May 23rd 2018

A Bilateral Foil for America’s Multilateral Dilemma

by Stephen S. Roach

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of a new book Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

 

 

NEW HAVEN – The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.

There is a longstanding disconnect between bilateral and multilateral approaches to international economic problems. In May 1930, some 1,028 of America’s leading academic economists wrote a public letter to US President Herbert Hoover urging him to veto the pending Smoot-Hawley tariff bill. Hoover ignored the advice, and the global trade war that followed made a garden-variety depression “great.” President Donald Trump has put a comparable spin on what it takes to “make America great again.”

Politicians have long favored the bilateral perspective, because it simplifies blame: you “solve” problems by targeting a specific country. By contrast, the multilateral approach appeals to most economists, because it stresses the balance-of-payments distortions that arise from mismatches between saving and investment. This contrast between the simple and the complex is an obvious and important reason why economists often lose public debates. The dismal science has never been known for clarity.

Such is the case with the US-China debate. China is an easy political target. After all, it accounted for 46% of America’s colossal $800 billion merchandise trade gap in 2017. Moreover, China has been charged with egregious violations of international rules, ranging from allegations of currency manipulation and state-subsidized dumping of excess capacity to cyber-hacking and forced technology transfer.

Equally significant, China has lost the battle in the arena of public opinion – chastised by Western policymakers, a few high-profile academics, and others for having failed to live up to the grand bargain struck in 2001, when the country was admitted to the World Trade Organization. A recent article in Foreign Affairs by two senior officials in the Obama administration says it all: “(T)he liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected.” As is the case with North Korea, Syria, and Iran, strategic patience has given way to impatience, with the nationalistic Trump administration leading the charge against China.

The counter-argument from multilateral-focused economists like me rings hollow in this climate. Tracing outsize current-account and trade deficits to an extraordinary shortfall of US domestic saving – just 1.3% of national income in the fourth quarter of 2017 – counts for little in the arena of popular opinion. Likewise, it doesn’t help when we emphasize that China is merely a large piece of a much bigger multilateral problem: the US had bilateral merchandise trade deficits with 102 countries in 2017. Nor does it matter when we point out that correcting for supply-chain distortions – caused by inputs from other countries that enter into Chinese assembly platforms – would reduce the bilateral US-China trade imbalance by 35-40%.

Flawed as it may be, the bilateral political case argument resonates in a US where there is enormous pressure to ease the angst of the country’s beleaguered middle class. Trade deficits, goes the argument, lead to job losses and wage compression. And, with the merchandise trade gap hitting 4.2% of GDP in 2017, these pressures have only intensified in the current economic recovery. As a result, targeting China has enormous political appeal.

So, what can be made of the May 19 deal? Beyond a ceasefire in tit-for-tat tariffs, there are few real benefits. US negotiators are fixated on targeted reductions of around $200 billion in the bilateral trade imbalance over a two-year time frame. Given the extent of America’s multilateral problem, this is largely a meaningless objective, especially in light of the massive and ill-timed tax cuts and federal expenditure increases that the US has enacted in the last six months.

Indeed, with budget deficits likely to widen, America’s saving shortfall will only deepen in the years ahead. That points to rising balance-of-payments and multilateral trade deficits, which are impossible to resolve through targeted bilateral actions against a single country.

Chinese negotiators are more circumspect, resisting numerical deficit targets but committing to the joint objective of “effective measures to substantially reduce” the bilateral imbalance with the US. China’s vague promise to purchase more American-made agricultural and energy products borrows a page from the “shopping list” approach of its earlier trade missions to the US. Unfortunately, the big-wallet mindset of a deal-hungry China reinforces the US narrative that China is guilty as charged.

Even if the stars were in perfect alignment and the US was not facing a saving constraint, it stretches credibility to seek a formulaic bilateral solution to America’s multilateral problem. Since 2000, the largest annual reduction in the US-China merchandise trade imbalance amounted to $41 billion, and that occurred in 2009, during the depths of the Great Recession. The goal of achieving back-to-back annual reductions totaling more than double that magnitude is sheer fantasy.

