Don’t blame China’s leadership, blame America’s.

Robert Samuelson describes China’s trade policies as “predatory” and “mercantilistic”. Thomas Palley writes that “individual countries can strategically game the [international trading] system for their benefit at the expense of others. That is why the system needs rules and a spirit of cooperation… China has been admitted into the system but it is unwilling to play by the rules, in letter or spirit.” I agree.

But. China’s leadership has engineered the largest, fastest boom in all of human history, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. They have retained legitimacy and control over a fractious, nearly ungovernable nation, despite capitalist-democratic triumphalism that loudly proclaimed their style of governance a relic. They have advanced China’s national interest, and their own interest in clinging to power, brilliantly.

In doing so they have broken some rules. Well, knock me over with a feather. Nations play hardball with one another. When confronted with a choice — huge welfare gains for their citizens and huge personal benefits for themselves, or some genteel rules set by nations that have historically mistreated them — China’s rulers opted to look out for number one. Incentives matter. What would an economist expect?

I dislike China’s form of government, its authoritarianism, its brutality, its disrespect for liberty and free expression. But in terms of industrial and economic policy, the country is kicking ass and taking names. While it remains to be seen how sustainable its achievements are, China’s leadership deserves admiration more than condemnation for its trade policy. They have not played nice. They have done what nations do, and done it well. They have acted in their own, and their citizens’, self-interest.

The United States, on the other hand, has not acted admirably. Games, even the very high-stakes games played between nations, involve more than one player. It has been obvious for several years that China has been acting mercantilistically, that its government has been taxing workers to subsidize exports, undercutting American industry while buying political support in the US with easy credit and low, low prices. This has not been rocket science. Yet America has done nothing but mildly complain.

The United States needn’t have stood helplessly by and watched China cheat. It might have acted. No, it is not rampant American consumerism or any other mushy cultural deficiency that is to blame. Consumers in the United States have been quite rational, buying artificially cheap products offered with very generous financing. Demand curves are downward sloping. But when individually rational behavior adds up to collectively poor results, it is the job of governments to change the incentives.

The US government has always had it in its power to bring trade into balance. It has the power enact tariffs, grant subsidies, and control the flow of foreign capital. America’s central bank could “sterilize” all the excess credit provided by dollar-pegging exporters by selling US bonds and purchasing diversified portfolios of foreign debt. Even the credible threat of any of these policies might have persuaded China that it was more in its interest to “play by the rules” than to flout them. But the self-interest of the bought, combined with free trade as ideology, has prevented any of that from happening.

America’s large deficits can’t persist indefinitely. As Thomas Palley is right to note, America’s choices are “pay now, or pay more later.” Breaking America’s China “addiction” (as Paul Krugman put it) will be difficult. But it does need to happen, “the sooner the better.”

China is well on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy, and its growing prosperity has been earned, not stolen. The US need not, and ought not, start a trade war with China. There is no need to single out China at all. The United States should simply take policy action to get its own house in order. It should force its trade into overall balance quickly, and endure whatever pain and dislocation that will entail. There are many workable policy choices. (I remain partial to Warren Buffett’s proposal.)

In any hopeful future, the United States and China are both large, vibrant economies, and good friends. Culturally and commercially, China and the United States have a great deal to offer one another. China has played rough. So what. The US should congratulate China for its successes thus far, and wish it the best in the future. At the same time, policymakers should make clear that the rules of the game have changed, and that while America eagerly embraces globalization and interdependence, it will not accept asymmetrical relationships of dependence. Even if that means violating some rules of “free trade”.

Thanks to Mark Thoma for calling attention to the Robert Samuelson and Paul Krugman pieces.

Ricardo vs. Markowitz

Economics has its founding fathers, like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. If list of greats were compiled for finance, Harry Markowitz would number among them. Markowitz helped invent Model Portfolio Theory, a mathematically elegant approach to optimizing investment portfolios that considers not only how well one expects investments to do, but also how certain one is of ones judgments, and the typical inter-relationships between “surprises” in different investments.

Markowitz’s theory of investment and Ricardo’s theory of trade are meant for very different domains, but the contrast between them is striking. Ricardo teaches that nations should determine their comparative advantage, and specialize in that, trading for what they do not produce most efficiently. Markowitz suggests that investors beware the temptation of specialization, and diversify even into apparently inferior investments to limit risk. Both are revered. What explains the difference?

Nations, after all, are investors, in the aggregate. Specializing in manufacturing or software or wine or cloth entail vastly different portfolios of fixed structures and human training. And investors, like nations, have comparative advantages. Consider a venture capitalist, or an “angel” investor. Each faces different investment opportunity sets, determined by who they know and the localities or domains in which they invest. Every investment has an opportunity cost (the expected return on other investments). Using return estimates alone, most investors would find that choosing one or a very few investments would uniquely maximize expected return, net the cost of foregone opportunities. The situation of a nation that can trade for what it does not produce is broadly similar to that of an investor, for whom a high return in a software venture yields specie that can be used to purchase food, shelter, and yachts. (The no-trade analogy would be an investor whose profits at a stocking factory would have to be taken in the form of inedible socks.)

