Stock markets and economic growth: from Smoot-Hawley to Donald Trump

In a recent article for the Freeman, Steve Horwitz (who has the great misfortune of being my co-author) argued that stock markets tell us very little about trends in economic growth. Stock markets tell us a lot about profits, but profits of firms on the stock market may be higher because of cronyism. Basically, that is Steve’s argument. He applies this argument in order to respond to those who say that a soaring stock market is the proof that Donald Trump is “good” for the economy.

I know Steve’s article was published roughly a month ago, so I am a little late. But I tend to believe it is never too late to talk about economic history. And basically, its worth pointing out that there are economic history examples to show Steve’s point. In fact, its the best example: Smoot-Hawley.

Bernard Beaudreau from Laval University has advanced, for some years, an underconsumptionist view of the Great Depression (I consider it a “dead theory”). While I am highly unconvinced by this theory (in both its original and current “post-keynesian” reformulation), Beaudreau tries hard to resurrect the theory (see here and here) and merits to be discussed. In the process, Beaudreau attempted to reestimated the effects of of Smoot-Hawley on the stock market with an events study. Unconvinced about the rest of his research, this is a clear instance of sorting the wheat from the chaff. In this case, the wheat is his work (see here for his article in Essays in Economic and Business History) on Smoot-Hawley.

Basically, Beaudreau found that good news regarding the probability of the adoption of the tariff bill actually pushed the stock market to appreciate. Thus, Smoot-Hawley -which had so many negative macroeconomic ramifications* – actually boosted the stock market. Firms that gained from the rising tariffs actually saw greater profits for themselves and thus the firms on the stock market would have been excited at the prospect of restricting their competitors. If that is true, could it be that Donald Trump is the modern equivalent (for the stock market) of Smoot-Hawley.

*NDLR: I believe that Allan Meltzer was right in saying that the Smoot-Hawley might have had monetary ramifications that contributed to the money supply collapse. It was a real shock that precipitated the collapse of weak banks which then caused a nominal shock and then the sh*t hit the proverbial fan.

From the Comments: Pushback in favor of Brexit

Dr Stocker‘s recent post arguing against Brexit elicited the following response from Chhay Lin in the ‘comments’ threads, and I think it’s worth highlighting in a post of its own:

Very well explained, Barry Stocker. Although it can be good for Britain to leave the EU, it entirely depends on how they go on from there. I am worried that Britain will move unto the path of less free trade which would be an erosion of the 4 freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. On the other hand, it seems to me that the EU was steadily moving toward greater centralization and harmonization of regulations that would decrease the competition between its member states and thereby becoming quite harmful. I think that the EU should have never had greater ambitions than the 4 freedoms with a European Court of Justice that would protect these freedoms. Now they can impose EU-wide tariffs and quotas against products from countries outside of the EU or they can impose EU-wide sanctions. Some harmful examples of the EU: the quotas on cheap Chinese solar panels and EU-wide sanctions against Russia. A wise independent Britain would have free trade agreements with countries within and outside the EU, but I’m afraid that too large a portion of the Leave supporters are hostile to immigration and open markets.

Chhay Lin has written more about Brexit, in Dutch, on his homepage and I do recommend you check it out.

Brexit, free trade, and the EU

I posted this on Facebook twenty hours before the results were known:

The United Kingdom will not leave the EU. If it does, there will be concrete talks of a trade agreement between the UK and the Union within a week. Free trade is the best part of the EU anyway. It may be the only worthwhile part. At least, it undeniably works. The EU has a free trade agreement with Norway and with Switzerland already. I don’t see it denying the UK, not even out of collective pique.

My guess (guess) is that the UK will have done the EU a favor by pointing out that much of the European Union’s bureaucratic, abstract, nebulous project is simply overambitious. The UK taught the world democracy and soccer (football). It can teach its European neighbors pragmatism.

