More tariffs on Vietnam would be great news for China

There is a clear consensus with regard to the fact that Vietnam has been one of the economic success stories of recent years.

The country has witnessed robust economic growth (GDP growth rate for 2018 was estimated at 7.15%, while the growth rate for 2019 is estimated at 6.6%) and has been successful in poverty reduction. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for the first five months of 2019 reached a four year high of over $16 billion (a year on year increase of over 69%).

If one were to look at a sectoral break up of the FDI, manufacturing and processing came right on top, receiving over $10 billion.

US appreciation for Vietnam’s economic achievements

US President Donald Trump, who recently imposed tariffs on steel imported from Vietnam, stated at the APEC CEO Summit in 2017 that:

Today, an opening Vietnamese economy is one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth. It has already increased more than 30 times over, and the Vietnamese students rank among the best students in the world.

In 2019, on the sidelines of his Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the US President, while acknowledging Vietnam’s progress, stated that North Korea could emerge as another Vietnam if it denuclearized.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made a similar point while addressing a meeting of the US-Vietnamese business community in 2018.

Increasing FDI and factors which have contributed to it

It would be important to point out that FDI in Vietnam is also not restricted to any one particular region or city. While Hanoi (the Vietnamese capital), which drew well over $2.7 billion, and Bin Doung province in South Vietnam, are on top, North Vietnam too, is managing to draw significant investments. The shipping hub of Haiphong has witnessed significant economic growth since, after the imposition of US tariffs, a number of Chinese companies have shifted to the Shenzhen-Haiphong Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone.

Economic reforms (dubbed as Doi Moi) which began in 1986 have played a crucial role in Vietnam’s economic success. The main advantages which Vietnam has over its competitors are relatively low labor costs (though the country has witnessed a significant year on year growth in minimum wages between 2015 and 2019), increasing consumption as the result of a burgeoning middle class (currently 13% of its total population; it is estimated, by the World Bank, that in 2026 over one quarter of Vietnam’s population will be part of the middle class), and its geographical location.

Vietnam a beneficiary of the US-China Trade war and the CPTPP

Vietnam has benefited significantly from the US-China Trade war. A number of companies have shifted manufacturing operations from China to Vietnam, and others like Apple (which plans to shift anywhere between 15% and 30% of it’s iPhone production), Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, Nintendo, and Dell are likely to shift in a big way to Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian country is also gaining significantly by being part of the CPTPP. Exports to both Japan and Canada have risen significantly in the first quarter of 2019, if one were to look at the year on year figures.

US-Vietnam ties

In the past two decades ties between the US and Vietnam have improved significantly. The foundations were laid by Bill Clinton; during his first tenure, the Vietnam Foreign Ministry opened its office in Washington DC (1993), and the US State Department opened its office in Hanoi in the same year. Similarly, the US lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994. Vietnam also figured importantly in Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ and was part of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the US abandoned.

US President Donald Trump has given mixed signals on Vietnam. Trump has, though, referred to the geopolitical relevance of Vietnam, and it is for this reason that the US President articulated his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in Vietnam in 2017 (while speaking at the APEC CEO Summit at Da Nang).

In March 2018, U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited the port city of Da Nang for the first time since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. Former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis visited Vietnam twice in 2018, and reiterated on both visits the increasing relevance of the Washington-Hanoi relationship.

The fact that the US President chose Hanoi for his 2nd summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was significant not just in terms of symbolism, but also in sending a message that the Southeast Asian country was strategically relevant. During his visit in 2019, Trump of course praised Vietnam for its economic success, but a number of trade deals (Boeing inked a deal of over $12 billion to sell 100 planes to Vietnamese budget carrier, Viet Jet, for example) were also arranged.

Imposition of Trade Tariffs

As a result of trade wars, Vietnam’s exports to US have also witnessed a sudden rise. Exports for the period January-June 2019 rose 27.4% year on year. The US trade deficit with Vietnam for the first six months was estimated at $25.3 billion (in 2018, this was $40 billion).