So, should nations and investors both specialize? Or both diversify? Or should they behave differently, and if so why? From an investment perspective, the question would turn on two considerations, uncertainty and the optimal locus for diversification. Uncertainty is the easiest factor: An investor who can perfectly predict the real returns on investments should absolutely not diversify, even under Markowitz’s theory. Ricardo took the comparative advantages — that is the relative investment returns — of nations as fixed and given. Under these circumstances, Markowitz would agree that specialization is the way to go. But how good are nations, really, at knowing their comparative advantages? And even when they choose correctly, how likely is it that changes in circumstance or random surprises render judgements inaccurate? The greater the uncertainty, either of estimation or environment, the greater the case that nations should diversify.

A second question hinges on who is best placed to diversify. In the 1960s, it became fashionable among corporations to form “conglomerates”, large groups of unrelated businesses held under a single corporate umbrella. There were a bunch of rationales for this, including the ability of subsidiaries to raise capital internally, economies of scale in shared functions, and the market and political power associated with size. But one important motive for conglomeration was Markowitz’ portfolio theory. It was argued that a diversified firm faced fewer risks than a specialized one, since when one industry was fairing poorly, other business units might do well to make up the difference.

Conglomerates are no longer fashionable. Investors rejected the case for corporate diversification, because they were perfectly capable of diversifying themselves. Why should MegaCorp include unrelated businesses A, B, and C, when an investor can divide her own portfolio between stock in A, B, and C? In fact, MegaCorp’s diversification harms the investor, because the investor loses the opportunity to customize exposure to A, B, and C according to her own circumstance and expectations.

Unfortunately, most citizens can’t hedge their exposure to nations in the way that investors can diversify investments in firms. This is a strong argument in favor of diversifying at the national level, even when it cuts against maximizing comparative advantage.

There are a several ways that nations may be different than investors that buttress the case for national specialization. Investors choose their investments according to flawed analytical processes, and make mistakes. When a capitalist economy specializes under open trade, it is a vast market that decides in which fields to specialize, what factories to build, what competences to educate. Perhaps owing to “the invisible hand”, “the wisdom of crowds”, or whatever, market economies make such better choices than private investors that there effectively is no uncertainty. The market always chooses correctly, so specialization is the optimal choice. I find this argument unpersuasive, both because I think markets can be short-sighted and mistaken, and because I believe in irreducible uncertainty that no predictive institution can overcome. Another difference between nations and ordinary investments is that national investment has dynamic effects. When a nation begins to specialize in, say, electronics manufacturing, economies of scale and network effects kick in that serve to magnify any original advantage the nation had in that field, and turn the investment into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. This, I think, is a quite reasonable point. But the difference between investors and nations can be drawn too starkly. A venture capitalist or angel investor also works, post-investment, to advise firms, to recruit good people, and to create connections between complementary firms. But these kinds of investors still do diversify.

If one buys the case that nations are like investors, and that investors ought diversify in an uncertain world, what does that mean in practical terms? It depends. It might mean nothing. Perhaps the ordinary functioning of national markets produce sufficiently diversified national portfolios on their own, in which case all is well and good. But it does suggest the possibility of market failure. If national investment is skewed or concentrated in some fashion whose future performance (relative to other possible portfolios) is uncertain, public action to promote diversification might be reasonable.

“Industrial policy” is unfashionable, and it is of course true that political processes are flawed and corruptible. The case I’ve made opens the door for rent-seeking operators to seek government handouts in the form of “diversification subsidies”. Any policy based on this argument would have to be designed with great care. Nevertheless, that chemotherapy is poisonous does not imply that cancer does not exist.

Note: While David Ricardo long ago joined Zeus on Mount Olympus, Harry Markowitz, whose work I much admire, is a living, active scholar. The views expressed in this essay are entirely my own, and if I seem to have put words in Harry Markowitz’s (or David Ricardo’s) mouth, I do apologize.

Update History:
  • 06-May-2007, 02:41 p.m. EDT: Neurotically transposed he words “hedge” and “diversify” in a sentence. Also changed a “diversification” to “diversifying”.
  • 08-May-2007, 11:12 p.m. EDT: Changed “approach for” to “approach to”. Grrr.

Gabriel Mihalache on Trade

Though it may come as a surprise to some readers, my aesthetic predilection is towards libertarianism. My politics, alas, have moved beyond pure principle, and are now hostage to the messy business of outcomes, the management of which is, of course, anathema to perfect liberty. Nevertheless, I wish I could agree with this piece by Gabriel Mihalache. Gabriel writes an eloquent statement of the principled libertarian position. His candor is refreshing, about the philosophy, the politics, and the economics of trade. I don’t agree with him. But reading the piece made me homesick. Here’s a taste:

The knee-jerk, crypto-utilitarian reaction is to ask if [trade] improves the life (of the community?) on the net. (Isn’t it magical how “on the net” solves all conflicts between members of the same community?) But that’s not my thing. Any such calculus is philosophically suspect and highly conjectural at best.