Obviously, I called the referendum wrong. The mistake I made was to guess that people who were going to vote for staying were more likely to lie to pollsters than partisans of Leave. That would have given an underestimate for the “stays.” I should not have called it. I am not inside British culture enough to make this kind of guess. I shouldn’t have. I won’t again.

I am perplexed by some of the comments I heard all day in the US media. Perhaps as a result of a bit of psychological projection, American commentators state that anti-immigration sentiment played the main part in the victory of the “leave.” This may be the case; I don’t know enough to pronounce but I need to make a technical point that the pundits don’t seem to be completely aware of. Leaving the European Union can only lessen the flow of European immigrants into the UK: Polish (plumbers), Romanian carpenters, and tens of thousands of French citizens, at least. Since about one million Brits leave abroad and almost all in the EU, I see an exchange agreement in the making. Don’t you?

Leaving the EU will do nothing or nearly nothing to reduce the intake of immigrants of color and of Muslims. Those landed in the UK and continue to land there as a consequence of past colonial relationships. I say this because I suspect (I suspect; I don’t know) that Brits are more exercised about large numbers of dark-skinned Muslims than they are about fewer dishwater-white Catholic Poles. Call me a cynic!

Second technical point. Many of the American commentators I heard today, including those predicting Armageddon as a result of the British referendum, seem to have vague ideas about what the European Union actually is. It’s actually fairly complicated but I don’t excuse them. If they want to comment, they should do their homework. Anyway, the EU is first and foremost a free trade area and and free investment area. In this capacity, it works very well. I mean by this that any step backward would impoverish all Europeans to some extent.

I don’t see how British industry and British commerce can really face the possibility of meeting with tariff walls and other discriminatory treatments in a market of 27 countries until now wide open to them.

The Brits have two years to finalize their exit. I think (but I have been wrong before; see above) that they will say to the EU: We are leaving except that… we want to be included in your free trade and free investment area, like Iceland and like Norway. As I mentioned above, I also think they will want some mutual arrangement about citizens of the EU living in the UK and citizens of the UK living in the EU. I think there are going to be many rounds of negotiations around the theme: “We are leaving but…” It’s also possible that the most fervent Leave-ers will ultimately be satisfied with having made a rude gesture toward Brussels, the capital of the European Union. I am repeating (in fear this time) my prediction that the British referendum will cause the EU to reform itself. In fact, think it already has.

See also “Protectionism; Free Trade….” It was written for the intelligent uninformed.

Free Trade and Labor Market Displacement

A few days ago, I saw Noah Smith’s piece on free trade and why opening up with China may have yielded some undesirable results. In essence, his argument is that labor market adjustments have been slow. It created a small storm in the economics blogosphere. I wanted to reply earlier. I did not and I regret that. However, better late than never. So here are my three key reactions to the piece written by Smith (see his blog here).