US has recently imposed tariffs of 456% on certain steel products which were imported from Vietnam. According to the US Commerce Department, certain corrosion resistant steel products and cold-rolled steel which were supposed to be manufactured in Vietnam actually underwent only minor processing in the Southeast Asian country, but used substrate of Taiwanese and South Korean origin (duties on these South Korean and Taiwanese products had been imposed in 2015 and 2016 respectively).

Imposition of tariffs by the US is not likely to end here. There are strong indicators that the US could impose further tariffs on Vietnam, citing the reason that a number of Chinese goods are rebranded there to avoid tariffs (this is dubbed as transshipment). Trump had made some harsh remarks, including in an interview with Fox News:

Vietnam is almost the single worst — that’s much smaller than China, much — but it’s almost the single worst abuser of everybody.

It remains to be seen as to what impact the imposition of tariffs will have not just on Vietnam’s economy (the increase in bilateral trade and exports), but also on the bilateral relationship which has witnessed significant improvement due to the efforts of successive US Presidents. Vietnam’s growth and prosperity is also important from a strategic perspective, as it is one of the countries which has been strengthening defense ties with the US, Japan, and India. While Vietnam does have robust economic ties with China, it also has serious differences over the South China Sea (only recently, tensions between both countries had escalated when a Chinese survey ship and coastguard vessels had entered disputed waters near the Spratly Islands).

Conclusion

Vietnam provides a good lesson for many other countries. It has stuck to the basics, and so far has been very astute in balancing out economic relationships between China and other countries. Vietnam’s real test lies in how it deals with Trump’s unpredictability, and deals with the turbulence resulting out of Trump’s brash decisions. If the US President actually slaps more tariffs on Vietnam, not only will it have an adverse impact on bilateral ties and undo all the good work of previous US and Vietnamese administrations, but fissures between Hanoi and Washington will also have an adverse impact on efforts towards promoting a Free and Open Indo Pacific. On the other hand, Beijing, the biggest loser of the China-US trade war, would certainly not mind tensions between Washington and Hanoi (which has been a big beneficiary of the trade war).

Nightcap

  1. The missing backlash against finance Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. A contrarian take on the Trump tariffs Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
  3. Brave Nuclear World Emma Ashford, InkStick
  4. A classic in Persian literature is relevant again Joobin Bekhrad, Los Angeles Review of Books

A decentralized look at the U.S.-China trade war

For the time being, it is highly unlikely that the Trade war between Beijing and Washington will be resolved. In May 2019, Trump increased tariffs on Chinese commodities (worth $200 billion) from 10% to a whopping 25%. So far, the US has imposed tariffs worth about $250 billion on China, while China has retaliated with tariffs on US goods estimated at well over $100 billion.

It would be pertinent to point out that trade disputes have not been restricted only to Washington and Beijing. Imposition of tariffs has been a bone of contention with numerous US allies, including Japan.

Of late, trade issues have resulted in major differences between New Delhi and Washington. Even though there are convergences between both countries on numerous strategic issues, resolving the differences between both sides on trade-related matters is likely to be an onerous responsibility.

In response to tariffs imposed by Washington, New Delhi retaliated, and has imposed tariffs, estimated at $200 million, on 29 commodities (including apples, almonds, and chickpeas). India’s decision was a response to Washington’s decision to impose tariffs, of 10% and 25% on aluminium and steel, in May 2018. Last year, New Delhi refrained from imposing tariffs, but did raise import taxes on a number of US goods to 120% after Washington declined to exempt New Delhi from higher steel and aluminium tariffs. The key propelling factor for India’s recent imposition of tariffs was the US decision to scrap the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for India from June 5, 2019. India benefited immensely from this scheme, as it allowed duty-free exports of up to $5.6 billion from the country.