A more robust alternative is to ask ourselves… by which interactions do these changes in welfare, the focus of so much debate, come about? And the answer is simple: by a “reshaping” of the decentralized, free trade pattern. Old contracts/associations are simply not renewed, new ones are created.

The “losers” from free trade lose because they can’t get the same trading terms they used to get. Others are no longer willing to associate with them under the previous terms. Is this legitimate? Yes. It’s the basic definition of the freedom of contract, which implies not only the freedom to draw and enter into contracts, but also to choose not to do so (anymore).

Hence, all trades and changes in trades/associations following the opening of borders are legitimate actions. There are no guilty parties. On the other hand, keeping borders closed is a direct violation of the freedom of association.

Innocent free men should not be subjected to coercion and persecution if they choose (not) to associate with foreigners and fellow countrymen alike. This is a basic political principle of any nation that calls itself free, at least in spirit, if not in letter also, but never in practice, it would seem.

Trade is a simple issue. Basic human decency, not to speak of the spirit, if not the letter, of contemporary constitutions demand it.

Is free trade without compensations Pareto inefficient, in the sense discussed here? Yes! But so is breaking up with your girlfriend, quitting your jobs or changing your favorite shop. So what? The Pareto & compensation criteria are at best dubious politics and at their worst, a cheap excuse to obfuscate and obstruct the issue of free trade.

Update History:
  • 05-May-2007, 10:23 1.m. EDT: Fixed embarrassing use of “principal” where I meant “principle”…

Are the benefits of trade still diffuse?

There’s a classic argument on the politics of trade that goes something like this: Free trade creates net wealth, but there are winners and losers. Unfortunately, the winners tend to be large, disorganized groups of people, each of whom gain just a little, while the losers are powerful, politically connected industries who face very serious disruption from overseas competition. Think of the automobile industry. International trade in automobiles has benefited consumers remarkably, but when the Japanese began to make inroads in the US market, domestic auto manufacturers put continual pressure on the government to keep foreign firms at a disadvantage. The public is easily misled — a consumer might like the fuel efficiency of her Corolla, but against thousands of autoworkers with families like hers, whose jobs are in jeopardy on her television, support at the ballot box for a large government subsidy to the local firm (what Chrysler got, in the form of below-market-rate credit) seems a small price to pay.

But arguments are not theorems. They must change with the times. Today, in the United States, who would be the biggest loser should, for example, the government enact restrictions designed to force trade towards overall balance? Diffuse, disorganized groups of consumers certainly would lose; imports would cost more and buyers could afford less. But do we know of anyone else who profits from consumers’ enthusiasm for buying imported goods at “everyday low prices”? Walmart is, by any measure, a much larger company and much more powerful force in today’s American economy than GM or any other import-competing titan.

Current patterns of trade have created huge trade surpluses in several export-focused economies, which in turn have been lent back to the United States on very favorable terms. The US financial industry is booming despite a tepid overall economy, thanks to leveraged private equity deals and a hedge-fund boom that churns out billionaires like butter. What’s the secret sauce? Ask any player, they’ll tell you: Liquidity, abundant easy credit on terms that seem to make no sense, from the lender’s perspective. Where is all this easy money coming from? From overseas trade surpluses. Who would lose if this flow of capital were to be curtailed? Again, there’d be some diffuse harm: Many Americans’ 401-Ks would take a hit. But are there are maybe some large, politically-connected actors profiting from this firehose of foreign capital? Where was it that the United States’ current treasury secretary was plucked from? Walgreens? No, that’s not quite right.

Wall Street. Wal-Mart and Wall Street. Those are the diffuse, weak, politically inept actors benefiting from current trade arrangements. We’d better be very careful to be sure someone stands up for them. Don’t forget the little guy.

This harangue is inspired by Tyler Cowen, who was kind enough to give interfluidity a plug yesterday. Interfluidity has been flowing all over Tyler and Marginal Revolution for years, in a good way. (We hope that’s not too gross). For more on how trade flows get recycled into capital flows, read Brad Setser until your head explodes. In a good way. (Okay, we admit that’s just a little bit gross.)

Two Cheers for Bernanke’s Speech on Trade

I was thrilled to see that Ben Bernanke’s speech today (here, courtesy of Mark Thoma) addressed the trade deficit, and whether trade imbalance might bear upon the case for international trade:

Although many readily accept that balanced trade does not reduce aggregate employment, some might argue that the United States’ current large trade deficit must mean that the number of U.S. jobs has been reduced on net. However, the existence of a trade deficit or surplus, by itself, does not have any evident effect on the level of employment. For example, across countries, trade deficits and unemployment rates show little correlation. Among our six Group of Seven partners (the world’s leading industrial countries), three have trade surpluses (Canada, Germany, and Japan). However, based on the figures for February of this year, the unemployment rates in Canada (5.3 percent) and in Germany (9.0 percent) are significantly higher than the 4.5 percent rate in the United States; and Japan’s unemployment rate, at 4.0 percent, is only a bit lower.7 Factors such as the degree of flexibility in the labor market, not trade, are the primary source of these cross-country variations in unemployment.