In the end, any effort to impose a bilateral solution on a multilateral problem will backfire, with ominous consequences for American consumers. Without addressing the shortfall in domestic saving, the bilateral fix simply moves the deficit from one economy to others.

Therein lies the cruelest twist of all. China is America’s low-cost provider of imported consumer goods. The Trump deal would shift the Chinese piece of America’s multilateral imbalance to higher-cost imports from elsewhere – the functional equivalent of a tax hike on American families. As Hoover’s ghost might ask, what’s so great about that?


Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Oct 17th 2018
Yemen is a country of some 29 million persons, but over a third of them are at risk of starvation if Saudi and UAE bombing campaigns continue.
Oct 14th 2018
Now the Trump administration is eroding the dollar’s global role. Having unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, it is threatening to penalize companies doing business with the Islamic Republic by denying them access to US banks. The threat is serious because US banks are the main source of dollars used in cross-border transactions. According to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), dollars are used in nearly half of all cross-border payments, a share far greater than the weight of the US in the world economy. In response to the Trump administration’s stance, Germany, France, and Britain, together with Russia and China, have announced plans to circumvent the dollar, US banks, and US government scrutiny. “Plans” may be a bit strong, given that few details have been provided. But the three countries have described in general terms the creation of a stand-alone financial entity, owned and organized by the governments in question, to facilitate transactions between Iran and foreign companies.
Oct 5th 2018
There are a lot of oddballs in US President Donald Trump’s entourage, but few are as odd – or as sinister – as 33-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser. Miller resembles a type on the far right that is more common in Europe than the US: young, slick, sharp-suited, even a trifle dandyish. He is a skilled rabble-rouser, whose inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants and refugees – “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall !”– drives the crowds at Trump rallies into a frenzy. One of his crowd-pleasing notions is that migrants will infect Americans with terrible diseases.
Oct 3rd 2018
.....here we are in 2018, 40 years after Camp David. The Palestinian dream of an independent state is not only unrealized but is most likely unrealizable. With many Palestinians now favoring a one state solution......the once "Arab minority"  is now a majority.....
Sep 25th 2018
The US stock market, as measured by the monthly real (inflation-adjusted) S&P Composite Index, or S&P 500, has increased 3.3-fold since its bottom in March 2009. This makes the US stock market the most expensive in the world, according to the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio that I have long advocated. Is the price increase justified, or are we witnessing a bubble?
Sep 23rd 2018
Global debt recently hit a new record high of 225% of world GDP, amounting to US$164 trillion. The world is now 12 points deeper in debt than the previous peak in 2009, with advanced economies’ ratios at levels not seen since World War II.
Sep 18th 2018
To understand them, it is worth looking at three reputable leaders who died this summer: former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former British Foreign Secretary and NATO Secretary-General Peter Carrington, and US Senator John McCain. Having worked with Annan and for Carrington, I can vouch for their grace, honor, and commitment to truth. McCain plainly had the same qualities, not to mention a level of personal bravery far beyond what is expected of most of us (though it should be noted that Carrington was also a war hero). These leaders’ combination of honor and commitment to truth – two attributes that are intrinsically connected – is nowhere to be seen in Trump or Johnson.
Sep 18th 2018
From controlling the media to stoking nationalism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has always known how to keep his approval ratings high. But Russians’ lives are not getting any better, especially after the latest round of Western economic sanctions – and Putin’s declining approval rating shows it.
Sep 15th 2018
As we mark the decennial of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there are still ongoing debates about the causes and consequences of the financial crisis, and whether the lessons needed to prepare for the next one have been absorbed. But looking ahead, the more relevant question is what actually will trigger the next global recession and crisis, and when. The current global expansion will likely continue into next year, given that the US is running large fiscal deficits, China is pursuing loose fiscal and credit policies, and Europe remains on a recovery path. But by 2020, the conditions will be ripe for a financial crisis, followed by a global recession. There are 10 reasons for this. First, the fiscal-stimulus policies that are currently pushing the annual US growth rate above its 2% potential are unsustainable. By 2020, the stimulus will run out, and a modest fiscal drag will pull growth from 3% to slightly below 2%.