Pressure on Trump

Even though no solution is in sight, there are a number of lobbies in the US, especially trade groups and US businesses, which have been repeatedly urging the Trump Administration to find a solution to the current impasse with China.

Only recently for instance, 600 companies, including Walmart, in a letter to the U.S. President, urged him to resolve trade disputes with China, stating that tariffs were detrimental to the interests of American businesses and consumers. The letter was sent as part of the ‘Tariffs Hurt the Heartland’ campaign.

To underscore the detrimental impact of trade wars on the American economy some important estimates were provided. The letter stated that tariffs of up to 25% on $300 billion worth of goods could lead to the loss of two million jobs. Costs for an average American family of 4 would also increase an estimated $2000 if such tariffs were to be imposed.

Reports indicating the challenges to the US economy and FDI from Chinese companies in US

A number of surveys and reports illustrate the profound challenges which the US economy is facing, as well as a drop in FDI from China.

The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index also revealed a drop in consumer sentiment from 100 in May to 97.9 in June. This was attributed to trade wars between China and the US.

According to a survey released by the China General Chamber of Commerce USA, investment by Chinese companies in the United States has witnessed a significant decline since 2016 (including a sharp drop in 2018 and early 2019).

A number of important events have been held recently, where efforts were made to draw more Chinese investments to the US. One such event was the Select USA Summit. Speaking at the Summit, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated:

We welcome investment from any place as long as it’s investment that poses no challenges for national security.

US states and FDI

What was clearly visible at the Select USA Summit was the fact that a number of US states pitched for expanding economic ties with China, and drawing greater Foreign Direct Investment.

The state of North Carolina sought to attract investments in areas like IT, aviation, and biotech. The US headquarters of Lenovo are in the state of North Carolina. Trump’s trade wars have hit the state in a big way, and one of the sufferers has been soy bean farmers. As a result of a 25 percent imposition of tariffs, the price of a bushel of soy beans has dropped to $8, from $10 in 2018.

Other US states brought to the fore the impact of tariffs on their respective economies. According to a senior official from the state of Louisiana for instance, it has suffered immensely as a consequence of the imposition of tariffs. Agricultural commodities from Middle America to China are imported through export terminals in Louisiana. Don Pierson, the senior official from Louisiana, said that the agricultural economy of the state, as well as the logistics economy of the state, have taken a hard hit as a consequence of the trade wars. Pierson also spoke about the possibility of exporting LNG from Louisiana to China. Chinese companies in the state of Louisiana, which include Yuhuang Chemical Group (Shandong’s), have made major investments. Shangdong’s decided to invest $1.85 billion in a methanol production complex (this was one of the largest Chinese direct investments in US). Wanhua Chemical Group invested over $1 billion (1.2) in a chemical manufacturing complex in southeastern Louisiana.

A number of Chinese companies have also begun to realise that there is need to adopt a nuanced approach, and are still tapping certain US states for investment.

Another important event was the Select LA Summit. The Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Lenny Mendonca, chief economic adviser to the California governor, assured overseas investors of all possible support from the town of LA, as well as the state of California.

Impact of trade disputes and Washington’s stance vis-à-vis Huawei

US states and Chinese provinces have been at the forefront of improving economic ties between both countries. Both are likely to suffer as a consequence of not just the trade war between both countries, but also the US ban on Huawei. The tech company, according to a report published in 2016, contributes 7% of the GDP of the town of Shenzhen (Guangdong province). Affiliates of Huawei provide employment to an estimated 80,000 people, while a research facility in a nearby city of Dongguan, provides employment to well over 3,000.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is important for all stakeholders, not just businesses from both countries, to play their role in resolving economic and technological disputes between China and the US. It is also important for Chinese provinces as well as US states to play a pro-active role in reducing tensions. Both governments, while realising the importance of federating units, have set up official dialogues and set up other mechanisms for sub-national exchanges. It is important that these platforms now contribute towards reducing the divergences between both countries. While all eyes are on the political leadership of both countries, it is important to realise that the stakeholders in the US-China relationship are not restricted to Beijing and Washington DC.