Though I found much to quibble over in Bernanke’s very orthodox defense of trade, this one paragraph made the whole speech worthwhile. I do agree with it. There’s no reason to think that unbalanced trade should have any effect on unemployment rates. But that’s not why I was so pleased. I was excited just to see the question of imbalance addressed, to see America’s huge trade balance actually grappled with in a major policy speech on trade. So often the fact of persistent imbalance is just ignored, maybe mentioned with a quick cough, but let’s move on and pretend we are all living in some Ricardian paradise.

Perhaps in future speeches, Bernanke could address the trade imbalance and its effect on the character of domestic investment — that is, whether persistently unbalanced trade results in a skewing of physical and human capital out of tradable sectors. He might touch upon how these dynamic effects bear on the United States’ future ability to repay its growing international debt with real goods or services. In his role as Fed chief, Bernanke could comment on whether managing the sizable debt associated with unbalanced trade might someday require a more accommodative monetary stance than would be expected under inflation targeting. (This would be a good opportunity to celebrate the US central bank’s famous dual mandate!)

Bernanke could discuss housing and asset bubbles, and future price volatility should patterns of international capital flow change or Americans become more reluctant to increase their debt load. With respect to employment, Bernanke could muse on whether and to what degree unbalanced trade affects wages, if it does not affect unemployment rates. He might offer some insight on whether the combination of sluggish wage growth, low tradables prices, unusually easy credit, and booming financial markets — all related to current trade patterns! — have anything to do with declining labor force participation in the United States.

It could happen. A boy can dream, can’t he?

So two cheers for Ben Bernanke, and his speech today on trade. May it be the first of many.

p.s. Bernanke deserves a full three cheers for a famous speech several years ago. His suggestion of a “global savings glut” was a profoundly useful contribution to the conversation on globalization and international trade. It’d be great to see a follow-up on why it is or ought to be the United States that does the world the service of accommodating that glut, and what if any limits there are or ought to be on America’s willingness to borrow the world’s copious savings.

Morality, Nationalism, Trade, and Debt

Alex Tabarrok has a very nice post on the morality of trade. You should read the whole thing. It is concise and artful. Here’s a taste:

Peter and Jose [individuals who desire an exchange] presumptively are better off from trade otherwise they wouldn’t trade so the individualist economist (the economist who takes Peter and Jose as the relevant moral community) will support free trade. The liberal internationalist will also support free trade because there is a strong argument from positive economics that trade increases total wealth (comparative advantage, specialization, competition etc.).

In between, we have the nationalist economist for whom it depends. The case for trade for the nationalist economist is pretty good – after all the individuals involved benefit and the world benefits – so the case is reasonably strong that Peter and Joe [a co-national of Peter] taken together will also benefit especially if we consider many trade pacts on some of which Joe benefits directly. Nevertheless, Rodrik is correct that when you exclude Jose it is possible to come up with examples where Joe’s losses exceed Peter’s gains.

I would argue, however, that economists are too quick to take the nation as the relevant moral community. It is quite possible, for example, for Peter to benefit from trade but for Peter’s city to be harmed, for Peter’s state to benefit but for his region to be harmed, for his country to benefit but for his continent to be harmed… Indeed, geography is not the only way we can define the moral community. Why not ask whether English speakers benefit from free trade or Christians or left handed people?

Here are a few responses:

1) How certain are we that “the world” benefits from free trade?

Alex writes, “The liberal internationalist will also support free trade because there is a strong argument from positive economics that trade increases total wealth (comparative advantage, specialization, competition etc.).” That may usually be true, but if the claim is that a liberal internationalist will always support free trade, it is false. The whole point of the current debate is to suggest caveats to that “strong argument from positive economics that trade increases total wealth”. Those of us saying that “free trade” is not always good don’t just mean that it is not always good for every country. There are circumstances in which it might reduce welfare for nearly everyone.

Here’s an extreme example, but it does illustrate the point. Suppose a person who dislikes New York has enough money to purchase an atomic weapon and a delivery system. Suppose there is an actor (friend of dictator?) with the legal ability to sell a weapon, and who doesn’t much mind what happens to New York. It is difficult to say precisely what the result to the world will be from this free exchange, but I think we can mostly agree that it will be bad, for almost everyone, although the two parties to the exchange might come out pleased. We, reasonably and uncontroversially, make an exception to “free trade” with respect to exceedingly dangerous weapons. But none of the standard models or strong arguments of economics addresses this case. There is no algorithm we can use to quantify, “yes, this trade is welfare increasing” or “no, this trade is bad” when, in the lingo, large externalities exist.

