How to *Really* Fix Massive US Trade Deficits

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/16/2017 04:58:00 PM
And the award for best trade villain goes to...
Trumpian idiocy is endangering perfectly good trade deals with Mexico and Canada [NAFTA] as well as with South Korea [KORUS FTA]. The anti-heroes here are two economic illiterates, the vulgarian ignoramus Donald Trump and his Reagan-era trade "enforcer" Robert Lighthizer. To them, the reason for massive US trade deficits is so easy to understand: other countries taking unfair advantage of "gullible" US leaders. For them, the golden age of America--when its manufacturing was strong--is just some kind of protectionist policy away:
For the administration, the core belief is that the trade deficit has caused widespread manufacturing job losses in the US and stagnant wages, which would be reversed by closing the deficit. The administration has set reducing the $64bn annual goods trade deficit with Mexico in particular as the main goal of the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement now under way. Mr Lighthizer, similarly, is pointing to a persistent bilateral trade deficit with South Korea as he seeks to renegotiate an agreement with Seoul that took effect in 2012. 
Economists possessing any intelligence, however, understand that massive US external deficits are more the products of the US dollar's unique position in the international monetary system and America's lack of savings. Once more, the US current account balance reflects a shortfall of savings relative to investment caused especially by government dissavings (expenditures far exceed income) and low household savings. In a highly integrated world economy, American firms which have become intertwined in global productions chains also stand to lose if Trump gets his way in walling off the US from international trade:
Anne Krueger, who served as the top US official at the IMF and as the World Bank’s chief economist, argues that the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency bears more responsibility for the current account deficit than any trade agreement. Also to blame, she says, are the US’s low savings rate and its persistent government budget deficits. The situation is made more complicated by the globalisation of supply chains, which has helped drive down the cost of complicated manufactured goods such as cars.

More than half of US imports are either parts or raw materials, making them crucial to exports. That means cracking down on imports — such as those of steel or auto parts — can hurt US manufacturers and exporters further up the value chain. “If we cut off our deficit with Mexico by cutting off imports of auto parts, then we’re going to be cutting off our own exports,” Ms Krueger says.
This "low savings" argument is well-known and is continually repeated by Stephen Roach. Krueger adds color to this argument by reiterating that, instead of blowing up the US budget deficit further with massive, unfunded tax cuts, Trump should aim to belt-tighten the government purse or--good heavens--raise taxes to narrow the external deficit:
If the trade deficit is the Trump administration’s primary concern, the better option, she argues, would be for Mr Trump and his administration to do the opposite of what they are planning to do and focus on incentives for consumers to save or to improve the US fiscal position — either by raising taxes, cutting spending or a combination of the two. Instead, the administration last week unveiled a plan for tax cuts that most economists expect to weaken the US fiscal position.

The frustrating reality for economists like Ms Krueger has long been that the politics of trade usually run counter to what they see as the obvious economic truths. But Mr Trump may be confronting a new lesson on the link between politics and economics. Nine months into his presidency his attempts to rewrite the rules of global commerce have done more to increase the US trade deficit than to cut it. And for that there may well be a political price.
It's the simplest of single-equation economics. Some people just don't get it...and probably never will.

Mexico, Screw Trump: Only Congress Undoes NAFTA

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 10/11/2017 06:41:00 PM
Mexico should put Trump and his protectionista Lighthizer in their place by getting the US congress to stop this idiocy.
I make no bones that I am far more sympathetic to Mexico than Trump's USA at the ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) "renegotiations." What US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is attempting to do is actually beggar-thy-neighbor masquerading as an "update" of NAFTA. Let's not mince words here: No self-respecting nation would agree to such one-sided stipulations--especially to replace ones that aren't so lopsided.

Among other things on the American negotiators' wish list:
  • A US proposal to protect its seasonal produce;
  • A sunset clause floated by the US that would kill NAFTA after five years unless the three parties renegotiated;
  • US insistence on using the pact to cut its $64.3bn trade deficit with Mexico;
  • US desire to see higher US [50%!] and North American content [85% from 60%], so-called rules of origin, in car parts
  • Also, a 5-year "sunset clause" if an extension is not successfully renegotiated
The last three are especially egregious for what is ostensibly a "free trade" agreement: Isn't the market supposed to determine where things are made by whom to sell to others? Moreover, why should a regional trade agreement have stipulations for minimum content from one country and not the others instead of having just regional rules of origin? Maybe they should rename it the NA4USAFTA if the Mexicans and Canadians are dumb enough to agree to such unfair giveaways. The sunset clause makes no sense to the others since it's only meant to facilitate piling on more stipulations favorable largely or solely to the US.