Tariffs and Immigration

Pres. Trump announced yesterday (6/7/19), on returning from Europe, that the threatened tariffs against Mexican imports were suspended “indefinitely.” It looks like Mexico agrees to do several things to stop or slow immigration from Central America aiming at the United States.

Well, I am the kind of guy who, on learning that he has earned the Publishers’ Clearing House Giant Jackpot immediately worries about accountants, and about where to stash the dough. So, here it goes.

Mr Trump never did specify how much Mexico would have to do to keep the threat away durably. Two problems. First, if I were the Mexican government, I would worry about his moving the goalposts at any time.

Second, – and those who hate him won’t miss it – absent specific goals, Mr Trump put himself in a position to claim a (considerable) political victory no matter what happens next. To take an absurd example, if the number of migrants from Central America decreases, by 1% in July and August, he will be able to say, “ I told you so, my tariff pressures work.” As the French say, “ Why cut yourself the switches that will be used to whip you with?”

Part of the agreement reportedly, incredibly, includes a provision that those migrants who are waiting for their American formal court appearance will be allowed to so in Mexico, and be allowed to work there while they wait. This sounds amazingly unfair to Mexico. (I sure hope some significant money changed hands in the background on the account of his provision.) Mexican public opinion is not going to respond well to this feature if it understands it.

Another feature of the agreement is that Mexico will allow itself to be designated as a third and “safe” country. This has to do with ordinary international asylum and refugee agreements language which generally specify that an asylee or refugee may not chose his country of destination but must seek legal status in the first safe country he reaches. So, for Syrians, that would be Greece, or Turkey, rather than say, Germany, or Sweden. You know how well this provision worked out in Europe! Even more seriously, Mexico is not safe by any measure: The Mexican homicide rate is more than five times higher than that of the US – which is itself not low. (Wall Street Journal, 8-9 2019, p. A6). Imagine what it will be against an alien, vulnerable population.

As I write, Mexico is already deploying its National Guard on its southern border to impeach passage. This is a brand new force; it has no experience; expect accidents or worse. When this happens, it won’t play well with the Mexican public. The southern border of Mexico is short, only about 150 miles but still, the Mexican National Guard has only 6,000 members, total.

American conservative opinion remains badly confused about the facts of immigration in general. This, in spite of my own valiant efforts. ( See my “Legal Immigration Into the US” – in 37 short parts, both in Notes on Liberty and on my blog. Ask me for the blog’s name via jdelacroixliberty@gmail.com.) On Friday evening (6/7/19), in less than 30 minutes, I heard two different Fox News commentators refer to the migrants arriving in caravans from Central America and that are overwhelming our national processing capacity as “illegal immigrants.” That’s wrong. People who run after the Border Patrol to turn themselves in as a prelude to their claiming asylum are not illegal immigrants. There is nothing illegal about such acts, however you deplore them. And, in our constitutional tradition, nothing can be deemed retroactively as against the law. If we don’t like what the law currently produces, we must change the law. Period.

I used to hope for a wholesale, inclusive change in our immigration laws. I now think this is not going to happen in a bi-partisan manner because there are still many Dems who deny the obvious: We are currently facing an immigration crisis. If the plight of would-be immigrants held in overcrowded facilities or let loose in strange cities without resources, does not move their hearts, nothing will. I now think the administration should opportunistically seek piecemeal reform as may be facilitated by temporary situations. Big change will not happen until the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress, in addition to the Presidency. I believe that equivalent Dem control would not make immigration reform possible because there are too many liberal ideologues and too many Dem politicians who want open borders, for different reasons.