Externalities exist in more normal cases. Recent trade-skepticism in developed economies has largely to do with unbalanced trade. Persistently unbalanced trade involves creating debt, that is uncertain promises of providing goods and services in the future in exchange for goods and services today. Any trade involving debt creates the risk that the debt will not be satisfied, in which case the parties to the trade themselves (who may be more than two) lose in the aggregate. But more importantly, when debts are repudiated or means of payment devalued, there can be large negative externalities for parties uninvolved in the original exchange. Credit risk is much like pollution, and presents challenges to libertarianism and standard arguments for trade.

Standard arguments for trade are undermined by debt in yet another way. Most models of trade, from Ricardo on down, presume that economies will specialize in producing the tradable goods for which they have comparative advantage. We make cheese, they make chocolate, and the world benefits from more of both. Empirically, this assumption fails to hold, at least over the medium term. The “strong argument from positive economics” really has nothing, and certainly nothing good, to say about the case when they make chocolate and we make debt.

There are circumstances under which “the world” will not benefit from free trade, particularly credit-based free trade.

2) Are nation-states more relevant than other groupings as determinants of human welfare?

I dislike tribalisms, including nationalism. In Alex’s story I’d be a “nationalist economist”, but in reality I’m neither. Frankly, under this prickly skin I’m a utopian who’d prefer to see all borders disappear.

But we’re not there yet. In this real world, doesn’t the welfare of nations have more to do with well-being than ones city, handedness community, even religion or ethnicity? It sucks that Ohio is suffering economically, but the barriers preventing an Ohioans from moving to Silicon Valley are far less than those holding back a Bangladeshi. In the United States, there is not (and I hope there doesn’t come to be) the level of ethnic cohesion and the sort of institutions that would allow for coercive policy at an ethnic level to be plausible and effective. If there were, we would have to deal with that.

Suppose left-handers and right-handers really did segregate, cohere, and belong to distinct political organizations with the power to compel compliance among members. Suppose the right-handers organized very carefully, and policed group behavior very strategically, in order to maximize the welfare of right-handers regardless of any effect on lefties. Would it necessarily be a good strategy for left-handers to ignore those facts, and pretend group identity doesn’t matter? It might be, depending on the behavior of the cohesive righties. More probably it would not be. It is a game-theoretical matter that demands analysis, not an ideological or moralistic claim about what would be best.

Again, in my dreams, I would like to see nation-state politics become as hypothetical as handedness wars. But ignoring the actual relevance of nation-states, or failing to act strategically within some nation-states while others behave very strategically, is not a solution. Nation-states will not disappear just because we might will them to do so, and the interests of real people who live in nation-states will not be improved my merely pretending they don’t matter.

Update History:
  • 30-Apr-2007, 1:02 p.m. EDT: Made a few minor changes and grammatical fixes. Modified response to the first question to conclude in terms of “the world” rather than liberal internationalists.

Getting real about trade…

Dani Rodrik’s wonderful post on free trade and prices has started an extraordinarily candid conversation among economists. Economists sometimes rudely pretend that critics of free trade simply fail to understand “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea“, and that skepticism amounts either to ignorance, a kind of literary snobbishness, or simple corruption. In doing so, despite protestations to the contrary and rich nuances hidden in journals, economists as a group have grown doctrinaire in policy arguments regarding trade. All of a sudden, thanks to Dani Rodrik, they’ve begun to fess up.

Tyler Cowen’s recent addition to the conversation is worth highlighting (emphasis mine):

More empirically, having your export prices bid up is a wonderful driver of growth more than it is a distributional or efficiency nightmare. The net externalities of that process are usually positive rather than negative, even without firm- or industry-level increasing returns in the traditional sense. The exports help build a middle class and in the long run make democracy and rule of law possible. The dynamic effects are the key to the benefits of trade, and neither the Ricardian nor the Heckscher-Ohlin model is satisfactory. The best simple (ha!) model has trade bringing more innovation, new goods with high consumer surplus, greater reason to work hard and get ahead, greater domestic inequality, a growing middle class, and new and usually more liberal political coalitions.

Empirically, the troubled cases of trade typically involve exports of oil or diamonds and subsequent corruption. The relevant problem with trade is not higher prices for home consumption, in fact home consumption of those commodities is usually quite low. How much oil does Guinea-Bisseau use? We’re left with Mexico and corn prices as a possible example, but note that Mexico would have much lower corn prices with free trade in corn. And it is U.S. government subsidy, not the market, bidding up the price of corn in the first place.

What is extraordinarily about the bit of text in bold is the admission that what’s great about trade is not the deterministic result of some well-established, you-may-not-understand-it-but-it-is-definitely-true theorem. “Dynamic effects” here means things that we’ve observed over time, but that aren’t captured by simple, standard models. Tyler is making a case based on human judgement, not rocket science. (I’m sure there is some rocket science somewhere to support his intuition, but you won’t find the wall of obeisance any mention of Ricardo provokes.)

