Archive for the Category China

 
 

China should raise the price of Big Macs

Here’s Noah Smith at Bloomberg:

Instead, the U.S.’s best bet is to concentrate on a key Chinese government intervention that can be measured easily — currency manipulation. Though China no longer pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar, it still closely manages the yuan’s value and maintains an extensive system of capital controls. In recent years, China usually hasn’t had to intervene in order to keep its currency cheap, since the yuan has fallen:

But the threat of intervention is still there, which undoubtedly keeps a lid on the currency’s value. Meanwhile, measures like the Economist’s Big Mac Index show that the yuan is undervalued against the dollar by about 44 percent. This effectively provides a subsidy to all Chinese exporters, and a tax on U.S. goods sold in China, thus distorting the global economy and the patterns of world trade.

As his main goal in the trade war, Trump should push for a large upward valuation in the yuan, followed by a much freer float of that currency against the dollar.

Actually, that would be a disastrous policy for China, which (fortunately) they are unlikely to adopt.  The Chinese economy is already struggling with a slowdown due to a crackdown on debt and a looming trade war with the US.  A sharp revaluation in the yuan could easily push them into a depression.  Think about it.  A rising power in the East, with a history of being humiliated by Western powers, and with a prickly nationalistic public that is intensively resentful of these past actions, is pushed into depression by a combination of a rabidly anti-Chinese American administration and some really bad exchange rate advice by Western experts.  What could go wrong?

[BTW, even if the yuan were undervalued, which it isn’t, it would not constitute a “subsidy” to Chinese firms or a “tax” on US exporters.  Words matter.  Taxes and subsidies are inefficient because they drive wedges between the prices faced by buyers and sellers.  Undervalued currencies do not do this.  If you want to argue an undervalued currency is inefficient, you need a completely different argument centered on saving rates.]

So what’s my solution?  Simple.  Have the Chinese government order McDonalds to raise Beijing Big Mac prices by 44%.  Problem solved, no more undervalued currency.  Seriously, the Big Mac index tells us absolutely nothing about whether a currency is undervalued or overvalued.  If it did, then the Swiss and Norwegians should demand that the US massively revalue the dollar, so that Big Macs over here are as expensive as in Oslo and Zurich.  In fact, all the Big Mac index illustrates is the Balassa-Samuelson theorem, which says that lower wage countries tend to have lower price levels because their comparative advantage lies in non-traded goods.  (I.e. rich countries are much more productive at building complex products, but not much more productive at cutting someone’s hair or cooking Big Macs.)

Outside the Trump administration, I doubt you’d find many international economists who think PPP should determine the proper exchange rate between any two countries.  And even within the Trump administration they’d be more likely to use “trade imbalances” as an excuse for demanding that China revalue.  The problem, of course, is that China now has the most balanced trade of any major economy in the world, with a current account surplus estimated to be 0.5% of GDP this year and 0.3% next year.  So it’s not clear what sort of “distortions” Smith is referring to.  Many of the same people who a decade ago insisted that China needed to revalue because of its current account surplus (which really was large at that time) now seek out some other reason for demanding Chinese revaluation.  I guess cheap hamburgers are as good as any, as the importance of maintaining PPP and “balanced trade” are roughly equally invalid arguments.

There is one economy that does have a massive CA surplus, the Eurozone.  And to his credit, Smith does not advocate that we demand a sharp euro appreciation (which would also be a disaster—ciao Italia):

Trump has also turned his attention away from Europe, avoiding the mistake of getting into a harmful spat with allies he should persuade to form a trading bloc and a unified front.

This also caught my eye:

There’s no way to measure the amount of state interference that China is using to shut out foreign companies. And IP theft, by definition, happens in secret and is thus difficult to detect or to prove. China’s entire economy is centered around pervasive state intervention and skullduggery — even if it made some moves to change that model, the U.S. couldn’t verify that changes had really been made.