One more thing: Mainstream conservatives and some spoiled libertarians have been clamoring on the social media that tariffs are wrong, always wrong, wrong, no matter what. They point out rightly that tariffs are first and foremost taxes on the consumers of countries that impose them. I am myself completely persuaded of the merits of free trade as a means to maximize production. This does not prevent me from seeing that trade pressures, including the imposition of tariffs, can be used to extract advantages from other countries. In fact, I suspect such maneuvers may often be the best alternative to military pressure. In this case, and temporarily, I understand, Mr Trump’s tariff mano-a-mano with the tough leftist Mexican president, seems to have borne fruit. So, I would like the never-never–never tariffs people on my side to provide a rough estimate of how much this particular tariff action – against Mexico – may have cost American consumers, total.

Nightcap

  1. Populism and American political institutions Michael Zuckert, National Affairs
  2. The Fed’s shifting goalposts George Selgin, Alt-M
  3. Tariffs can be deflationary Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
  4. Rashida Tlaib and the allure of shiny objects Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists

Nightcap

  1. Hanukkah’s Celebration of Assimilation Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  2. How apartheid poisoned the world Peter Hain, Spectator
  3. A new understanding of human fragility and wholeness Stefanos Geroulanos, Aeon
  4. GM vs. Tariff Man Shikha Dalmia, the Week

Nightcap

  1. How a Huguenot philosopher realised that atheists could be virtuous Michael Hickson, Aeon
  2. Christian Pentecostalism has crept to the center of public life in Nigeria Ebenezer Obadare, Africa is a Country
  3. Last words about Nancy MacLean’s attack on James Buchanan Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber
  4. Are tariffs a big threat to China? Scott Sumner, EconLog

Eye Candy: Each (American) state’s biggest export trading partner

NOL map US state trading partners
Click here to zoom

Those tariffs will work wonders for the economy, I’m sure…

Midweek Reader: The Folly of Trump’s Tariffs

With stocks plummeting this week upon an announcement of retaliatory tariffs by China in response to a recent spate of steel and aluminum tariffs from the Trump administration, it seems a midweek reader on the situation is appropriate.

  • At the Washington Post, Rick Noack explains how Trump is going into unprecedented territory since the WTO was founded, and why existing trade norms probably can’t stem a trade war. A slice:

    But while China has used the WTO to accuse the United States of unfairly imposing trade restrictions over the last months, Trump does not appear interested in being dragged into the dispute settlement process. In fact, Trump appears to be deliberately undermining the legitimacy of that process by saying that his tariffs plan was based on “national security” concerns. WTO rules mandate that a member state can claim exceptions from its trade obligations if the member’s national security is at stake.

    That reasoning has long been a no-go among WTO member states, because they understand  that triggering trade disputes under a “national security” framework could eventually render the WTO meaningless.

  • Last month at the Chicago TribuneSteve Chapman had a good op-ed showing why Trump’s justification of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds is bogus:

    But putting tariffs on all imports to prevent dependence on China or Russia is like throwing away your library card to avoid bad books. It would make more sense to focus on the guilty countries rather than deploy a sprayer that also soaks the innocent.

    The national security risk is minuscule, though. Imports make up only one-third of the steel we use, and the Pentagon requires less than 3 percent of our domestic output. No enemy has us over a barrel, because we buy steel from 110 different countries.

    Most of what we import comes from allies and friends, including Canada, South Korea and Mexico, which would have no reason to cut us off in a crisis. If China stopped shipping to us, friendlier countries would leap to grab the business.

  • Also at the Washington Post last month, historian Marc-William Palen gives numerous historical examples of how nobody wins in trade wars and how they can threaten our national security by arousing populist resentment of the US abroad. A slice:

    The trade wars that followed the Republican passage of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised duties on hundreds of imports, similarly contain illustrative lessons for today. Canada responded with tariff increases of its own, for example, as did Europe.