I agree with everything Tyler writes here. But note that his analyisis offers no simple prescription. He has become a two-handed economist, thank goodness. Unfortunately, he tries to shove one hand back in his pockets at the end of the post:

I don’t disagree with Rodrik’s claims about positive economics, although they don’t quite “shade” as I might wish. I would have liked to have seen the sentence: “The early 20th century trade theorists discussed by Jacob Viner and Gottfried Haberler knew about these problems, but they also realized they did not, when viewed in a realistic context, weaken the case for free trade.”

Yet Tyler himself describes some realistic contexts (oil, diamonds) where the bad effects of trade arguably trump the good. If we were debating a specific policy proposal, it would strike me as normal to worry about the “shading” of other peoples’ true statements. But getting upset that comments on trade in general don’t “shade” sufficiently towards “free trade” is odd. There seems to be a strong norm among economists to “shade” towards a simple view on trade that is known within the profession to be inadequate, theoretically and in some real-world contexts.

If you haven’t followed this debate and you care about this stuff, here are some things to read:

Among God’s jokes is that one always sins in precisely the ways one accuses others of sinning. In accusing “economists” of strongly shading towards a caricatured view of trade, I myself have caricatured economists. There are, of course, economists who consistently engage the public with nuanced views of trade. Any list I could write would be unforgivably spotty, but I’ll send some love to Dean Baker and Brad Setser. Recently Alan Blinder and of course Dani Rodrik have deviated from what I allege to be the party line. I am sure there are many others.

Here, by the way, is a synopsis of my own views:

  1. International trade is usually a fantastically good thing, because of Ricardo-esque efficiency gains and Tyler-Cowen-esque dynamic effects, and also for cultural and aesthetic reasons.
  2. Nation-states are still important units of analysis and determinants of human welfare. So long as this is true, enthusiasm for trade in general must be tempered by caveats about balance and national portfolio diversification. At this moment, I think these concerns are sufficiently pressing in the United States that a policy response is required.
  3. Neither blinding people with equations nor presenting tendentious simplifications as scientific truth are adequate approaches to policy debates. Yes, models are always simplifications, but a good model captures relevant complexity, while a bad one is scientific window-dressing around a preconceived result. Having a secret good model doesn’t excuse pawning off a bad one that gives the right answer as “science”. Largely false simplifications that capture important insights are essential pedagogical tools. But they should be presented as thought experiments rather than models, and qualified with some discussion of their inadequacies.
Update History:
  • 29-Apr-2007, 7:21 p.m. EDT: Changed an “on” to an “in” ‘cuz it sounds better.

Relative Prices, Trade, and Inflation (oh my!)

I really like new econoblogger Dani Rodrik. He asks, “Does Free Trade Bring Lower Prices?“, and comes up with a good answer. (The right answer, in economics as in life, is always “it depends”. A good answer is one that offers its receiver some intuition just what “it depends” upon.) Rodrick writes:

Advocates of globalization love to argue that free trade lowers prices, and the argument seems sensible enough. Think of all the cheap goods from China that we can buy at Wal-Mart. But anyone who understands comparative advantage knows that free trade affects relative prices, not the price level (the latter being the province of macro and monetary factors). When a country opens up to trade (or liberalizes its trade), it is the relative price of imports that comes down; by necessity, the relative prices of its exports must go up! Consumers are better off to the extent that their consumption basket is weighted towards importables, but we cannot always rely on this to be the case.

Americans may forget this, since the price of the consumer items we export (movies, software) is more affected by economies of scale than resource and capacity constraints. But Mexicans who can’t afford corn for tortillas because of the United States’ bizarre corn-ethanol fetish may have noticed.

Does the fact that prices of Mexico’s staple food have skyrocketed count as inflation in Mexico?

Old fave econoblogger Mark Thoma recently suggested no, it shouldn’t. Mere changes in the relative prices of goods and services cannot constitute inflation:

I’ll use some hypothetical numbers for illustration. Suppose that when the price of oil is $28, the price level is 100, and also suppose that when the price of oil increases to $60, the price level increases to 120 all else equal (again, these are not intended to be realistic numbers).

Now, let the spike in oil prices happen quickly, but due to sluggish wage and price adjustment suppose the resulting 20% increase in the price level takes more time, say 2 years. During this two year period, as the price level rises from 100 to 120, inflation will be reported in the news.

But this is not what economists mean by inflation when they say, for example, that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomena.” To see this, suppose that the change in oil prices and the price level are both instantaneous rather than having the change in the price level drawn out over two years as before. That is, the price level jumps from 100 to 120 instantaneously and stays at the higher level from then on.

In this case, there is no inflation. Prices were stable before the instantaneous jump in the price level, and prices are stable afterward. From that day forward prices remain at 120 and do not increase any further. There is no inflation.

