Find an intelligent way to deal with China and economy

Trade policy is a contentious issue in contemporary America. A common refrain in trade discussions is “all we want is a level playing field.” President Trump portrays his tough trade sanctions, especially against China, as a confrontation aimed at remedying decades of America being ripped off in the global marketplace.

This represents a major reversal in America’s China policy. Since President Nixon’s opening to China in 1971 and across eight subsequent administrations it was generally believed that engagement would induce China to work with the West and become a peace-loving democracy with no designs on regional or global power.

As a candidate, Trump stood out for his embrace of America-first policies and his promise to “Make America Great Again” by addressing the grievances of ordinary citizens who feel dispossessed. Once in office, Trump, a self-described deal maker, has not been fond of large multilateral deals. He was quick to withdraw from the Transpacific Partnership agreement. After first threatening to void the North American Free Trade Agreement by executive order, his administration renegotiated it.

Countries often use protectionism tools such as tariffs and quotas to support domestic industries until they are able to compete internationally. Tariffs are taxes imposed by a country that make imports more expensive. Quotas amount to quantitative restrictions on imports. It helps to keep in mind who loses and who gains from a tariff or quota. Domestic producers and employees gain and consumers lose. Governments also benefit from tariffs because they generate revenue, but tariff revenues are typically not a big consideration in developed countries.

Countries can also impose stringent quality and safety standards on foreign products. A country can tailor the standards to the product descriptions at home, thereby giving domestic producers an advantage. Consider the continuing debate over stricter standards for antibiotics in the European Union versus the United States. Are these measures of safety or a way to protect a domestic industry? Then there are all kinds of red tape that delay exporters from gaining access to a country’s market.

Still, there is another insidious tool that a country can use to promote its domestic industries. China and other countries build national champions with government funding of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). China is the world’s second largest economy, accounting for about 15 percent of global economic output. It has seen extraordinary economic expansion over an extended period, with double-digit growth for close to 30 years.

Its SOEs have facilitated that growth and are the backbone of the Chinese economy. The nation’s approximately 150,000 SOEs control around $16 trillion in assets, constitute about 40 percent of China’s gross domestic product and employ 35 million people in strategic industries such as energy, technology and telecom.

China’s government helped launch new and emerging industries by channeling capital into SOEs. For example, it flooded global markets, depressed prices, and literally shut down hundreds of U.S. solar-panel startups. China’s SOEs are front and center in implementing China’s One Belt One Road initiative, the nation’s vision for massive development of trade routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe.

These government subsidies stimulate excess production, depress market prices, and enable state-owned enterprises to capture market share. Closely related is the theft of intellectual property and forced technology transfers, often by SOEs, that highlight the need to constrain these enterprises. Countries such as China hesitate to allow state-owned enterprises to fail for fear that it would unleash a tidal wave of unemployment.

While trade talks between China and the United States may be productive in dealing with tariffs, the Trump administration should also address less traditional tactics that amount to cheating. They include China’s use of subsidies to key state-run companies to undercut their American competitors. What should be clearly understood here is that dealing with the Chinese is like engaging in unprotected sex.

Originally Published: January 27, 2019

Sham tax ‘reform’ proves more than ever that isn’t about reform, it’s about money and influence.

The imperfect tax bill President Trump signed into law on Dec. 22 is further evidence of the rot in Washington,. The tax bill isn’t about tax reform, it’s about money and influence.

Consider the giveaway known as the carried interest rule. It’s another outrageous example of the powerful getting what they want, as they always do. This will come as no shock to anyone over the age of five.

The term “carried interest” derives from the share of profits that 12th-century ship owners and captains were given as an interest in the cargo they carried, usually a 20 percent commission to provide an incentive to keep an eye on the cargo.

Today carried interest is the 20 percent of profits from their funds with which private equity firms, venture capitalists, and real estate partnerships compensate themselves. These proceeds are taxed at a capital gains rate of 20 percent, about half the top individual income rate, which will fall to 37 percent under the new tax law. Critics argue that this money is effectively income and should be taxed at individual income tax rates. The constituents for the deduction argue that removing the incentive would reduce entrepreneurial risk taking.

The reason for the loophole’s survival comes down to campaign contributions to key lawmakers and intense lobbying to maintain the favorable tax treatment. As Gary D. Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council said, “The reality of this town is that constituency has a very large presence in the House and the Senate and they have really strong relationships on both sides of the aisle.”

