Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Greasing America's Competitiveness Slide

Last week the World Economic Forum announced some distressing, but not unexpected, news about the struggling US economy:
The U.S. extended its slide in competitiveness for a third year by slipping to fifth in the World Economic Forum’s rankings, which Switzerland topped. 
The U.S. fell one place, two years after losing the No. 1 position for the first time since the Geneva-based organization began its current index in 2004. Concern about public debt and deteriorating confidence in policy makers hurt the efficiency of the world’s largest economy even as faith in its financial industry rebounded, the forum said in its study of 142 nations. In the U.S., “urgent efforts need to be made in terms of macroeconomic stabilization and mapping out an exit strategy from debt,” said Jennifer Blanke, the forum’s lead economist who contributed to the annual study.... 
Switzerland, home to companies including drugmaker Novartis AG (NOVN) and food company Nestle SA (NESN), was credited for its innovation and technological skills. Singapore and Sweden trailed, with Finland leapfrogging the U.S. into fourth place. Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark followed with Japan sliding three places to ninth. The U.K., ranked 12th last year, swapped places with Canada to take 10th.... 
China climbed one level to 26th and Brazil rose to 53rd from 58th while India fell five slots to 56th and Russia dropped to 66th from 63rd.... 
The U.S. ranked 89th for macroeconomic stability amid a record budget deficit, while running 50th for trust in its politicians, the forum said. The survey suggested its government wastes resources and regulation has become more burdensome. A gauge of financial-market development indicated improvement, with the U.S. rising to 22nd from 31st last year. It was ninth in 2008.... 
The report -- published each year by the organizers of the annual conference of business leaders, politicians and entertainers in Davos, Switzerland -- is based on measures of competitiveness and an opinion poll of more than 14,000 business leaders.
The full WEF report is available here, and, while it's always a little tricky to talk about "national competitiveness" (rather than companies' competitiveness), the survey is still a valuable way to measure which governments are implementing the best policies to make their domestic companies more globally competitive.  And speaking of such policies, Cato's Dan Ikenson took to the pages of the WSJ over the weekend to explain a simple policy that could instantly improve American companies' ability to compete in the global economy:
If the president is genuinely committed to spurring economic growth and job creation, he will take the lead on reducing or eliminating duties that U.S. producers pay on imported raw materials and components they need for manufacturing. This would instantly boost the competitiveness of U.S. products at home and abroad. 
The same demographics that have created growing foreign markets also mean there are more foreign suppliers of raw materials, industrial inputs, and other intermediate goods used by U.S. producers in their own production processes. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol collected $30 billion in duties on $2 trillion of imports, 55% of which were ingredients for U.S. production—such as chemicals, minerals and machine parts. Purchases of imported inputs accounted for more than $1 trillion of U.S. production costs, a price tag that was roughly $15 billion higher than it might have been without U.S. import duties. 
What is the point of negotiating a 5% reduction in a foreign tariff on behalf of certain U.S. exporters while ignoring the fact that, to produce those exports as domestic manufacturers, they are required to pay a 50% import tax on the most crucial raw materials? Reducing import barriers has the same effect on profit as does improving market access abroad, but with the added benefit of increasing U.S. competitiveness. And it can be achieved without waiting for consent from abroad....
Now the president should push Congress to reduce or eliminate, on a permanent basis, all tariffs on industrial inputs so that U.S. producers are more competitive in the global economy and so that America is a more appealing destination for foreign direct investment. That approach has produced good results in Canada, where the government has been reducing tariffs on manufacturing inputs for the past few years. 
Meanwhile, some import duties can be eliminated with a stroke of the president's pen. First should be antidumping duties, imposed on inputs needed by U.S. producers. The antidumping law is purported to penalize foreign producers accused of injuring U.S. firms by selling in the United States at lower prices than they charge at home. Some U.S. industries lobby vigorously for such duties simply because they hobble the foreign competition. 
Yet more than 80% of the nearly 300 U.S. antidumping measures in force today restrict imports of raw materials and intermediate goods, thus penalizing U.S. producers. Antidumping duties on magnesium or polyvinyl chloride or hot-rolled steel may allow domestic producers of those inputs to raise prices and reap greater profits. But they hurt many more downstream U.S. producers of auto parts, paint and appliances, who consume those inputs in their own manufacturing processes and who are more likely to export and create new jobs than are the firms that seek trade restrictions.
Unfortunately, Ikenson notes in a separate blog post last week that the Obama administration is actually pondering the implementation of policies that would lead to higher, not lower, tariffs on US imports:
As the president was pitching his jobs plan last night, his current policies were hard at work discouraging job creation and incentivizing layoffs.

One of innumerable such policies concerns the treatment of imported raw materials and other intermediate goods that are subject to antidumping or countervailing duty measures, but needed by U.S. producers to make their final products. It almost defies comprehension that, in a modern, interdependent economy characterized by transnational supply chains and cross-border investment, over 80 percent of all U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty measures are imposed on these ingredients of U.S. production. This policy drives up the cost of production for downstream U.S. industries, making it more difficult for them to compete in the United States and abroad, curtailing profits, investment, and hiring.

However, under the U.S. Foreign Trade Zones program, some of the costs inflicted on downstream, import-consuming firms can be mitigated. (Of course, the program wouldn’t be necessary if U.S. duties were recognized as just another cost of production and set, optimally, at zero.) Among the aims of the FTZ program is to encourage manufacturing activity in the United States (and to discourage manufacturers from shuttering domestic operations and moving offshore as a result of the burden of paying U.S. customs duties).

FTZs are usually manufacturing plants or facilities physically located within the United States, but considered outside U.S. territory for the purpose of customs duty payment. Goods that enter FTZs are not subject to customs duties (including antidumping or countervailing duties) until they leave the zone and are formally entered into the commerce of the United States. If those goods are used as inputs to a further manufacturing process, the rate of duty applicable to the final product is assessed. If the goods are exported from a FTZ, with or without further processing, no duties are imposed because the product never officially “entered” the United States.

With respect to products made from materials and components subject to AD or CVD duties, the standing regulations require FTZ operators to get advance approval from the Foreign Trade Zones Board if the intention is to sell those final products in the United States. That requirement does not apply when the final product is going to be exported from the FTZ, which provides some incentive to downstream U.S. firms to keep production in the United States by operating as a FTZ.

But now the Obama administration—at the behest of the antidumping petitioners’ bar and organized labor, and despite its own exhortations to U.S. companies to double exports, invest in America, and put Americans back to work—is proposing to seal off that channel of sanity and compromise. New regulations would require advance approval even if the final product was going to be exported.

The requirement of advance approval from the FTZ Board, which is administered within the Import Administration—the same agency at the Commerce Department that simultaneously assists protection-seekers in crafting their AD/CVD petitions, while gleefully implementing and administratively adjudicating the antidumping and countervailing duty laws—will tip the balance in favor of outsourcing production for many firms in many industries. Any benefits of continuing to produce in the United States will be diminish next to the rising costs and uncertainty of doing so.

Thus, companies like Dow Corning, which uses silicon metal to produce silicone components for solar panels, will have that much more incentive to shutter operations in Kentucky and set up shop in Canada or elsewhere, where silicon metal is available at lower world market prices, so that it can compete in foreign solar panel markets with Chinese, Japanese, Canadian, and European rivals.
According to the WEF, the United States is currently the fourth-most competitive economy in the world.  I guess the Obama administration's really gunning for Number 5 in 2012.

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