The question of whether changes in prices in and of themselves constitute inflation is a tiresome, and fundamentally definitional question. But I did find it a bit irksome when, after two posts arguing that changes in prices aren’t inflation, Mark excerpted without comment a long speech by San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellin which talked a great deal about price changes as a source of inflation, particularly the price of labor:

While the possibility of slower underlying productivity growth raises uncertainties about how to interpret the puzzle and the associated implications for inflation, it also has a more direct and distinctly pessimistic implication for inflation. In particular, a slowdown in the trend rate of productivity growth means that firms’ trend unit labor costs will rise more rapidly unless compensation growth declines in tandem. Absent such a moderation in compensation growth, firms may adjust to more rapid cost pressures by passing them into the prices consumers pay for their products, placing upward pressure on core inflation, at least for a time.

We cannot afford to go back to a world similar to the 1970s, where shocks that should have had only a transitory impact on inflation—whether due to oil prices, rents or movements in the dollar—shift longer-term inflation expectations and touch off a self-fulfilling wage-price spiral.

If inflation is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”, than changes in the price of human work relative to other inputs should not be considered inflationary. Fed officials often view increases in the price of such minor inputs as food and energy with equanimity (in this era of “anchored expectations”), but are eternally vigilant to the danger that the cost of human care may be bid up. Sometimes it seems that the expectation the Fed wants “anchored” in workers’ psyches is not to expect to be paid very well.

If the “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” thing is for real, couldn’t the Fed just take care of the money stuff, and let a free market determine the cost of labor? Wage-price spirals and inflation expectations wouldn’t be a problem if the Fed, like, refused to accommodate unreasonable expectations.

I am aware of reasons why the Fed claims wage volatility is more worrisome than commodity price volatility. Commodity prices adjust rapidly, but overpriced wages are “sticky downward”, and may remain mispriced for a long time, harming economic efficiency and potentially requiring a costly inflation to adjust. (Makes you wonder why the Fed was so blasé about home-price inflation, as house prices are sticky downward as well.) I’m open to arguments that failing to accommodate expectations may be as damaging as inflation, and that the Fed would prefer not to be put in the bind of having to choose between the two. But, given a regime that in practice sees relative price increases as tolerable for anything other than wages, is it surprising that workers’ share of GDP has been relentlessly falling, while the share going to corporate profits has been rising? Are there no stable monetary regimes that wouldn’t bias the game against wage earners?

p.s. another reason i really like Dani Rodrik’s blog are two of his tags: Economist’s blindspots and (it only seems fair) Non-economist bloopers.

p.p.s. knzn has a nice post that reminds us that debt is money, and that a government that increases its debt over time indefinitely through fiscal policy ought produce monetary inflation (as opposed to relative price changes) as effectively as the Fed’s printing press. knzn might correct me, but I think increases in sufficiently liquid private sector debt would count as increases in money in his model, provoking inflation as well.

Dutch Disease in the USA

It may be strange to say it, but the financial sector in the US has come to resemble the oil industry.

Traditionally, the financial sector’s role has been informational and intermediary — capital markets, rating agencies, insurers, investment banks, brokerages, and savings institutions all observe economic facts, convert weighings of risk and reward into estimations of value, and grease the conduits through which investors purchase claims on firms at prices consistent with those valuations. Sure, every day since the first hustler stood under a buttonwood tree on lower Manhattan, there has been scandal. But the financial sector as a whole has been something of a humdrum affair, an old fashioned sort of eBay where suppliers and demanders of capital meet on roughly even terms, and marketmakers take a small cut for their troubles.

Over the past few years, though, the financial sector’s role has changed owing to a single, simple fact. Debt has been mispriced. It is too expensive. Purchasers of debt, the lenders, have not asked their agents on Wall Street (or in the City) to drive a hard bargain for them. They’ve simply offered to purchase a wide variety of debt at whatever the going price is, regardless of whether that price has been inflated by the impact of their own continuous demand. Who are these easygoing lenders? Read Brad Setser a lot and you’ll figure it out. But we don’t much care. All that matters is that they are foreign. Americans aren’t the ones overpaying for debt.

The mispricing of debt has created richer opportunities on Wall Street than taking small cuts off of essentially fair deals. Instead, the difference between the “right” price of a debt security by traditional valuation models and what price-insensitive purchasers are willing to pay has become a source of profit. This is one way that Wall Street has come to look like the oil industry. Just as Shell profits from the spread between what it costs to extract oil and what the market will pay for it, financial firms now profit from the difference between the interest rates a fair borrower would expect to pay and the unusually low interest rates lenders are actually receiving. That spread is taken in a lot of pieces. A large fraction of it is taken by the borrowers themselves, and the rest is divided among financial intermediaries. But like oil wealth, from the perspective of the domestic economy, that entire spread is free money. It is real wealth, exchangeable for external goods and services, that is not taken from any domestic player.