If it can’t be measured, how can we be confident that China’s entire economy is centered around this intervention and “skullduggery”?  You might say, “it’s obvious”.  No, it’s obvious that these things happen pretty often in China, but it’s not obvious how big a problem it is.  If it were, then Smith would be wrong in claiming we can’t measure it.  How do we know that the “center” of their economy is not growing rice, or building subways, or selling life insurance?  For instance, China’s goods imports are about 15% of their GDP.  The same is true of the US, but because the US figure is for both goods and services, I presume China’s total imports are actually a larger share of GDP than in the US.  So how important are their barriers to imports? Who knows?

I am not claiming that China has fewer trade barriers than the US, indeed I believe the opposite is true; my point is that the data doesn’t provide any way of knowing how much of this is anecdotal, and the extent to which China really is much more closed than other countries like the US.  Let’s not forget that the US also does lots of “skullduggery”, like “Buy America”.

Note that if Smith is right that it’s hard to measure this stuff, then Trump may be wasting his time.  How would we even know if they adhered to any trade agreement?  That’s why Smith suggests that we instead press for yuan revaluation.  But that won’t work either.  China could simply stop having a crawling peg with the dollar, and instead have a crawling peg with the euro, yen or pound.  When you have a crawling peg, it really doesn’t matter which currency you choose.  And there is near-zero chance that China will agree to set their exchange rate according to PPP.

Smith also seems confused about the implications of what’s often called the “China shock”:

And Chinese import competition has been much more harmful to American workers than competition from Mexico, Europe or any other country. Even some Democrats support pushing back against China.

He’s referring to a study that showed the import surge from China had depressed a number of industrial towns in the US.  But then he advocates a Chinese policy that would cause an even bigger China shock:

What would constitute a win in a trade war against China? A simple goal would be to get that country to cut tariffs on U.S. imports. Indeed, China’s leaders have already offered some tariff cuts, suggesting that they’re in a mood to deal. But although tariff cuts are good, they don’t form the bulk of China’s unfair trade practices. The government underwrites its industries in a variety of ways, from cheap loans from state-owned banks to energy subsidies to export subsidies. Costs are held down because of lax environmental regulations and low labor standards — China crushes independent labor unions, for example. The U.S. government could demand that the Chinese reduce subsidies, do more to protect the environment, or improve worker rights.

Chinese tariff cuts would cause the US to export more movies and food and high tech stuff to China, and also cause China to export more “mid-tech” industrial goods to America.  If you thought the China shock hurt America (I don’t), you should not advocate an even more open China, an even bigger China shock.  You should advocate they go back to Mao’s policies, when China was closed to the world and American workers were not “threatened” at all.  Of course I don’t worry about China shocks, and thus agree with Smith that fewer Chinese tariffs would be a good thing.

Some might argue that lower Chinese tariffs would reduce America’s trade deficit.  They won’t.  But what is true is that Trump’s policies are likely to raise our deficit.

At a deeper level, all of this focus on the domestic policies of other nations is deeply misguided.  I agree that better economic policies in China would benefit the US.  However that same argument is even more true of India, Africa and lots of other places, which buy far fewer US goods than they would with more sensible policies.  But that’s because with better policies they’d be richer, not because they would no longer be “cheating” at trade.  Since the time of Ricardo, we’ve known that factors such as subsidies, weak environmental laws and low wages do not give countries any competitive advantage of international trade.  Paul Krugman demolished all those arguments a second time back in the 1990s.  Read Pop Internationalism.

I hope this post doesn’t come across as too negative, but I get frustrated reading the same misconceptions about trade, over and over again.  In fairness, there are also things I agree with in Smith’s article:

That doesn’t mean a trade war with China is without downsides and risks. Chinese retaliation against U.S. agriculture has already forced many farmers to accept handouts from the government in order to stay afloat. Disrupting the cozy economic symbiosis that has developed between the U.S. and China will cause painful adjustment, and will also increase the risk of military conflict. If Trump decided to call off his trade war against China right now, it would certainly be a safe course of action.

