exports as well as its imports soared. Moreover, the authors found that

Focusing on China’s exports to the United States…shows that by lowering its own tariffs on imported inputs, China reduced its production costs and increased productivity, enabling Chinese firms to enter the U.S. export market and compete with other firms. With a fall in production costs, Chinese firms charged lower prices on goods exported to the United States and increased their U.S. market shares.”

But the weaknesses in this analysis are positively jaw-dropping. First, the data supporting that latter key finding is no less than a dozen years out of date.

Second, the post completely fails to take into account the possible effects over time of a U.S. failure to provide trade protection for sectors, like steel, that represent key inputs for manufacturing. Although obviously the cheaper they are, the more competitive the industries that utilize them will be, intermediate goods sectors (including not only materials like metals but machinery and equipment of all kinds) could represent as much as nearly half of America’s entire manufacturing complex. Should the United States just sit back and watch those sectors trashed by foreign competition?

Third, and even more important, should the United States accept this result if much of the foreign competition faced by its manufacturers is predatory? In this vein, the Fed post contains not a single word about China’s currency manipulation – which kept the value of the yuan significantly and artificially suppressed throughout the early post-WTO admission years (and arguably still does) for reasons completely unrelated to trade liberalization, and which gave Chinese products a major and wholly artificial advantage in China’s own market, the U.S. market, and markets around the world.

Fourth, the authors similarly ignore the impact of China’s value-added tax (VAT) system, which not only surrounds the entire Chinese economy with high, tariff-like walls that nonetheless aren’t technically considered tariffs, but which provides comparably impressive subsidies for China’s exports.  Not to mention the other massive supports Beijing offers to manufacturing, or its still (and perhaps increasingly) formidable array of non-tariff trade barriers.

Indeed, all these non-market practices no doubt largely explain why China has both supercharged its exports since it entered the WTO and impressively raised the levels of Chinese inputs they contain

In baseball, three strikes means “you’re out.” At the New York Fed, by contrast, four strikes apparently earns a “well done.”