    In a widely cited study from 1934, political economist Joseph M. Jones Jr. explored Europe’s retaliation. His study provided a warning about the trade wars that can arise when a single nation’s tariff policy “threatens with ruin” specialized industries in other countries, arousing “bitterness” throughout their populations.

  • At Cato’s At LibertyDaniel Ikeson explains how Trump’s tariffs establish a dangerous international precedent that will threaten US interests elsewhere:

    By signing these tariffs into law, President Trump has substantially lowered the bar for discretionary protectionism, inviting governments around the world to erect trade barriers on behalf of favored industries.  Ongoing efforts to dissuade China from continuing to force U.S. technology companies to share source code and trade secrets as the cost of entering the Chinese market will likely end in failure, as Beijing will be unabashed about defending its Cybersecurity Law and National Security Law as measures necessary to protect national security.  That would be especially incendiary, given that the Trump administration is pursuing resolution of these issues through another statute—Section 301 of the Trade act of 1974—which could also lead the president to impose tariffs on China unilaterally.

  • The Independent Institute’s Robert Higgs reminds us that citing trade deficits is misleading:

    In reality, individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments trade with other such entities, some of which are located in the same country and others of which are located in other countries. The location of the trading partners has no economic significance whatsoever. Trading entities enter into exchanges voluntarily, each one in each transaction anticipating a gain from the trade. Hence, in expectational terms, every such trade entails a gain from trade, or in other words an addition to the trader’s wealth.

  • At American Greatness, Henry Olsen tries to give a communitarian justification of protectionism:

    So-called populist movements around the world are gaining strength because their voters no longer feel like valued members of their nations. They do not believe their worth should decline because the owners of capital say so, nor do they think their life dreams or values should be denigrated simply because the most educated have different visions.

    Populists like Trump address this spiritual yearning and fulfill the deepest need every human has, to be valued and to belong to a group that values you. In this, and perhaps in this need alone, all men are truly created equal. Tariffs are simply an economic means to fulfill this spiritual need. Tariff opponents can only win if they first recognize this need and promise a more effective way to fulfill it.

  • At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan explains why communitarianism cannot justify protectionist policies:

    Second, if tariffs don’t actually succeed in helping these workers, then the symbolic argument falls flat. Imagine an artist said, “I’m so concerned about the plight of people living in tenements, I’m going to do a performance art project where I burn down all their homes and leave them on the street. Sure, that will make them even worse off, but my heart is in the right place, and I thereby express my concern for them.” This artist would be…a contemptible asshole.

  • Finally, given its relevance at the moment, it’s worth revisiting Paul Krugman’s classic essay “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” which remains the best account of why non-economist intellectuals have a hard understanding free trade:

    (i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

    (ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

Nightcap

  1. The global reaction to “America First” Brands & Feaver, War on the Rocks
  2. Putin’s new Cold War Lawrence Freedman, New Statesman
  3. The “borders” of Gaza Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  4. A difficult question on Trump’s tariffs Arnold Kling, askblog

Nightcap

  1. The working class, immigration, and the Left Kenan Malik, Guardian
  2. What if Trump wins the China IP dispute? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. The free speech dilemma Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
  4. A short history of the Mongols Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books

Trump’s personal game might work in China

In spite of all the economic and strategic differences between the US and China, personal relationships play an important role in bilateral relations between Washington DC and Beijing.

Trump’s Ambassador to China 

One of the first appointments made by US President Donald Trump was that of Terry Branstad as US Ambassador to China. The key reason was Branstad’s personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This began in 1985, when Branstad was Governor of Iowa, while Xi Jinping an official from Hebei was visiting Iowa. In 2011, Branstad visited Beijing, and met with Xi at the Great Hall of the People. In February 2012, when he was vice-president, Xi stopped in Muscatine, Iowa, where he met not just with Branstad but with big industrialists and farmers from the states.

The US President, commenting on the reason for appointing Branstad, stated:

Governor Branstad’s decades of experience in public service and long- time relationship with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders make him the ideal choice to serve as America’s ambassador to China.