Sep 12th 2018
Next month, a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights. The government defendants have repeatedly tried – so far without success – to have the case thrown out or delayed, and the trial is currently scheduled to start on October 29.
Sep 5th 2018
Wars are expensive, as the Russian people are now learning. The Kremlin is pursuing military adventures in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, and though these conflicts are limited in scope, one wonders if the country can really afford them.
Sep 1st 2018
This week, the California state legislature voted to mandate that all the state’s electricity come from non-carbon sources (chiefly wind, solar and hydro) by 2045. Since California if it were a country would have the world’s fifth largest economy, and since so many other states are economically integrated with it, this plan, if signed by governor Jerry Brown, could help transform the entire country. The goal is less difficult than it seems on the surface. California had already committed to getting one third of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and reached that goal in 2017. It committed to getting 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, and in fact will likely reach that goal 10 years early, in 2020.
Aug 29th 2018
Quote: "This may ultimately result in creation of a new accounting standard - the Enterprise Value of Data – which could become an integral part of financial statements, capturing the value of the largest and most ignored corporate asset: data."
Aug 29th 2018
What comes through clearly in polling on US public opinion is that there is a deep partisan divide on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, with key demographic groups increasingly more supportive of Palestinian rights and antagonistic to hardline Israeli policies. In some ways, the Netanyahu/Trump "marriage" has also helped to fuel the partisan divide. A Pew poll from earlier this year found that support for Palestinians far surpasses support for Israel among self-described "progressive" and "liberal" voters. And a recent Gallup poll shows that only 17% of Democrats now have a favorable view of the Israeli leader. 
Aug 27th 2018
History suggests that current-account imbalances ultimately matter a great deal. A still-unbalanced global economy may be forced to relearn that painful lesson in the coming years.
Aug 27th 2018
The United States economy is doing well. But the next recession – and there is always another recession – could be very bad. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that GDP growth in the second quarter of 2018 reached 4.1% – the highest since the 4.9% seen under President Barack Obama in 2014. Another year of growth will match the record ten-year expansion of the 1990s. Add to that low unemployment, and things are looking good. But this cannot continue forever.
Aug 24th 2018
If Britain leaves the European Union with no deal in place to govern trade with its biggest partner, it will fall back on World Trade Organisation rules. The same set of rules would apply to EU countries and non-EU trade partners. This is why the UK government has published a series of “technical notices” detailing preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Here are seven reasons that sum up why a no-deal Brexit and defaulting to WTO rules would be bad for British businesses and the wider economy.
Aug 23rd 2018
Unlike today’s aspiring strongmen, a truly tough leader would stand up for international cooperation, and seek to persuade voters why it matters. One hopes that French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will do precisely that in the coming months. In the meantime, we must pray that wannabe tough guys like Trump and Erdoğan do not do too much damage to their respective countries, and to the rest of us. It is time to make cooperation great again.
Aug 23rd 2018
Historians will mark August 21, 2018, as a turning point in American history. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer pleaded guilty to 8 counts of criminal wrongdoing that could carry a sentence of up to 65 years. Most significantly, he pleaded guilty to having attempted illegally to interfere in an election “in coordination with and at the direction of a federal candidate for office.”
Aug 22nd 2018
As the usual political inferno between parties and private firms rages on, the phantom threat of mafia involvement in Italian construction has resurfaced. The region of Liguria sadly scores quite high in the assessments of mafia infiltration. In the area, Calabrian mafia clans of the ‘ndrangheta – Italy’s most powerful mafia today – have heavily invested in the construction sector, in public tenders and in the exploitation of the port of Genoa and the roads to France and to the rest of the Italian north, for the purposes of illegal trafficking.