In short, the US wants the others to swallow "poison pills" that are thoroughly unpalatable for its benefit--the very definition of mercantilism. What, then, should Mexico do? I've written about the options it can use before, but also consider who will make the ultimate decision on behalf of the United States to leave NAFTA. That's right, it's not Trump but Congress according to international trade law specialist Joel Trachtman:
Many members of Congress work under the fundamental misunderstanding that the president has the power, on his own, to terminate NAFTA. They are unaware that under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, while the president is the negotiator and signer of trade agreements, he is not the “decider.” Power to approve, and to terminate U.S. participation in, trade agreements is assigned to Congress[...]

And yet, the Supreme Court has said, in the 1994 case of Barclays v. California, that “the Constitution expressly grants Congress, not the president, the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations.” If the president, acting alone, were to terminate U.S. participation in NAFTA, he would be imposing regulation on commerce, without congressional participation.
Having assented to these agreements, only congress can undo them. Indeed, the legislature should probably make it eminently clear to Trump that he should not pretend to be able to exit NAFTA using executive power:
While Congress can make specific delegations of powers to the president in the field of trade, it has steadfastly avoided delegating power to the president to terminate trade agreements. So there is little basis for an argument of implicit delegation by virtue of the inclusion in these agreements of clauses allowing the member countries to withdraw.

If President Trump proposes to give notice to terminate NAFTA without congressional approval, U.S. exporters, and U.S. consumers, and perhaps also U.S. members of Congress, should sue. Before we reach that point, Congress could pass legislation specifically denying the president authority to terminate these trade agreements, in order to avoid uncertainty. It has the power, and the responsibility, to do so. The Founders wisely determined that Congress, not the president, is the “decider” in the field of trade.
The Mexicans are right to lobby US firms with continental operations. However, they should also lobby lawmakers to assert their primacy on matters of undoing trade agreements. It is unlikely that a majority wound want to kill NAFTA, so Mexico should start the ball rolling in this respect, too. The Canadian President Justin Trudeau is doing so already even if his country has less to lose for reasons I'll discuss more in another post.

Aside from refusing to be force-fed Trump's s--t, they should appeal to those whose voice really matters for this issue.

Deport-o-Mania 3: Houston's (Non-)Rebuilding

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/10/2017 08:32:00 PM
Trump voters ain't gonna fix this destruction.
There's an insightful op-ed in the Washington Post on why Houston's rebuilding is well off-track. Simply put, there are not enough construction workers at the current time. With Trump's various immigration-unfriendly policies in progress, things aren't going to improve anytime soon. The net result is that instead of aiding the reconstruction of the United States' fourth-largest city, Trump is putting it off indefinitely.

Actually, there's plenty of capital sitting on the sidelines but not enough labor to get the construction work going. This is one industry where automation won't be of much help for the foreseeable future:
Even before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, 69 percent of Texas contractors had trouble filling jobs. Now, it’s estimated that 200,000 Houston homes will require work or complete reconstruction. Who will build these houses? What about the commercial infrastructure and public schools, highways and bridges that also sustained so much damage?
We go back to the same old problem: instead of ramping up immigration to help (re-)build America, the Trumpian set is busy doing the opposite:
One way to do that is to completely overhaul our broken immigration system. The last comprehensive reform was in 1986. Our visa system fails to match supply with demand. Congress must rebalance the numbers and even consider increasing legal immigration so we can attract all the workers we need — high skill, low skill and no skill. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in a recent op-ed, we can’t forget that the ability to work hard sometimes is the only skill a job requires.
The problem is that the likes of Trump and his supporters have the opposite perception: coloreds and other foreigners are "stealing" their jobs. The honest answer is, again, that gringos simply don't want to do construction work in sufficient numbers [1, 2]--otherwise you wouldn't have this problem to begin with. Ultimately, I do believe that Trump is setting the stage for lower potential US economic growth through these racist/protectionist measures.

Just wait and see as Houston remains literally underwater.

Euro Transport Consortia: First Airbus, Now "Railbus"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/09/2017 06:19:00 PM
They are the European champions, my friend. They'll compete with the Chinese till the end...
Despite the imminent [?] withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, its time being considered a part of it can count as a clear success in at least one respect: Its participation in the pan-European aerospace consortium Airbus has more than lived up to expectations. British Aerospace together with France's Aerospatiale as well as their German and Spanish counterparts combined to produce a European powerhouse in civilian commercial aircraft with the resources to compete with American titan Boeing yearly for top sales honors in this lucrative business.