He’s rightfully skeptical of the Trump approach, and opposes some of the current protectionist policies:

President Donald Trump’s trade war is less bad than it was just a short time ago. After some tense negotiations, the North American Free Trade Agreement has been replaced with a new, very similar arrangement, meaning the disruption to trade — and to U.S. relations with Canada and Mexico — will be contained. The agreement might even ease the damage from the president’s misguided steel and aluminum tariffs.

Unfortunately, China pushes people to advocate policies that are highly counterproductive.  Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that China is an increasingly powerful and successful country that really does have lots of bad public policies, especially in terms of repressing free speech, minority rights, etc.  That’s frustrating—I really wish they had better policies (Ditto for Myanmar, Vietnam, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Cuba, Iran, Nigeria, and 100 other countries.)  But when I read the arguments for focusing our trade war on China, none of them make any sense.  Whether it be “undervalued currencies”, trade imbalances, or domestic policies that discourage US exports, you can always find much worse offenders than China.

So what’s my solution for bad Chinese policies?  Push China to high income status as quickly as possible and hope for the best.  It worked pretty well in the rest of East Asian, where it was tried. It may not work with the mainland, but going back to the 1930s is even less likely to work.

Economic reform in China

There’s a more interesting new post over at Econlog.

Almost every week I see articles about China opening up its economy.  Here’s a recent example from The Economist:

CHINA is home to 1.4bn people. The population is ageing, and thus more vulnerable to ailments. Sustained economic growth is making the country richer, and more able to afford remedies. To foreign pharmaceutical firms, this looks like a winning combination. They are less keen on protracted review times, onerous rules and the reams of paperwork required to sell drugs in China. It can take a decade after approval in America for foreign drugs to reach Chinese patients.

The Chinese authorities at last appear to have acknowledged the problem—and are administering a cure in doses that have surpassed even optimists’ expectations. A reinvigorated regulator is waving through drugs from abroad, and clamping down on unscrupulous domestic companies. The government is spending more on drugs, including foreign ones, as it expands public health care. It is letting market forces weed out frail local firms. In other words, China is becoming a more normal market. Global drugmakers are rubbing their hands. By some estimates China became the second-largest global consumer of medicines in 2017. The market is worth $122.6bn, according to IQVIA, a research firm.

And another recent example from the Financial Times:

China has been opening up its financial sector in recent months, a move that some Wall Street groups hope to benefit from. Since Beijing raised the cap on foreign ownership of securities trading and fund management companies from 49 per cent to 51 per cent in April, several big US banks have said they aim to gain majority control of their operations in China.

A few months back, CNN provided this example:

China is making good on the promise to open its huge car market to foreign automakers.

The country will remove its longstanding restriction on foreign ownership for manufacturers of electric cars, ships and aircraft this year, the government announced Tuesday.

The announcement is just a first step in what China promised will be gradual phasing out of all restrictions on foreign ownership in the automobile industry.

This has been going on for decades, and I could cite many other examples.

Another trend that has been going on for decades is media claims that China is no longer reforming its economy, and is going back to the bad old days of state control.

Which set of news stories is true?

PS.  Sometimes things happen that are so weird that if they were not true you could never imagine making them up:

For decades, Taiwan and China have competed for recognition. In 1979, the United States switched its support and officially established sovereign relations with China, and many other countries followed. . . .

In recent years, China has had success in courting Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. Only 17 nations recognize Taiwan; outside the Vatican and Swaziland, they are all islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean or countries in Latin America.

American officials have expressed growing concern over the shift.

The US government, the Chinese government in Beijing, and the Chinese government in Taipei all agree that there is only “one China”, which includes the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.  In 1979, the US decided that the Beijing government was the legitimate government of China.  That’s still our official policy.  Now several countries in Latin America are following our lead, and we are upset with them.

PPS.  Tyler Cowen has an interesting Bloomberg column about 30 years of changes in Guangzhou.

PPPS.  This Fu Ying essay is one of the few articles on US/China relations that I actually agree with.

