No doubt about it, China doesn’t play fair on trade

Trade issues are not everyone’s idea of a good time. With so many demands on their attention, ordinary Americans are wary of the truth quotient in commentary on the subject. They are cautious about separating the genuine from the meretricious comments from corporate America, which is concerned about maximizing shareholder wealth rather than doing the right thing for the majority of Americans.

General Motors has warned that President Trump’s threats to impose a 25 percent tariffs on imports of cars and car parts are projected to cost the auto industry billions of dollars, could raise some car prices by nearly $6,000 and result in fewer American jobs and a smaller GM. In contrast, a Ford Motor Company spokesperson said they believe they are somewhat insulated from the proposed tariffs because their most profitable vehicles are built here.

Currently, vehicles imported to the United States face a 2.5 percent tariff. Cars built in America face a 10 percent tariff when they are shipped to the European Union and a 25 percent tariff when they head to China.

During the financial crisis, the feds put $49.5 billion of taxpayer money into the GM bailout and the taxpayers ultimately lost an estimated at $10.5 billion. The firm has remained profitable since then. In retrospect, the bailout should have included provisions requiring that a portion of future profits go to fully repay taxpayers. Government Motors could also have been required to build automobiles and auto parts in the USA.

The automaker sold 4.04 million vehicles in China in 2017, a third more than the 3.02 million it sold in the United States. Last year represented the sixth consecutive year that China was General Motors’ largest market.

GM and other multinational companies headquartered in America view China’s emerging middle class as the world’s largest market for their products. The firm’s future growth relies as much on China as it does on how the automaker responds to emerging disruptive technologies such as electric and autonomous vehicles, and changing patterns of car ownership and use that will ultimately force the modification of its current business model.

Multinationals are concerned that the tariffs will cause the Chinese government to retaliate by imposing bureaucratic rules and regulations that could cause them to lose market share. China used this approach to roll back Japanese automakers’ market share during a dispute with Japan over contested islands in the East China Sea.

When China was violating the World Trade Organization rules on subsides for wind turbines, General Electric and other firms that were in the business were reluctant to bring a dispute to the WTO for fear of Chinese retaliation. It was the United Steel Workers who ultimately brought it to the WTO.

It is hard for multinational corporations to resist the temptation to placate the Chinese. China doesn’t have to send lobbyists to walk the halls of Congress, they just have the multinationals do what they want.

It is implausible to argue that China does not engaged in unfair trade practices. China is a one-party communist dictatorship. It is not bound by the political constraints of a democratic government with a constitution that imposes presidential term limits and secures the rights of free speech and association.

This political structure enables China to promote state subsidized industries such as steel, aluminum, and solar panels that have flooded global markets, depressed prices, and shut down hundreds of manufacturing plants, all in violation of World Trade Organization rules. Along with currency manipulation and stealing intellectual property, China’s actions amount to a thumb on the scale.

“Free” trade is a concept that works in classrooms insulated from the harsh realities of unfair practices and policies. They ignore predatory practices by foreign governments who view trade as a competition between nations and play dirty to grab a competitive advantage for their industries.

Like that of multinational corporations, China’s position on trade will be based on maximizing their own interest

Originally Published: July 14, 2018

Trade tariff battle will not lead to any long-term damage

President Trump’s views on trade have never been a secret. Trump finally delivered on his campaign promises by announcing unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum imports coupled with the imposition of about $60 billion in new tariffs on China. The moves generated frightening headlines, with experts predicting they will have dire consequences for the global trading system, but such claims are exaggerated.

Trade is a competitive game and every country plays hardball. The Trump policy is supposedly designed to counter a series of unfair Chinese trade practices, such as its longstanding restrictions on American companies, the forced transfer of American intellectual property, and many cases of patent and trademark infringement. The administration has demanded that China shave $100 billion off its record $375 billion trade surplus with the United States.

U.S. firms have been unable to sell advanced goods and services to China’s rapidly expanding middle class. It is widely acknowledged that in many market segments China requires foreign firms to share proprietary technology as a  condition of market access. The firms provide innovation and their Chinese counterparts imitate foreign design.

Many of the president’s media antagonists say these actions threaten to unleash a trade war; that the  moves appease the resident’s Rust Belt constituency but are unlikely to end America’s trade deficits or bring back manufacturing jobs. They also warn of rising consumer prices and are convinced that the U.S. would lose a trade war with the emerging market giant.

Yet it is unclear whether the president and the economic  nationalists in his administration will govern as tough as they talk. It is quite possible that actual tariffs will fall short of  the threats. For example, the tensions with American allies generated by the steel and aluminum tariffs are likely to be resolved through cometic concessions.

