Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tuesday Quick Hits

A lot of very interesting things have come across my (virtual) desk over the last few days, and many of them support the things I've been discussing here over the last few months.  I highly recommend reading some, if not all, of these in full:
  • Harvard's Edward Glaeser discusses why the "morality" of modern economics is rooted in human freedom (h/t Fred Smalkin).  In so doing, he underscores one of the big themes of Dan Ikenson's and my new paper on the broader case for free trade, its inherent morality: "Improvements in welfare occur when there are improvements in utility, and those occur only when an individual gets an option that wasn’t previously available. We typically prove that someone’s welfare has increased when the person has an increased set of choices. When we make that assumption (which is hotly contested by some people, especially psychologists), we essentially assume that the fundamental objective of public policy is to increase freedom of choice. Our opponents have every right to contend that economists are unwisely idolizing liberty, but they err by saying we sail without a moral North Star. Economists’ fondness for freedom rarely implies any particular policy program. A fondness for freedom is perfectly compatible with favoring redistribution, which can be seen as increasing one person’s choices at the expense of the choices of another, or with Keynesianism and its emphasis on anticyclical public spending. Many regulations can even be seen as force for freedom, like financial rules that help give all investors the freedom to invest in stocks by trying to level the playing field.  The belief in freedom does, however, create a predilection for human interaction and trade.  As [Milton] Friedman wrote, 'The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.' For many economists, defending free trade isn’t just about gross domestic product; it’s fighting for core values of freedom and human interdependence.  As [Adam] Smith said, 'To give the monopoly of the home market to the produce of domestic industry, in any particular art or manufacture, is in some measure to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, and must, in almost all cases, be either a useless or a hurtful regulation.'  Economists are often wary of moral exhortation, as many see the harm so often wrought by arguments that are long on passion and short on sense. But don’t think that our discipline doesn’t have a moral spine beneath all the algebra. That spine is a fundamental belief in freedom."
  • Dallas Fed further confirms what we already knew: China's currency policy is not the primary driver of the US-China current account balance: "Normally, a fast-growing economy such as China would borrow money from the rest of the world instead of lending. An obvious suspect in China’s mounting current account surplus is the fixed exchange rate between its yuan and the dollar. An undervalued yuan makes Chinese products cheaper than those of competitors in international markets. As a result, China exports more than it imports. According to this explanation, yuan appreciation could rebalance the global economy. This argument has at least two flaws. First, the durability of the U.S.–China imbalance is difficult to explain. In order for the exchange rate to affect import prices, those prices can’t adjust.... Although in reality prices cannot change instantly, they do adjust over the long run; therefore, the exchange rate has only short-term effects on import prices and the current account. China has run a significant trade surplus against the U.S. for about 10 years (Chart 2). It is hard to imagine that prices have not fully adjusted to offset the exchange rate after such a long period. Second, an appreciating yuan may only minimally reduce the imbalance. Even in the short run, the exchange rate’s impact on import prices would be quite limited, studies have shown. Exporters usually pass on only a fraction of exchange rate movements when setting prices. About 20 percent of exchange rate changes were reflected in U.S. import prices during the past decade, Federal Reserve economists Mario Marazzi and Nathan Sheets found. Profit margins usually absorb some of exchange rate movement as exporters seek to maintain market share. Additionally, the currency under which import prices are invoiced also affects the exchange rate pass-through. Most U.S. imports from China are priced in dollars, and their prices are fixed in the short run. In this case, depreciation of the dollar against the yuan has no short-run effect on import prices from China."
  • The FT's Clive Crook (rightly) dismantles Obama's State of the Union Address (h/t Phil Levy).  He hits on many of the problems with "competitiveness" and "investment" that I've discussed here at length.  My favorite lines: "The metaphor of growth as a race with winners and losers – all that stuff in the speech about Sputnik moments, falling behind, winning the 21st century – is nonsense. Over the long haul, if US productivity rises, so will US living standards. Why should growth in China or India hold back US productivity? No reason at all. Once conditioned to think “productivity” whenever a politician says “competitiveness”, you look at economic policy differently. Winning begins to seem overrated. What exactly do we win, you wonder? Being number one in worldwide production of solar panels would be nice, but how would that raise economy-wide productivity? The key to improving living standards lies not in winning the race to develop showcase technologies, but in accumulating capital, diffusing knowledge and accommodating the disruption that this entails."
