Roughly ten years after it broke out, it’s still incredibly rare to see economists or pundits link U.S. and resulting global trade imbalances with the financial crisis. So I’m always thrilled – as I tweeted this past week – to see it ever happen. All the same, even this insightful column by Reuters’ Edward Hadas simply dances around the crucial link between these imbalances and American trade policies, and in particular, their offshoring-friendly nature.
In a March 15 essay, Hadas commented on the German (and other countries’) trade surpluses that have attracted such attention this past week for two main reasons: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first-ever meeting with President Trump, and a conclave taking place at the same time of the finance chiefs of the world’s 20 leading economies (the so-called G20). The author’s main contention is indisputable as far as it goes. According to Hadas, the real problem with these imbalances is financial:
“The euros, pounds and dollars which Germany, Korea et al accumulate inevitably land in the global financial system. There would be no problem – only gains all round – if these monies funded valuable infrastructure, productive factories and other assets which can generate a reasonable economic return.
“Too often, though, though, the extra currency winds up supporting counterproductive finance. It backs ultimately ruinous property speculation, lends support to chronically weak governments, encourages unsustainable consumer spending and destabilises developing economies, not to mention enriching banks and bankers and stimulating corruption. A typical example: the recycled dollars from the U.S. trade deficit helped fund the American housing bubble whose pop created the 2008 crisis.”
But what Hadas – and so many others – fail to do is explain adequately why deficit countries (like the United States) make such dangerously shortsighted choices with their windfalls. Three main (and not mutually exclusive) reasons have been served up. First, financial systems in the deficit countries (especially the United States, which runs the biggest deficits) have over-rewarded uses of capital that produce the fastest possible payoffs, and under-reward longer-term projects. The result is too much investment that encourages speculation, financial monkey business, and simple consumption, and too little investment that builds factories and laboratories and funds other activities that create wealth more slowly, but on a more sustainable basis.
Second, such irresponsible uses of capital have become practically inevitable if only because the deficits have been so enormous, and so much money has become available. When anything is in such abundance, and therefore costs so little, most economists would agree that there’s little reason to use it carefully. After all, it looks like a sure bet that more of that thing at very attractive prices will be readily available.
A somewhat different version of this argument has to do with what economists call “moral hazard.” It argues that the American financial system used over-abundant money so recklessly at least partly because investors felt certain that they’d get bailed out of most or all of their mistakes by government. So why not take maximum advantage of what seems to be a “heads, we win; tails, we lose” proposition?
The third explanation for the irresponsible use of resources focuses on the consumption-heavy nature of the economies of the deficit countries. (This argument also tends to note that the surplus countries frequently try to limit and even depress consumption.) The more capital they take in, in other words, the more such spending (as opposed to productive investment) is likeliest to result either because such behavior is encouraged by government, because a “live for today” has been produced by that country’s culture, or because of some combination of the two.
Whenever something as a big as a global financial crisis strikes, many culprits are responsible. And all of the above explanations should be taken very seriously (along with others, like lax financial regulation). But what Hadas and all the rest continue to miss is how the world trade system, national trade policies, and the trade flows they have fostered have actively fostered in deficit countries like the United States a neglect of productive activities like manufacturing (which is so heavily traded).
Specifically, as Washington in the 1990s and 2000s signed more and more trade agreements structured to encourage multinational companies from all over the world to supply U.S. consumers from locations in super low-cost and virtually unregulated developing countries like China and Mexico, American leaders and other elites (e.g., in the media) naturally sought to rationalize their decisions by spreading the message that sectors of the economy like manufacturing (and the income loss produced by the accelerated offshoring that rippled throughout so much of the Main Street economy) could be neglected with impunity. And the administration of George W. Bush (along with Congress of course) and the Federal Reserve chaired by Alan Greenspan underwrote America’s spendthrift ways with big budget deficits and ultra-low interest rates, respectively.
Even worse, these destructive trends fed on themselves. The more offshoring seemed to pay off, and the more domestic manufacturing operations looked like losing — or at least anachronistic — propositions, the less interested financiers became in investing in them. So the amount of productive activity on which to use incoming capital to start with began shriveling. And the less productive activity available to sustain Main Street living standards responsibly (i.e., mainly through earnings), the greater the political establishment needed to prop up those living standards by providing more easy money — at least if it wanted to stay in power while maintaining the offshoring status quo.
Ironically, even though Hadas emphasizes regulation as the answer to global imbalances, his particular focus has big trade implications:
“Regulation can do more than strengthen bank capital ratios. It can reform the system, so trade surplus funds are not directed to economically counterproductive uses. That will be tough, both politically and practically. But it should be easier – and will be far more helpful – to solidify finance than to try to change the national characters of Germany or Korea.”
I’m all in favor of channeling the use of trade surplus funds by deficit countries into productive activity. In fact, I strongly support requiring such uses by U.S. multinational companies if much-discussed tax reform finally succeeds in persuading them to bring home the vast amounts of earnings they’re currently stashing abroad to avoid paying higher U.S. corporate rates.
But this requirement needs to be accompanied by (at the very least) strong measures to keep out foreign-made goods that benefit from predatory trade practices like dumping, subsidization, and intellectual property theft. Otherwise, foreign competitors will be able to keep undercutting their domestic American competition in the U.S. market, and these new productive investments will fail. It’s also entirely likely, however, that more sweeping trade curbs will be needed – to offset the scale economy disadvantages created by U.S.-based firms’ inability to sell into so many important markets and their rivals’ ability to sell freely in their home countries and the United States.
And this is in fact where recognition is needed that the trade problem created by American policy concerns not simply inducements to offshore, but the coddling of protectionism in high income countries like Japan and Germany.
The bottom line: As indicated in a post last week, the United States may have to accept that even reasonably balanced foreign trade is not achievable with competitors holding radically different economic priorities (as I argued last week was precisely the case with Germany), and that reducing trade flows is a more than acceptable price to pay for preventing financial crises caused by imbalanced trade. When you add in America’s great capacity for much more self-sufficiency in a wide range of manufactured good, that seems like a more than acceptable trade-off to me. More important, it’s where the Trump administration, admittedly in fits and starts, could be leading us.