During US President’s China visit in November 2017, Branstad, who shares a good rapport with Trump, did the groundwork for the visit. While in recent weeks tensions between both countries have escalated, with Trump imposing tariffs on Chinese goods worth $60 billion, the American president was delighted with the welcome he had received during his trip and had even told the Chinese President: “My feeling towards you is incredibly warm.”

It would be pertinent to point out that Trump’s decision to appoint Branstad as Ambassador to China (December 2016) came as a relief to the Chinese, given the fact that the US President took Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing Wen’s phone call, much to the chagrin of Beijing (since this went against established US policy).

If one were to look beyond the role of personal relationships in the very complex but important Beijing-Washington relationship, China lays a lot of emphasis on experience (educational, professional) in the US. If one were to examine the credentials of some of the top officials in Xi Jinping’s administration, US education as well as experience in dealing with economic issues pertaining to the US, has played a key role in some of the Chinese President’s appointments.

For instance, Liu He, whom Xi Jinping has appointed as a Vice Premier for overseeing the economy and financial sector, is US educated. Liu, who speaks fluent English, obtained a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University) in 1995. Apart from his in-depth understanding of the Chinese economy, Liu has also been involved in important discussions with US leaders.

Another significant appointment by Xi Jinping is that of Yi Gang, who has been named as Governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). Yi obtained a business degree from the Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Illinois, before moving to Indiana University at Indianapolis as a professor in 1986. He taught later at the Peking University in Beijing, before moving to the PBOC in 1997.

While economic and strategic issues are too complex to be driven by personal relationships or chemistry (though Trump seems to be a keen believer in personal chemistry given the emphasis he lays on individual ties) alone, an in-depth  understanding of the culture, politics, and economics of one’s interloctutors is especially handy. Given the current tensions between both countries over tariffs, this dynamic may prove to be especially useful.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Pakistan’s ambitious naval delusions
  2. Diplomatic assassinations have a long and tragic history
  3. When tyranny takes hold
  4. Nullification and secession in America (review)
  5. A liberal global trading system without the United States
  6. Floating exchange rates and tariffs

On 19th Century Tariffs & Growth

A few days ago, Pseudoerasmus published a blog piece on Bairoch’s argument that in the 19th century, the countries that had high tariffs also had fast growth.  It is a good piece that summarizes the litterature very well. However, there are some points that Pseudoerasmus eschews that are crucial to assessing the proper role of tariffs on growth. Most of these issues are related to data quality, but one may be the result of poor specification bias. For most of my comments, I will concentrate on Canada. This is because I know Canada best and that it features prominently in the literature for the 19th century as a case where protection did lead to growth. I am unconvinced for many reasons which will be seen below.

Data Quality

Here I will refrain my comments to the Canadian data which I know best. Of all the countries with available income data for the late 19th century, Canada is one of those with the richest data (alongside the UK, US and Australia). This is largely thanks to the work of M.C. Urquhart who recreated the Canadian GNP series fom 1870 to 1926 in collaborative effort with scholars like Marvin McInnis, Frank Lewis, Marion Steele and others.

However, even that data has flaws. For example, me and Michael Hinton have recomputed the GDP deflator to account for the fact that its consumption prices component did not include clothing. Since clothing prices behaved differently than the other prices from 1870 to 1885, this changes the level and trend of Canadian incomes per capita (this paper will be completed this winter, Michael is putting the finishing touch and its his baby).  However, like Morris Altman, our corrections indicate a faster rate of growth for Canada from 1870 to 1913, but in a different manner. For example, there is more growth than believed in the 1870-1879 period (before the introduction of the National Policy which increased protection) and more growth in the 1890-1913 period (the period of the wheat boom and of easing of trade restrictions).

