Although the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says that posts on its Liberty Street Economics blog “do not necessarily reflect the position” of either this branch of the federal reserve system or the system itself, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the bank has gone to war against President Trump’s announced plans to renegotiate NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Why else would it have run items critical of these plans on consecutive days last week?
Even more important, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these posts aren’t vetted seriously for basic knowledge of America’s international trade situation, or even common sense. Key examples from each of these posts should suffice to establish the New York Fed’s combination of bias and ineptitude here.
The first post, by a New York Fed official and an economist from the offshoring interests-funded Institute for International Economics, purported to show that “An underappreciated benefit of … (NAFTA) is the protection it offers U.S. exporters from extreme tariff uncertainty in Mexico….Without NAFTA, there is a risk that tariffs on U.S. exports to Mexico could reach their bound rates, which average 35 percent. In contrast, U.S. bound rates average only 4 percent. At the very least, U.S. exporters would be subject to a higher level of policy uncertainty without the trade agreement.”
But it quickly becomes clear that even the authors are skeptical about this outcome. Their main stated reason hints at one main reason: “”Given the large and well-documented benefits from low trade barriers, particularly those stemming from access to a wider variety of imported intermediate inputs and lower prices of intermediate inputs, it would not be in Mexico’s interest to raise all of its MFN tariffs to their bound rates.”
This argument is only a hint, however, because it jaw-droppingly softpedals some of the main characteristics of U.S.-Mexico trade – specifically, the hugely outsized role played in this commerce by intra-industry trade. As I first described at length in The Race to the Bottom, a large share of U.S.-Mexico trade has little to do with the exchange of finished goods that dominates the textbook models. Instead, it consists of parts and components and other inputs of finished goods that travel through international production chains until they’re turned into final products.
And because there’s so little consumer purchasing power in Mexico, and so much in the United States, the lion’s share of this bilateral intra-industry trade in turn consists of intermediates being sent from U.S. factories to Mexican facilities, where they’re assembled into final products for export back to America.
Sure, in principle, a U.S. scrapping of NAFTA (which of course is not the Trump administration’s stated intention) could enable Mexico to substitute non-U.S. parts and components etc for the American-made intermediates that current make up so many of its exports. But without NAFTA, Mexico would also lose much and probably most of its current, unconditional access to the U.S. market. And since that market currently buys nearly 80 percent of Mexico’s exports, and since Mexico’s economy relies so heavily on those exports, it should quickly becomes obvious how self-defeating such a Mexican effort at hardball playing would be.
How bizarre that neither the article’s authors, nor anyone else involved in producing Liberty Street Economics, recognized these longstanding realities. Even weirder: The importance of this intra-industry trade in U.S.-Mexico trade was the major theme of another post from the same authors (plus a third) on this same blog that appeared the very next day.
Yet the NAFTA-related follies of the authors and of Liberty Street Economics hardly end there. In that second post, readers are warned that stricter rules of origin (ROO) for NAFTA could “disrupt supply chains” and in particular backfire on U.S.-based businesses by increasing the costs of their imported inputs and undermining the competitiveness of their exports outside North America.
To which someone who actually knows something current U.S. NAFTA renegotiating plans can only reply, “Seriously?”
For what the authors and the rest of the Liberty Street crowd seem to miss is that the only ROO revamping that would make any sense from a U.S. standpoint is also precisely the kind of revamping that the Trump administration seems to be considering: not only tightening the ROO (to confine duty-free treatment for goods traded inside the NAFTA zone to goods with higher levels of content produced inside the zone), but increasing the tariff penalties imposed on goods with relatively low levels of non-North American content.
In other words, the North American supply chains created by NAFTA wouldn’t be weakened. They’d be strengthened and greatly expanded.
Now the authors could still be right in arguing that such measures would raise the prices of goods made inside North America and thereby undermine their competitiveness outside North America. But they completely neglect two counter-arguments.
First, because the (U.S.-dominated) North American market is already so vast, and because intermediate goods industries in the three NAFTA countries are already so enormous, external tariffs that encourage North American businesses to use even more North American content could well bring gains inside the NAFTA zone that exceed whatever non-NAFTA losses are incurred.
Second, NAFTA as it currently exists was touted as a major boost to U.S. and North American global competitiveness, but there’s no evidence that this goal was achieved. Quite the contrary, at least according to World Trade Organization data.
They show that in 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, North America’s share of global goods exports was 17.9 percent. By 2015, it had shrunk to 14.4 percent. The U.S. share during this period fell from 12.6 percent to 9.4 percent, and the Canadian share decreased even faster – from 3.9 percent to 2.6 percent (no doubt, however, largely due to falling prices for the oil it exports so abundantly).
Mexico’s share of global exports did increase – from 1.4 percent to 2.4 percent. But surely that improvement stemmed mainly from selling to the United States, not to any non-North American customers.
The North American share of world merchandise imports did decrease during this period as well. But the decline was much smaller, and one quick look at the U.S. trend makes clear that the lion’s share of this improvement has resulted from the recent, dramatic turnaround in American energy trade patterns – which have nothing to do with NAFTA or any other supply chains.
The Federal Reserve system, and especially its crucially important New York branch, have long been renowned for employing premier economists and sponsoring first-rate economic analysis. But these Liberty Street Economics posts indicate that, at least when it comes to NAFTA, the New York Fed is better described as the Gang that Can’t Shoot Straight.