  1. Slow labor market adjustments are not a cause of free trade: If anything, they are the results of a series of government intervention. Countries like Denmark, which may have large governments combined with fewer regulations on businesses, are very well able to adapt to free trade. The ability to start businesses is basically the ability to properly channel inputs towards more valued output. If you prevent an entrepreneur from doing just that while you open your borders to more efficient producers, it is quite obvious that free trade could be “less” beneficial. This point can be well seen in the role of states with “right to work (RTW) laws”. Although there is a debate as to whether or not RTW laws increase wages (James Sherk at Heritage says yes, the good people at the Employment Policy Institute say no and I say that both don’t get it, we should care about regionally adjusted real wage growth), it does seem that it helps industrial activity while boosting employment levels (see here too).  Unions would hinder adjustments to changes in trade patterns. In fact, its worth pointing out that of the 11 states that had RTW laws before 1948 – in only three of those states did the income share of the top 10% exceed that on the whole United States (see the data here) in 2013. While the entire country has seen an increase in income inequality, the RTW states have seen the share of all income of the top 10% increase by only 26% (1947 to 2013) compared to 42% nationwide. This suggests that RTW laws are probably helping workers adjusts to changes caused by free trade (otherwise, there would be a state-level increase in inequality). This finding seems to conform to large section of the literature on the links between RTW and inequality (here and here).  I am sure that if the Autor, Dorn and Hanson study (on which Noah Smith relies) was to be redone with attempts to control for right to work laws, the effect would be concentrated in non-RTW states. Thus, if the problem is labor laws, don’t blame free trade for the poor adjustments!
  2. Nobody said that free trade was “costless” to adapt to. I do economic history. I see cases of industries being protected for decades. Protectionism not only raise prices, but it changes relative prices between different inputs. It incites the adoption of an artificially profitable production method. It is profitable to do so, but it is by no means the most efficient approach. It was made profitable only by the artifice of regulation and duties. Once you eliminate that artifice by removing the barriers, you still have “time to build” problem and a need to change production methods. That takes time. However, governments are very good at making sure this takes more time than needed (see point 1)
  3. Trade agreements with China are not free trade agreements: this is the point I keep repeating (and the point that actually make Paul Krugman interesting), free trade agreements should normally fit on a napkin. If it takes 10,000 pages, it is free trade with 10,000 exceptions. Noah Smith should realize that he may be looking at a case of such “managed trade”.

That’s all folks!

Trade: Is Obama Right This Time?

I was hoping to sit this one out. I mean the multiple discords about the new Pacific trade treaty proposed by President Obama. I feel I need to lend a hand because there are good reasons to be confused. Plus, I taught international business for twenty-five years. My voice just might be useful this time. Here is my brief but adequate road map to the problem. I am deliberately staying away from nouns and initials because they do more harm than good.

Pres. Obama has an early draft of an international trade agreement with a large number of Pacific countries. Such agreements eliminate or lower trade barriers. So, first, they make it easier for economic actors from one country to buy a and sell things to economic actors from another country. That’s because all trade barriers are hidden taxes on consumers. They all raise prices above where they should be. Get rid of them, have more real income.

Second, the lowering or the elimination of trade barriers ultimately result in something almost magical: Economic actors stop doing what they are doing badly and start focusing on what they do well. Most items become less expensive and of better quality. Everyone benefits from this. I mean everyone in the world.*

International trade agreements do cause some to lose their jobs. They create many more jobs than they cause to disappear, however. But the loss is certain: After all, as soon as central American bananas are allowed into Canada, Canadian banana growers must lose their jobs, by and large. Incidentally, there have not been Canadian banana growers, as far as I know but you see what I mean: Canadians ought to concentrate on producing lumber, or refrigerators, or iron ore, almost anything but bananas.

The current trade project presented by Obama contains a $500 million clause to retrain at public expense those Americans who might lose their job as a result of the new agreement. This is nothing new. Previous trade agreements contained similar arrangements.

President Obama wants what is known as “fast track authority.” That’s the privilege to have the Senate vote a simple “Yes” or “No” on the final draft of the agreement with those many other countries. This is pretty necessary because if each government of each signing country has to go home and gather amendments and often, amendments to amendments, in the end, no agreement sees the light of day. It’s a practical thing, not a sinister ploy.

On the one hand, practically all previous presidents who signed international trade agreements had fast track authority. On the other hand there is a sturdy reason to deny Mr Obama fast track authority: He is a proven, extremely bad negotiator. On the third hand, the negotiations of such agreements are almost completely done by technical personnel who know their business. And, how likely is Mr Obama actually to get involved?

As I write, elected Democrats are all against everything involved because the unions think that every international trade agreement makes them lose ground. I think their perception is correct. Republicans are torn between their understanding of the world (which is more or less like mine) and their wish to give the president a black eye.

This is a small digest of a complex and interesting issue. I deal with it at leisure and extensively in nine installments on this blog. Each had the words “protectionism” or “protectionist” in the title. Again, those are installments; you may want to look at them in order. No test!