  • China is starting to experience some pretty significant trade diversion, but (unsurprisingly) very little of the sourcing is heading to the United States: "More than half of international buyers have tended to increase their sourcing from India and Vietnam due to continuous export price hikes from China, according to a recent survey by the Global Sources, a trade information provider.... Workers in Vietnam, however, are said to need twice as much time to finish one task, the Global Sources said. 30% of respondents said they plan to increase sourcing from Thailand. However, export price may not be the polled buyers' sole consideration, for 7% of them are considering increasing imports from countries that have higher production costs than China, including South Korea, Japan, the United States and the European Union."
  • Meanwhile, the NYT notices (again) that Chinese inflation may shrink the US-China trade deficit.  Color me shockedtotally and utterly unsurprised.  Although most of this article just updates what we've already known for a while now, I think it's worthwhile to note this passage about the deleterious effects of higher Chinese import prices on US consumers: "The higher Chinese prices will tend to show up mainly in products like inexpensive clothing and other commodity goods in which labor and raw materials represent a bigger part of the final value — rather than in sophisticated electronics like Apple iPads, in which Chinese assembly is only a small fraction of the cost."  In short, the pain will mainly be felt by poorer American consumers and US manufacturers.  Wealthier Americans?  Not so much.  And yet it's the politicians who claim to "care" most about America's poor and the US manufacturing sector - and who demonize America's "rich" - that have for years now been demanding more expensive Chinese imports.  Maybe they're not telling us the whole story, huh?
  • WTO Director General Pascal Lamy, channeling Cato's Dan Ikenson, explains in the FT why "Made in China’ tells us little about global trade": "As recently as 30 years ago, products were assembled in one country, using inputs from that same country. Measuring trade was thus easy. 2011 is very different. Manufacturing is driven by global supply chains, while most imports should be stamped “made globally”, not “made in China”, or similar. This is not an academic distinction. With trade imbalance causing friction between leading economies, the measures we use can gravely exacerbate geopolitical tensions at a time when co-operation is more vital than ever."  Good stuff from DG Lamy, but, yes, it should all sound very familiar.  However, I did find this stat to be new and interesting: "Measures we use also change the way trade affects jobs too. Research on Apple’s iPod shows that out of the 41,000 jobs its manufacture created in 2006, 14,000 were located in the US. Some 6,000 were professional posts. Yet since US workers are better paid, they earned $750m, while only $320m went to workers abroad. Indeed, the iPod may have never existed if Apple had not known that Asian companies could supply components, while both Asian workers and Asian consumers would manufacture and buy it. Statistics that measure value added can provide a more reliable way of seeing how trade affects employment."  And speaking of the WTO and trade statistics, the trade body is hosting a big seminar on the subject this week.
  • America is silly rich and relatively equal.  Also from the NYT's Economix blog comes your chart of the day on global income inequality, which shows that (i) contrary to the breathless claims of certain lefty bloggers out there, the United States is absolutely nothing like Brazil (or other major developing countries) when it comes to income inequality;and (ii) the "bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants" and "about as rich as India's richest."  Check it out:
  • More of the same: US manufacturing sector expands for the 18th straight month. Yawn. BUT, there is this little nugget: "The ISM Employment Index increased in January to 61.7%, which is the 16th consecutive month of growth in manufacturing employment and the highest reading for the ISM manufacturing employment index since April of 1973."  Don Boudreaux has more insights, including a link to a neat new story from MSNBC on the state of US manufacturing, here.
That should keep you busy for a while.  Now get to reading!

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