PPPPS.  Russ Roberts has a very interesting interview of Frank Dikötter on the Great Leap Forward.  This caught my eye:

Anyway, in October 1957, to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917, all the leaders of the socialist camp are invited to Moscow, and there Khrushchev announces that he will overtake your country, the United States, in the production of dairy products. Mao doesn’t miss a beat: he says, without even standing up, ‘If you wish to overtake the United States, we will beat England–the United Kingdom–in the production of steel within 15 years.’ That’s the start of the Great Leap Forward.

At the time, the goal seemed preposterous.  China’s attempt to do this with backyard steel mills backfired, causing lots of misery.  Interestingly, today China produces 100 times as much steel as the UK.

A bigger China shock?

I have a new piece at The Hill.  Here’s an excerpt:

The biggest puzzle is what the Trump administration is trying to achieve with its trade war. Is it a move to pressure the Chinese to open up their economy, thus reducing barriers to U.S. trade and investment? Maybe, but it was precisely the opening of the Chinese economy that first created the “China shock.”

Indeed, China was no threat at all to U.S. firms when its economy was closed under the leadership of Chairman Mao. An even more open China would create an even bigger shock, resulting in even more economic dislocation in the Rust Belt. Presumably, Ohio manufacturing workers who supported candidate Trump were not hoping China would buy more Hollywood films and computer software, so that America could buy more auto parts from China.

Read the whole thing.

PS.  A recent NBER paper by Zhi Wang, Shang-Jin Wei, Xinding Yu, and Kunfu Zhu reversed the finding of the famous Autor, Dorn and Hanson paper on the “China shock”.  Here is the abstract:

The United States imports intermediate inputs from China, helping downstream US firms to expand employment. Using a cross-regional reduced-form specification but differing from the existing literature, this paper (a) incorporates a supply chain perspective, (b) uses intermediate input imports rather than total imports in computing the downstream exposure, and (c) uses exporter-specific information to allocate imported inputs across US sectors. We find robust evidence that the total impact of trading with China is a positive boost to local employment and real wages. The most important factor is employment stimulation outside the manufacturing sector through the downstream channel. This overturns the received wisdom from the reduced-form literature and provides statistical support for a key mechanism hypothesized in general equilibrium spatial models.

I don’t “believe” either result.  The science of economics has not advanced to the point where it’s possible to have a high level of confidence in these sorts of empirical studies.

PPS.  Off topic, this made me smile:

Trump has moaned to donors that Powell didn’t turn out to be the cheap-money Fed guy he wanted. The president repeated the effort this week in an interview with Reuters, adding the ridiculous claim that the euro is manipulated and the more credible notion that China is massaging the yuan. (The European Central Bank rarely intervenes directly in currency markets; when the ECB does, it’s usually with the Fed.)

Where to begin:

1. Trump had a choice between Yellen and Powell.  I suggested Yellen, as she had done a very good job.  Trump’s advisors said he shouldn’t pick Yellen because she’s not a Republican.  So Trump picked Powell, even though he was slightly more hawkish than Yellen.  Trump is tribal and assumes everyone else in the world is just as corrupt as he is.  He thought Powell would be “better” because he’d want to help a Republican president.  And now Trump is shocked to find out that Powell is not his lapdog.  (Actually it’s too soon to know for sure, as Trump also wrongly assumes that higher interest rates mean tighter money.  But we can cut him some slack, as lots of other people make the same mistake.)

2. I also smiled at the notion that the ECB doesn’t intervene in the currency market.  Of course they have a 100% monopoly on the entire supply side of the euro currency market.  Yes, I understand the reporter meant “foreign exchange market” when he said “currency”.  But even that’s a bit misleading, as ECB policy does affect the forex value of the euro, and there have been ECB actions in recent years that were clearly aimed at depreciating the euro.  Ditto for the Fed and the Chinese central bank.  Still, the reporter is correct in claiming that Trump has no grounds to complain about ECB policy; I wish he had made the same point about China.

