I haven’t been closely following the Labor Department’s import price data lately, and that’s been an oversight. As is clear from this morning’s figures (for August), they keep telling a fascinating and important tale about China’s ongoing manipulation of its currency and how it does and doesn’t impact U.S. trade with the People’s Republic. More specifically, examining the data over time reinforces a strengthens a point I’ve posted on previously – that as important as this currency protectionism is, it’s far from the only predatory Chinese practice that’s been shafting domestic companies and workers exposed either directly or indirectly to Chinese competition.
Just as a refresher, unlike most other trading countries and regions, China prohibits the free buying and selling of its currency. For most of the previous decade, Beijing’s aim has been to keep the value of the yuan artificially low versus most other currencies and especially the U.S. dollar – in order to give its goods and services price advantages over foreign rivals in markets everywhere. As a result, China’s exports got a government-aided boost worldwide, and its domestic industry was able to undersell imports in its home market – all for reasons having nothing to do with free trade or free markets generally.
Since the latter part of that decade, and especially earlier during the current economic recovery, the story has been more complicated. The main reason: China was getting worried about wealthy Chinese concerned about political stability or the economy’s future spiriting too much of their wealth out of the country, for stashing in countries (like the United States) considered a lot safer. These capital outflows began depressing the yuan’s value much faster than Beijing wanted, and even threatened to cause a worldwide crisis of confidence in the currency – and the broader Chinese economy. So for much of this latter period, China has been trying to prop up the yuan’s value to some extent – even as its wary that an overly strong yuan would jeopardize the exports on which its growth still heavily relies.
Trade policy critics have rightly focused much and even most of their anti-China ire on currency manipulation, and that’s been understandable for two main reasons. First, this policy affects the relative prices of everything sold back and forth between the United States and China; and second, currency manipulation is one of the few protectionist practices that even some of the globalization-happy economics and business establishment (and the latter’s political hired guns), can be convinced to combat. (Much of the rest of this group, though, will simply grandstand against this form of protectionism.)
Nonetheless, the import price numbers, coupled with the oscillation in China’s currency priorities, the consequent roller-coaster ride of the yuan’s value versus the dollar, and the actual trade flows, show that the cost of Chinese goods and services aimed for the American market stems from many other causes.
The Labor Department’s import price data for China goes back to 2004, and it shows that, in the 13 years since, on an August-to-August basis, the prices of purchases from China Americans can make has fallen in eight years and risen in five. As for the yuan’s value, it’s strengthened versus the U.S. dollar in nine of those 13 years, and weakened in four.
What happens when the two indicators are paired? The numbers reveal that in five of the 13 years, the prices of imports from China in the American market have fallen while the yuan has strengthened – which isn’t supposed to happen if you believe in currency uber alles. In another year, the prices of those imports rose while the yuan weakened – another counterintuitive result. In seven of the thirteen years, in other words, currency values and import prices seem to have behaved as they should have, but in six (nearly half the time), they didn’t.
Also important : In three of the four years when both import prices and the yuan went up, the yuan’s rise was much greater, most often by a factor of two to one. And in two of the three years when both indicators fell, the change in the yuan again was much greater. So at the very least, even when the relationship is looking like economists tell us it should, it takes a lot of yuan movement to generate significant import price changes. Clearly, therefore, other factors must be at work.
In this vein, the yuan’s value and the changes it undergoes doesn’t seem to have an especially strong relationship with the amount of goods that American imports from China. Of course, they have some effect. After all, all else equal, if U.S. customers buy a certain quantity of items and services from China one year, and the same quantity the next, and the price of those goods and services falls (for whatever reason), the value of those purchases will go down. And naturally, the converse is true as well.
This point matters because purchasing patterns rarely respond to price changes right away, and the lag can mean that the impact of currency changes on import values can take some time to materialize – and often more than a year. But even taking this reality into account produces a fuzzy picture. For example, between August, 2004 and August, 2005, U.S. goods imports from China (which make up the vast majority of American purchases from China) jumped by more than 24 percent even though import prices fell (by 1.10 percent) and the yuan rose versus the dollar (by 2.13 percent). The next year, Americans bought 19.14 percent more products from China, despite their prices falling yet again (by nearly as much – 1.01 percent), and the yuan rising again (also by nearly as much – 1.80 percent).
Between August, 2007 and August, 2008, import prices rose by a very large 4.95 percent and the yuan strengthened by an even greater 9.55 percent. Yet U.S. goods imports from the People’s Republic increased by double digits again (11.96 percent). The following year, however, import prices plummeted (by 3.08 percent), and the yuan weakened by 0.70 percent. And did American imports surge again? Not even close. They nosedived by 18.93 percent.
Sharp-eyed RealityChek readers will realize why: The Great Recession was intensifying in 2008 and lingered well into 2009. So Americans’ consumption of just about everything fell off a cliff for a while. Between the following Augusts, neither the prices of imports from China nor the yuan’s value moved much, and America’s goods imports from China nonetheless soared by more than 37 percent.
Yet you don’t need these kinds of extreme economic events for import prices, import amounts, and yuan movements to confound expectations, lag or not. From August, 2011 to August, 2012, both the prices of Chinese imports and the value of the yuan were up (both by a bit) and American imports from China dipped by 0.25 percent. Even stranger, the American economy grew by a pretty decent 2.39 percent (in inflation-adjusted terms) during that period.
The following year, U.S. growth was down to 1.69 percent, prices of imports from China dropped (by a meaningful 1.24 percent), the yuan rose (by a much greater 3.61 percent), and American purchases from China jumped from a small dip to more than five percent growth.
The point here is not that China’s currency policies don’t matter, but that the prices of Chinese goods and services, and therefore America’s trade performance with the People’s Republic, are influenced by a wide array of factors. Some are legitimate – for instance, if China keeps selling Americans greater amounts of relatively pricey advanced goods (like industrial machinery and high tech products), and less in the way of cheaper, simpler products (like clothing and toys), as has been the case, the price of the average import from China is going to rise. But many reasons are much less legitimate (e.g., changing levels of subsidies like value-added tax rates), and these can be so numerous, so fungible, and therefore so difficult to document that trying to isolate them and attack them piecemeal is a fool’s quest.
Far better is to decouple American tariff policy completely from specific items of evidence of individual predatory trade practices and impose these levies proactively, until they produce the desired effects on bilateral trade flows. In fact, the case for such a sweeping approach was made just yesterday, and is worth quoting at length:
“[T]here is one challenge on the current [trade] scene. It is substantially more difficult than those faced in the past, and that is China. The sheer scale of their coordinated efforts to develop their economy, to subsidize, to create national champions, to force technology transfer and to distort markets, in China and throughout the world, is a threat to the world trading system that is unprecedented.”
This speaker also argued that “The years of talking about these problems has not worked, and we must use all instruments we have to make it expensive to engage in non-economic behavior.”
His name is Robert Lighthizer, he’s President Trump’s chief trade negotiator, and the devilishly complex relationships between currency values, import prices, and trade flows just add to the case for the administration to start following this advice pronto.