* Paradoxically, one of the best, clearest scholarly explanations of this magic – called comparative advantage – is by Paul Krugman. It’s from the days when he was not yet crazy. Bret Stephens in the WSJ 6/16/15 jogged my memory on this strange fact. It’s worth looking up Krugman, for once.

A Brief Glimpse into Autarky: Russian Edition

Libertarians loathe autarky (economic, and therefore political and cultural, isolationism), and for good reason. As Dr Delacroix puts it, economic autarky (protectionism) is the “royal road to collective poverty.”

The recent invasion and occupation of Crimea by the Russian state has led many observers to bring up the still unofficial ideology of the Kremlin these days. One part neo-imperialism and one part pan-Slavism, and mixed together with shards of religious conservatism, ecology (Russia has a long tradition of ecology that is distinct from the West, but still similar since it’s an idea and ideas tend to outweigh cultural and material differences in societies; our own Dr Znamenski is an expert on just this subject), and socialism, the Kremlin’s ideological glue is slowly being melded into something that resembles a Russian-led bloc that is completely self-sufficient from the West and culturally distinct from its trading partners on Russia’s China-led eastern border and its Muslim-led southern border.

If Moscow is trying to forge a society that is completely self-sufficient from the West, we have little to fear from such actions (I say ‘little’ because there is the possibility that such an order would end up like North Korea, and the irrational actions associated with Pyongyang would have a much bigger influence if transposed to a Moscow-led autarky; I don’t think such a scenario likely because of the sheer geographic size of the Russian state and its clients).

Here is a glimpse of what a self-sufficient Russia would like (thanks to the sanctions currently in place):

[…m]ore than 6,000 animals in Russia’s largest zoo have been caught up in the worst fight between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A wide-ranging ban on Western food announced this week by the Kremlin has forced a sudden diet change for creatures that eat newly forbidden fruit.

The sanctions against meat, fish, fruits and vegetables from the United States, the European Union and other Western countries were intended to strike a counterblow to nations that have hit Russia over its role in Ukraine’s roiling insurgency. But the measures will also have an impact on stomachs at the zoo.

The sea lions crack open Norwegian shellfish. The cranes peck at Latvian herring. The orangutans snack on Dutch bell peppers. Now the venerable Moscow Zoo needs to find politically acceptable substitutes to satisfy finicky animal palates.

“They don’t like Russian food,” zoo spokeswoman Anna Kachurovskaya said. “They’re extremely attached to what they like, so it’s a hard question for us.


None of the animals eat such a specialized diet that they will starve, she said […]

The Russian people are not worried, of course. The response to Moscow’s sanctions on Western food is one that hearkens back to history: The Russian people have been through worse times. This is nothing to them, and Putin is fighting a righteous war against an immoral West so the sacrifices are worth it.

WordPress was recently unblocked in Russia, so hopefully Evgeniy can offer readers some insights into the logic of the Russian street.

Bear With Me

I am neglecting this blog a little because I am putting together a new thin book of stories in French. It’s going to be called: “Les pumas de grande banlieue.” It means the “Suburban Mountain Lions.” At this point, it’s only for electronic publication.

Please, bear with me. I will be back. You might want to forage through my archives in the meantime. They are worth it. (My best blog work is probably behind me.)  I recommend especially my series of 8 or 9 essays on protectionism. They have lost no validity and they are especially intended  for the intelligent ignorant. They require no knowledge of economics or of economics jargon. I am also pleased with my few essays on fascism, a topical subject right now. They are addressed to the same kind of readers.

The hard, print version of my book in English: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography, is still not ready. It’s frustrating as well as embarrassing. (I won’t say why to protect the guilty.) It’s happening though. When I finally hold it in my hands, it will be a little bit like having a hot date at the tenth-year reunion with the girl you were lusting for in high school: Nice but not what it could have been.

Anyway, it will be for sale on Amazon and also available directly from me through my email when it’s ready ($17 plus $4 for posting).

The electronic version is on Amazon, Kindle only. It will be available for all reading devices July 30th.