More recently, we've had a "one good turn deserves another" deal with European railway manufacturers Alstom (France) and Siemens (Germany) attempting to become a "European champion" in mobility. As with most mergers among manufacturing concerns nowadays, this attempt to increase scale stems from trying to compete with the upstart Chinese. Enter "Railbus":
Siemens AG and Alstom SA are expected to sign off on a merger of their rail equipment activities to create a new European champion, according to Bloomberg News. A deal has appeal for the German and French companies’ shareholders but governance, antitrust and cost-cutting could yet disrupt the journey. While a combined entity would control only about 14 percent of the 110 billion euro ($130 billion) rail equipment market, according to my rough calculation, the footprint would be bigger in parts of Europe.
An interesting argument in favor of activist European antitrust authorities permitting the merger is that, well, the Chinese have already merged together another rail mega-conglomerate in CRRC:
So will Europe’s antitrust authorities block it? That depends. After the 2015 merger of two Chinese rolling stock companies, the new entity CRRC Corp. dwarfs its international peers. Rail Giants CRRC has won rail contracts as far afield as Chicago and Kenya and China’s Belt and Road initiative will bring yet more international business its way. The fear is that the Chinese company's size plus access to cheap finance will let it crush rivals unless they bulk up too. In absolute terms, CRRC spends seven times more on research and development than Alstom, notes Morgan Stanley.

But it isn't unbeatable, at least not yet. International customers accounted for only 8 percent of CRRC sales last year, when its railway equipment sales declined. The Alstom and Siemens train businesses have performed quite well in the meantime, as rapid urbanization spurs demand for less polluting mass transit.
The great game is on in railways as the Europeans vie for business worldwide with the Japanese and now the Chinese. As with more efficient forms of transportation, sustainability may be the ultimate victor here compared to relying on more polluting road and air transport.

Can US Stocks Rise Still Despite Buyers' Strike?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/02/2017 12:50:00 PM
Are companies flush with high-yield bond proceeds buying back stock no matter what?
There's an interesting article over at MarketWatch that brings up all sorts of questions about what really buoys the stock markets and who investors really are. The conventional understanding is that bonds--debt issued by corporations--move in the opposite direction of stocks since the former are regarded as relatively safer assets while the latter are riskier assets. However, bonds and stocks may not be coupled in this manner. Instead, large institutional investors, namely pension funds, tend to shy away from risky investments like equities. So, they buy high-yield corporate debt in large quantities. With many retirees to account for in the near future, they have few options nowadays:
Unlike so-called smart investors, who worry about fundamental influences including the economy, politics and even natural disasters, the nation’s public pensions trustees only care about one thing: “Their sole focus is on making 7.5% through the credit market,” [Cannacord's Brian] Reynolds wrote in a recent note to clients. “They are going to focus on that whether the economy speeds up or slows down, whether there is tax reform or not and whether the Fed raises rates more or has to bring them back down.”

As Reynolds explains, 7.5% is generally what pension trustees have to earn on assets to cover the gap between what pensions have promised to pay out and what they actually have. The general perception among pension trustees is that equities are too risky, and safe 10-year Treasury notes are currently yielding just 2.31%. And since their biggest worry is to not be too careful, pension funds have been gobbling up higher-yield corporate debt and credit instruments.

Through August, high-yield bond issuance reached $1.21 trillion, already just shy of the full-year record of $1.23 trillion in 2016, according to data provided by Fitch Ratings. Institutional leveraged loan issuance hit $1.07 trillion through August, already breaking the 2016 record of $973.1 billion. Assuming the pace of flows remains the same, the puts high-yield issuance on track to exceed $1.8 trillion and leveraged loan issuance to top $1.6 trillion.
Corporations issuing high-yield paper are therefore flush with cash from selling all this high-yield debt. For a long time now, many have chosen not to invest the proceeds, but rather buy back their shares on the open market. Therefore stock investors may understandably quit the stock market at these incredibly elevated valuations, but companies will continue buying back shares. It's said that "real" investors haven't been the main buyers of stocks since the end of the Great Recession, but rather companies buying back stock using bond sale proceeds:
Companies have used that cash to be the primary buyers during the current bull market, while what Reynolds described as the “main investors” have been net sellers. “Main investors” include mutual funds, insurers, hedge funds, households, foreign buyers, broker dealers, pension funds and exchange-traded funds.

Since the S&P 500 index hit its bear-market bottom in March 2009, it has soared nearly fourfold, even though “main investors” have sold a total of $9.89 billion worth of stock, Reynolds said, using Bloomberg data. That’s because the cumulative total of corporate stock repurchases has been about $3.2 trillion, he said.

And since the credit market has grown by $3.3 trillion since the credit crisis, Reynolds sees it as nearly a one-to-one correlation between the credit boom, share buybacks and the bull market.
I have my doubts about this version of events as to why stocks can thus keep rising indefinitely. Many of the gainers are not the sorts who issue boatloads of high-yield debt, but rather blue-chip corporations issuing investment-grade debt like components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average 30, the larger Standard and Poors 500 components, and giant tech stocks on the Nasdaq Index like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. If high-yield issuers were indeed the main beneficiaries, then you would expect smaller, less creditworthy companies to outperform large ones. However, that has not really been the case with the Russell 2000 index being outperformed by the aforementioned indices over this time frame.

It's food for thought, though, and shines a light on the role played by stock buybacks in buoying the market.