Debt is similar to oil also in the sense that it must be prospected before it can be extracted, refined, manufactured, or sold. Wall Street knew it had a potential fountain of wealth when it discovered limitless, price-insensitive demand for debt. But in order to actually drink from that fountain, players had to produce debt to supply that demand. And that’s not easy. Foreign purchasers of debt may be price-insensitive, but they won’t buy just anything. They won’t cut a check to your grandma in exchange for a handwritten IOU. They want liquid debt securities with good ratings, maybe government or agency-backed, etc. The wildcatters of today’s great debt rush are the innovators who find ways to supply that voracious demand, and thereby get a piece of that rich spread. Innovation is not dead in America, and the variety of techniques and schemes out there for getting a cut from debt-mispricing is enormous. They include the much ballyhooed excesses of the mortgage industry (persuade people to borrow and refi as much as possible against homes, concede great rates to sophisticated borrowers but get what you can from fools, securitize all the paper in a form that price-insensitive buyers will take or that price-sensitive buyers find more appealing than overpriced alternatives). The current private-equity and M&A booms are means of manufacturing borrowers who profit from the sale of overpriced debt. Abnormal returns to hedge-funds result from leverage taken on at costs not commensurate with the risks. The alphabet soup of structured finance. The list goes on and on. (As a side-effect, in order to capture the surplus created by the mispricing of debt, American firms and households have had to borrow more money than they might have otherwise. That creates risks, but that’s not our concern here.)

The result of all this activity for the American economy has not been dissimilar to what natural gas famously did for the Dutch in the Sixties. The sudden, exogenous wealth in a single tradable (debt) provokes capital inflows that bolster America’s currency, and hurt the competitiveness of other US industries in world markets. [1] Labor markets begin to skew towards the booming tradable sector (debt and finance), while layoffs mount in other tradables industries. Nontradable services surge from the injection of exogenous wealth, and are drawn to serving the booming finance sector, the source of it all.

All in all, I think it is accurate to claim right now that the United States is suffering from “Dutch Disease”, with a little twist. America’s “resource curse” doesn’t come from some newfound ocean of oil. (Thank goodness for that.) Our curse is that our paper is suddenly unusually valuable, and that we are skewing our economy towards mining, packaging, and exporting ever more of the stuff. Unlike oil, our capacity to produce paper will never be exhausted. But the strange circumstance whereby American IOUs command a high price in real goods from abroad may end as suddenly as it began. Or it may continue for a long time. A repricing of US paper is an event far less predictable than the exhaustion of an oilfield. Unfortunately, our capital markets don’t seem to know how to price or hedge that kind of risk.

It is nice, in the moment, to be overpaid for something. But I hope we are not overpaid for too long. A resource curse is still a curse.

Update: A quick Google search indicates this is not a novel idea. An anonymous reader of Steve Sailor’s website makes the same point, more sharply and concisely than I have, and in January 2005! (You’ll have to search for “dutch” to find it on the long page; the direct link is broken. I think the anonymous reader’s piece on Dutch Disease is quite good, but don’t endorse the rest of the content.)

[1] An obvious, and true, objection is that the US dollar has been depreciating against currencies that float, not appreciating. But the capital inflows — the purchases of overpriced debt — are coming from countries that control their dollar exchange rates. The argument is that dollar’s nominal stability represents an appreciation, given that increases in the relative purchasing power of currencies from the debt-purchasing nations fail to result in the expected nominal dollar decline.

Update History:
  • 26-Apr-2007, 3:10 p.m. EDT: Added update with reference to an earlier piece quite similar to this found via Google.

Forests often missed for the trees

Here are two comments from professional economists that are delightful, because they state plain and obvious truths that most professional economists won’t fess up to. Dean Baker and Brad DeLong are both wonderful writers and thinkers. (Though I do sometimes taunt them, as here. Everyone deserves a good taunting now and again.)

First, Dean Baker on China:

Measurements of PPP are very imprecise, but China already dwarfs the U.S. as a producer of steel, gives out more college and advance degrees in science and engineering each year, has more cell phone users and almost as many Internet users. Does this sound like an economy that is one fifth the size of the U.S. economy (the relative GDPs using the exchange rate measure)?

Baker notes that “if China sustains a 10 percent growth rate, it will pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy some time in 2010.”

Brad DeLong comments on financial markets:

I think we are pretty certain why the configuration of asset prices does not match our economists’ intuitions about what asset prices should be in a world of well-functioning markets given our estimates of preferences and technologies. It doesn’t match because our financial markets are not well-functioning. They do a lousy job of mobilizing the risk-bearing capacity of society. And they appear to be profoundly myopic in the sense that average opinion has a hard time peering into the future when calculating what average opinion expects average opinion to be. As I result, I think, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are asset pricing puzzles out there… And we shouldn’t take those puzzles to disable our ability to think long-term about issues like global warming.

DeLong’s “we” suggests there is a consensus in his profession that financial markets are poorly functioning and myopic. I wish I believed that were true. If it were true, rather than chiding reform of other countries’ financial systems, there would be a consensus that we ought to reform our own. Our financial markets are making consequential, long-term decisions for us. And they are erring.