The American Investment Council, a Washington trade association that represents private equity firms, reported some $970,000 in lobbying expenditures for the first three quarters of 2017. This is in addition to the smart investment made by way of campaign contributions targeted to key lawmakers. For example, employees of the private equity firm The Blackstone Group L.P. contributed $212,000 to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2017 alone. In turn, politicians serve their contributors by protecting the carried interest preference.

Private equity firms have the means and vanity to get what they want. It is further proof that money is the mother’s milk of politics and that big money gets its way in Washington, D.C.

During the presidential campaign both President Trump and Secretary Clinton gave a pitch-perfect populist performance, wanting everyone to know that they were militantly opposed to this loophole, a form of welfare for the wealthy. When a politician says something like that, sports fans, try inserting a negative and you are likely to hit pay dirt. Political rhetoric is as unrelated to the truth as an advertising campaign.

The power of money seems eternal. Politicians love it like a child loves Christmas, and all are working hard to avoid reading their own political obituaries. Knowledge that it has always been this way is no consolation.

They tell pro forma lies to the public and the media, and then begin to believe what they read. Not laying blame, just putting truth into words. So House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R. Texas), with a truly magnificent smile, said on the Morning Joe talk show “carried interest, we can talk about that for the next hour if you like, but for most Americans they could care less about that.”

In its pursuit of a free lunch, the public is often a bit too eager to accept the things they want to hear at face value, even though they should know that truthfulness is not a long (or short) suit for elected officials, who spin untruths with the same gusto young Abraham Lincoln supposedly split logs.

You can’t bring about change by wishing upon a star. You can run with that.

 Originally Published: January 6, 2019

A high-stakes contest for technological supremacy

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of privately owned Huawei Technologies Corp., was arrested by Canadian police at the behest of American law enforcement authorities seeking extradition as she changed planes at Vancouver International Airport. Wanzhou is the daughter of the company’s founder, a former military engineer with China’s People’s Liberation Army.

She has been charged with conspiracy to defraud banks in connection with alleged violations of American sanctions on Iran. The December 1 arrest occurred on the same day that President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a cease fire in the escalating trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

Huawei, China’s smartphone and telecommunications giant, has long been at the center of drama between the United States and China. The U.S. has pressured allies to limit use of Huawei products and technology.

Huawei may not be a familiar name to Americans, but it is a global telecom behemoth, with about $93 billion in revenue 2017, almost on par with Microsoft.

Based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, it has the biggest research and development budget of any Chinese company. The firm has benefitted from Chinese government subsidies, contracts, and financing from the state-owned China Development Bank. These subsidies give Huawei a huge advantage over its competitors.

The company is the world’s second largest maker of smartphones, behind only Samsung. It is the world’s largest provider of telecom equipment, including switches, routers, cell tower gear, cloud computing and cybersecurity. It also sells personal computers and a wide array of wireless devices like smart watches.

Huawei is seen as a global leader in 5G, the ultra-fast wireless technology that will soon allow all the objects around us to be connected. That is good for China and bad for the United States. The U.S. worries that if Huawei wins the race to develop 5G technology, Americans may someday be buying their equipment to connect factories, vehicles, homes, utility grids and more.

Huawei is also seen as a cyber-security threat. Washington has accused it of being a potential conduit for Chinese spying and cyber theft. The Justice Department, intelligence agencies, and regulators have long believed the firm has violated American sanctions against Iran, that it works primarily for Chinese government interests and that its equipment contains back doors that allow that government to spy on customers.

In 2012, the House Intelligence Committee released a report that tagged Huawei’s products a potential security threat, accused them of engaging in intellectual property theft and recommended a ban on the company’s equipment. As early as 2003, Cisco Systems accused Huawei of infringing on Cisco’s patents and illegally copying source codes used in its routers and switches. Other accusations have also surfaced. Motorola named the firm as a co-defendant in a lawsuit and T-Mobile alleged that Huawei stole technology form its headquarters.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an inter-agency committee of the federal government, has blocked deals involving Huawei on grounds that it had possible ties to the Chinese government and that the strategic nature of the telecommunications industry made such deals potential threats to national security. This August a defense policy bill prohibited the federal government from using Huawei equipment.

President Trump is considering an executive order that would bar American companies from using telecommunication equipment made by Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies because the equipment poses serious national security risks. Of course, the company strongly denies stealing intellectual property or enabling Chinese espionage.

It is unclear how the arrest of Meng Wanzhou will influence ongoing trade talks between the United States and China. One possibility is that the U.S. government will allow trade to trump national security concerns, as the president has suggested he would intervene on the Huawei issue if it would help secure an agreement.

Americans best stay tuned as this high-stakes contest for technological supremacy unfolds.

Originally Published: January 4, 2019