Following the president’s tariff announcement, China initially targeted tit-for-tat tariffs to put pressure on politically sensitive states that voted for Trump, hitting him where it hurts the most ahead of mid-term elections later this year. China’s Ministry of Commerce quickly said that it would impose a 15 percent tariff on $3 billion worth of American fruit, pork, wine, seamless steel pipes and more than 100 other products that represent about 2 percent of total American exports to China.

But soon after all this huffing and puffing, China’s Premier Li Keqiang, at a conference that included global chief executive officers at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, pledged to open markets to avert a trade war with the United States and to ease access for American businesses. Also, China offered to buy more American made semiconductors and allow foreign financial firms to take majority stakes in Chinese securities firms.

Then on April 1, the Chinese Finance Ministry said the previously announced tariffs will take effect immediately.

China is reliant on foreign trade for growth and job creation and needs to retain access to the U.S. market. The country certainly doesn’t want to engage in a trade  war with its best customer. China’s exports to the U.S. are equal to about 4.5 percent of its GDP. In contrast, U.S. exports to China are equal to about two-thirds of 1 percent of GDP. Although less important to the economy than it was, trade accounts for almost 40 percent of Chinese GDP versus less than 30 percent in the U.S.

America’s decline relative to other countries is an old story. First the Russians were going to leave the U.S. in the dust, then the Japanese. But consider the strong and intrinsic advantages America enjoys. They include being functionally energy and agriculturally independent, having more favorable demographics and a consensual society. Drug dealers still prefer suitcases full of dollars, not yuan, and global investors still seek Treasury bonds as a safe haven in times of crisis.

President Trump’s trade moves may temporarily roil U.S. markets, but there is no need to panic or bet against the United States.

Originally Published: Apr 7, 2018

The eye-for-an-eye approach to trade

On March 8, America’s populist-in-chief signed an executive order slapping a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. President Trump said he did it to protect the nation’s economic and national security. It came a little over a month after Trump said he would impose tariffs and quotas on imported solar panels and washing machines.

The United States has had the world’s largest trade deficit ever since 1975. In 2017 imports were about $2.9 trillion and exports were just over $2.3 trillion, as Americans continue to consume more than we produce.

The steel and aluminum tariffs have aroused little enthusiasm and much criticism. Naysayers argue they will do nothing to strengthen America’s economy or national security, and spark a global trade war. They say the tariffs will result in higher prices as steel users pass costs onto consumers.

Supporters claim there already is a trade war underway and it is being waged by China. That country accounts for more than two-thirds of America’s current trade deficit. We import $506 billion – mainly consumer electronics, clothing, and machinery – from China, but export only about $131 billion in goods.

China has been blocking high-value exports from the United States. For example, it charges a 25 percent import duty on cars, 10 times the 2.5 percent levy the United States puts on imported vehicles.

China also imposes steep tariffs on imported automobile parts. As Elon Musk tweeted, “No US auto company is allowed to own even 50% of their own factory in China but there are five 100% China-owned EV auto companies in the US.” Obviously, engaging in tough trade talks with China is long overdue.

It will take years for the United States, China and the global trading system to work out imbalances on a wide range of goods. America’s prosperity depends on a robust approach to correct failed trade policies, with a focus on the industries of the future. It makes no sense for America to excel at innovation without securing the domestic and foreign markets for its products.

It merits mentioning that instances in which American companies ship raw materials to China for assembly at a lower cost, then sell the finished products count as imports. American multi-national companies are happy to hire foreign workers from emerging markets with lower standards of living to keep their labor costs low and profits high. They figured out that to make income redistribution work on a global scale: American workers have to be less welloff so their overseas counterparts can be less poor.

But the new tariff on steel imports will not impact China. The United States is the world’s biggest steel importer, buying 35.6 million tons in 2017. Nearly 17 percent come from Canada, 13.2 percent from Brazil, and 9.7 percent from South Korea. Unless the Chinese are routing their steel exports through American allies, the U.S only imports about 3 percent of its steel from China.

After pushback from Canada, wiser minds prevailed within the administration and tariff sanctions were suspended indefinitely pending renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The tariffs may trigger reprisals. The day after President Trump signed the tariff executive order, the European Union published a 10-page list of American products that would be targets for retaliation, including peanut butter, grains, and motorcycles.

While steel and aluminum account for only a small portion of trade, the President’s rhetoric indicates that this is just the opening salvo from the White House bunker after years of benign neglect. The primary target is China. Trump has already called its unfair trading practices “an assault on our country.”

As the head of the World Trade Organization, one of the guardians of the global trading system, noted after the tariffs were announced, “Once we start down this path it will be difficult to reverse direction. An eye for an eye will leave us all blind and the world in a deep recession.”


Originally Published: Mar 22, 2018