Moreover, the work of Marrilyn Gerriets, Alex Chernoff, Kris Inwood and Jim Irwin (here, here, here, here) that we have a poor image of output in the Atlantic region – the region that would have been adversely affected by protectionism. Basically, the belief is a proper accounting of incomes in the Atlantic provinces would show lower levels and trends that would – at the national aggregated level – alter the pattern of growth.

I also believe that, for Quebec, there are metrological issues in the reporting of agricultural output. The French-Canadians tended to report volume units in manners poorly understood by enumerators but that these units were larger than the Non-French units. However, as time passed, census enumerators caught on and got the measures and corrections right. However, that means that agricultural output from French-Canadians was higher than reported in the earlier census but that it was more accurate in the later censuses. This error will lead to estimating more growth than what actually took place. (I have a paper on this issue that was given a revise and resubmit from Agricultural History). 

Take all of these measurements issue and you have enough doubt in the data underlying the methods that one should feel the need to be careful. In fact, if the sum of these (overall) minor flaws is sufficient to warrant caution, what does it say about Italian, Spanish, Portugese, French, Belgian, Irish or German GDP ( I am not saying they are bad, I am saying that I find Canada’s series to be better in relative terms).

How to measure protection?

The second issue is how to measure protection. Clemens and Williamson offered a measure of import duties revenue over imports volume. That is a shortcut that can be used when it is hard to measure effective protection. But, it may be a dangerous shortcut depending on the structure of protection.

Imagine that I set an import duty so high as to eliminate all entry of the good taxed (like Canada’s 300% import tax on butter today). At that level, there is zero revenue from butter import and zero imports of butter. Thus, the ratio of protection is … zero. But in reality, its a very restrictive regime that is not being measured.

More recent estimates for Canada produced by Ian Keay and Eugene Beaulieu (in separate papers, but Keay’s paper was a conference paper) attempted to measure more accurate indicators of protection and the burden imposed on Canadians. Beaulieu and his co-author found that using a better measure, Canada’s trade policy was 11% more restrictive than believed. Moreover, they found that the welfare loss kept increasing from 1870 to 1890 – reaching a figure equal to roughly 1.5% of GDP (a non-negligible social cost).

It ought to be noted though that alongside Lewis and Harris, Keay has found that the infant industry argument seems to apply to Canada (I am not convinced, notably for the reasons above regarding GDP measurements). However, that was in the case of Canada only and it could have been a simple outlier. Would the argument hold if better trade restriction measures were gathered for all other countries, thus making Canada into a weird exception?

James Buchanan to the rescue

My last argument is about political economy. Was the institutional arrangement of protection a way to curtail government growth? Protection is both a method for helping national industries and for raising revenues. However, the government cannot overprotect at the risk of loosing revenues. It must protect just enough to allow goods to continue entering to earn revenues from imports.  This tension is crucial especially since most 19th century countries did not have uniform general tariffs (like a flat 5% import duty) which would have very wide bases. The duties tended to concern a few goods very heavily relative to other goods. This means very narrow tax bases.

Standard public finance theory mandates wide tax bases with a focus on inelastic sources. However, someone with a public choice perspective (like James Buchanan) will argue that this offers the possibility for the government to grow. Basically, a public choice theorist will argue that the standard public finance viewpoint is that the sheep is tame. Self-interested politicians will exploit this tameness to be elected and this might imply growing government. However, with a narrow and elastic tax base, politicians are heavily constrained. In such a case, governments cannot grow as much.

The protection of the 19th century – identified by many as a source of growth – may thus simply be the symptom of an institutionnal arrangement that was meant to keep governments small. This may have stimulated growth by keeping other sectors of the economy more or less free of government meddling. So, maybe protection was the offspring of the least flawed institutional arrangement that could be adopted given the political economy of the time.

This last argument is the one that I find the most convincing in rebuttal to the Bairoch argument. It means that we are suffering from a poor specification bias: we have identified a symptom of something else as the cause of growth.