Why the U.S. Shouldn't Start a Trade War With China

by: IPE at UNC

By Kindred Winecoff

Brad DeLong links to Jared Bernstein, who suggests some policies that Obama could pursue (without deficit spending) to help the U.S. employment malaise. Many of them are fine, but this one isn't:

Currency Management: this would be a very bad time to let up on countries who subsidize their exports by suppressing their currency values in foreign exchange markets, most notably China. I’d push the Levin bill on this. And it’s bipartisan: the darn thing got 99 R votes in the last Congress!

The Levin bill proposes slapping tariffs on goods coming from countries that manipulate their exchange rates to boost exports. Levin has proposed a variant of it for years (here's one from 2006), but finally got traction during the recession. Krugman agrees that this is a good idea, but I think there are a number of problems with it.

1. It's most likely illegal. If China is violating trade rules with its exchange rate policies, then the USTR should take them to the WTO. The fact that that hasn't been done at any point over the past decade, despite the fact that it would have been politically popular, indicates to me that the USTR believes it would lose such a case. There's a reason why exchange rate policy has been referred to the IMF (which conducts monitoring and surveillance but has no authority) rather than the WTO.

It's also not clear that China is violating any WTO rules. For one thing, the WTO doesn't have a lot to say about which exchange rate regimes are legal and which aren't. And although using the exchange rate to subsidize exports could be illegal, there's a fairly high bar to clear.

This (several years old) thread on the excellent International Economic Law and Policy blog describes the three simultaneous conditions under which currency manipulation could be WTO-illegal:

  1. It must entail a "financial contribution";
  2. It must be specific;
  3. It must confer a benefit on exporters.

The comments to that post get into specifics, but according to IELP,

If [currency policy] is contingent in law or de facto upon export performance, it is then prohibited and deemed specific automatically.

The graph below (click to enlarge) shows the nominal dollar-yuan exchange rate over the past five years. Does it look like the exchange rate is contingent upon export performance? The yuan has appreciated against the dollar by nearly 25% over the past five years, and I'm not sure the trend clearly indicates responsiveness to changes in Chinese export performance.

2. There are growing concerns about inflation in the U.S. These concerns may be misguided, but they play well in Republican circles and among certain Governors at the Federal Reserve. Slapping an import tariff on China would cause immediate price spikes across a wide range of consumer goods, which would likely lead to increased calls for the Fed to tighten monetary policy.

That, of course, would not be good for economic recovery. Nor would it be good for standards of living. A Chinese undervaluation of the yuan is equivalent to the Chinese giving us free money. Let me say that again: a Chinese undervaluation of the yuan is equivalent to them giving us free money. It's not clear to me that trading lower standards of living for more jobs is a net win. Jobs are certainly important, but they're not the only important thing.

Moreover, as we've discussed on this blog repeatedly, the nominal exchange rate is less significant than the real exchange rate, and the real exchange rate is shifting faster than the nominal rate as inflation in China out-paces inflation in the U.S.

3. It's not at all clear that a tariff targeted specifically at China's exchange rates would have any effect on U.S. jobs. Not only would importers suffer, but there is no reason to believe that manufacturing jobs would come back to the U.S. en masse. Manufacturing employment was collapsing before the recession (see also here), and even if China lost some jobs via a U.S. tariff those jobs would likely go to Vietnam and Taiwan and South Korea and any number of other places before coming back here.

A tariff would make U.S.-produced goods cheaper relative to Chinese goods (in U.S. markets), but would not affect the price of Vietnamese goods at all. The magnitude of this shift, and the timing of it, isn't obvious to me, and to some extent it offsets #2 above, but the world is dynamic.

4. Those dynamics are not limited to economics; they also involve politics. The Chinese would not simply accept tariffs as the new cost of doing business. They would fight back. First, they would take the U.S. to the WTO. Second, they would likely enact retaliatory tariffs. The WTO cases would take years to be resolved (i.e. hopefully after the recovery from the recession), but the tariffs would immediately damage U.S. exporters.

Obama's stated policy goal is to double American exports over the next several years. It's going to be hard to do that if you can't sell into the world's fastest-growing major market, now the second-largest economy on the globe.

5. The U.S. runs the risk of pot-meets-kettle reactions from the rest of the globe. The world already believes that U.S. monetary policy, with interest rates at 0% and two rounds of quantitative easing already conducted, constitute "currency manipulation" of a different sort. Putin called it "hooliganism", Brazil imposed capital controls, S. Korea has expressed concern about exchange rates at the G20, etc.

I agree with Krugman and others that this criticism is over-blown; the U.S. is in a deep recession and should be using monetary expansion to help get out of it. But a round of tariffs targeting exchange rate policy will leave the U.S. open to a dose of its own medicine. Other countries are already wary of U.S. policy, and more aggressive measures could quickly lead to a cycle of more prevalent beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

Right now it is critical that international economic cooperation move forward, not back. We've seen from the Japan crisis how badly economies are damaged when global supply chains are disrupted.

6. The U.S. needs to know its role. The global economy is still terribly damaged. 1937 isn't the worst analogue. Right now the U.S. needs to do everything it can to keep markets open, maintain international cooperation, provide liquidity into the global system, and maintain a market for goods. In other words, it needs to live up to Kindleberger's charge. That involves allowing some free-riding. It involves setting policy based on global, not domestic, circumstances.

Myopically trying to get back every lost job as quickly as possible runs the risk of damaging global economic relations over the medium- and long-run, which could easily have adverse effects on growth and prosperity. Letting China sell us goods at below-market prices seems like a very small price to pay for averting a seriously negative outcome.