PPPS.  Another day, another two convictions of close Trump advisors.  In one case it was for for a crime that Trump ordered him to commit.  Trump’s now as deeply enmeshed in scandal as Nixon was back in 1974.  The good news for Trump is that none of this matters.  Trump’s support is in the low 40s and it will not decline at all.  There was no Nixon cult—his supporters abandoned him in droves.  But the Trump cult would support him if he murdered someone in the middle of Times Square, at least that’s what Trump himself claims.  As long as those 40% of voters stick with Trump, frightened GOP Congressmen will do the same.  Trump is safe.

Still, it will be fun watching the scandal play out—lots more to come!

Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 6.53.56 PMPPPPS.  Focus on the blue line, as the yellow line partly reflected the worsening economy.

The China Threat?

The normally sober Financial Times has a truly bizarre article on the perceived threat posed by China:

Marketing slogans aside, since at least the 1980s there has been no presumption that US companies had to operate in the national interest. Goods, capital, and labour could move where they liked — that is the definition of globalisation. Most people believed that if US companies did well, Americans would prosper. But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, the fortunes of US companies and consumers are now fundamentally disconnected.

The wealth gap alone wasn’t enough to persuade politicians from either party to rethink the rules. But China is. While tariffs are President Donald Trump’s personal preoccupation, fears over losing an economic and cultural war (and possibly a real one at some point) with China is a worry that is shared broadly in the US, no matter what circles you travel in.

In my entire life, I’ve never met a single person worried about losing a cultural war with China.  What does that even mean?  Are we worried that Americans will give up Hollywood films and start watching Chinese movies?

As far as losing an economic war, that reminds me of the absurd claims in the 1980s that Japan would overtake us.  By the early 2000s, those Japanophobes had become widely ridiculed.  Have we already forgotten that fiasco?  Is America condemned every 30 years to engage in hysterical fears about the “yellow peril”?  What “circles” does this reporter travel in?  I could sort of understand talk of a military threat, although the threat is to Taiwan and some uninhabited atolls, not the US, but a cultural and economic threat?

As far as the first paragraph, is the author unaware that for many decades US companies have been banned from selling sensitive technology with military applications to countries such as China?  Yes, it’s difficult to decide exactly which technologies meet that definition, and undoubtedly a fair bit of useful stuff slipped through, but it’s simply false to claim that companies had complete freedom to sell technology to China.

And how about the logic here:

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, the fortunes of US companies and consumers are now fundamentally disconnected.

Let’s make the list even longer:

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having a democratic form of government does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, developing an internet does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having private private property rights does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having freedom of the press does not guarantee consumers will do well.

During Mao’s 27 years in office, China lacked a democratic form of government, private property rights, freedom of the press and an internet.

Therefore . . . ????

And BTW, American consumers have done fabulously well in recent decades, at least in terms of autos, TVs, phones, cameras, internet, entertainment choices, restaurant quality and choice, cheap clothing, etc., etc., etc.

PS.  I have a related post at Econlog.

PPS.  V.S. Naipaul, RIP.  Whatever you think of him, Naipaul had no patience for bullshit, from either colonialists or anti-colonialists.  I notice that his death is receiving relatively little attention in the mass media.  We lavish praise on warm and fuzzy people and shun those telling us things we don’t want to hear.  At one time or another, he said things that would annoy almost everyone (including me.)

 

The China that can say no

I’m not at all a fan of the Chinese government, especially Xi Jinping.  But I do wish the best for the Chinese people, so I’m offering some advice in this spirit.

Right now the Trump administration is pressuring China on a number of fronts.  I believe that China is in a far stronger negotiating position than many people realize, perhaps stronger than they realize.  Here are some factors to take into account:

1. China is a huge country.  It has the world’s biggest economy and the gap with the US gets wider every year.  It has more than 4 times the US population.  It does far more trade than any other country.  Its current account is approaching balance.  Trade with the US is a small share of China’s GDP.  The US does have a big military advantage, but that’s of no use in trade negotiations.

2.  It’s true that China has a large trade surplus with the US, but that cuts both ways.  We could hurt China by cutting off Chinese imports, but that action would hurt the US just as much.  Imagine consumers showing up at Walmart or Target and finding no Chinese goods—the shelves would be almost empty.  Now imagine Walmart’s buying manager calling up their Indian purchaser, and asking how long it will take India to make up for the lost output from just the Pearl River delta.  A decade?  Two decades?  Are American consumers that patient?

3.  The Chinese people have been through much greater hardship than the American people, and are much better positioned to survive the unpleasantness of a trade war.  (BTW, the greater Chinese tolerance for hardship has been noted by historians going way back in history.)  In addition, Trump has little support for his trade war in either the Democratic or Republican Party leadership, whereas the Chinese government is more unified. Trump may lose the House in November, and has to think about the 2020 election as well.  The Chinese should delay, delay, delay. Time is on their side.

Overall I think it’s in China’s interest to stand up to Trump.  Bullies like Trump tend to be cowards, who back down when someone actually puts up a fight.  If the Chinese do want to grant any concessions, they might consider lowering a few trade barriers, which would actually help China and thus not really be a “concession” at all.

What about Chinese rules that force foreign companies to provide intellectual capital as a pre-condition for entering the Chinese market?  It’s hard for me to get worked up about this issue, for a number of reasons:

1. The US does far worse things, such as putting extreme sanctions on companies that do business with Iran, even if those companies are located in countries that have perfectly good relations with Iran, and who support the Iran deal along with 90% of the rest of the world.  The US is a big bully that tries to force the whole world to do as we do.  We also bully smaller countries like Canada in international trade disputes, often ignoring our own agreements.  We are the last people who should be criticizing China for not playing by the rules.

2.  One can make a good case that it’s efficient for foreign companies to be forced to transfer technology to China. Intellectual property laws are too restrictive, and the benefit of the technology to the 1.4 billion people in China probably far exceeds the cost to the companies and their stockholders.  And who are we to complain about a country using its size to get its way?

From a fairness perspective, keep in mind that China’s size is a disadvantage in international trade.  China contains by far the most homogenous large population anywhere; indeed there is nothing else on Earth like the 1.26 million billion strong Han ethnic group.  This means that China is constantly suffering from disadvantageous terms of trade whenever it goes into a new industry.  In contrast, Switzerland can specialize in a few industries without driving prices down to rock bottom.  So from a “fairness” perspective, the forced technology transfers merely offset the huge disadvantage China faces in trade due to its massive size and homogeneity.  (This homogeneity is a gold mine for US corporations—why shouldn’t they have to “pay to play”.)

(It would be different if the job skills in various Chinese regions were as diverse as in Europe, but they are not.)

I didn’t even mention other possible Chinese advantages, such as their strong authoritarian dictatorship, because I’m not convinced dictatorships actually do have more power.  However, others might cite that factor.

PS.  Several commenters asked me about an article claiming that the Chinese thought Trump was a formidable negotiator.  Here’s how I responded:

Trump’s been in office 18 months and done an amazingly bad job of negotiating.  For instance, he desperately needed McCain’s vote to repeal Obamacare, and instead mocked the fact that he was captured by the North Vietnamese (where he was tortured.)  Is that how smart negotiators win people over to their side?  He gave N. Korea the recognition it wanted and got nothing meaningful in return.  He tore up the Iran agreement and failed to negotiate anything better.  The EU president ran circles around him in yesterday’s agreement.  Putin made a fool of him.  He blabbed out top secrets to Russian officials in a White House meeting.  Where is the evidence that he’s a good negotiator?  I know; it’s all a secret master plan that only a select few can understand.

I’m guessing that a few of these glowing comments from the Chinese are a tactic to butter Trump up so that they can more easily use their vastly superior negotiating skills to run circles around him, just as Juncker did yesterday.