Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Countervailing Calamity: The Pandora's Box of Currency Protectionism

At tonight's much-anticipated Presidential Debate, it's quite possible that the issue of China's currency will be raised by the debate moderator or one of the candidates.  I've spilled a lot of virtual ink at this blog about trade and currency issues and the legal problems with certain politicians' desire to impose countervailing duties (CVDs) on Chinese imports due to alleged currency manipulation or undervaluation.  But my forthcoming paper, "Countervailing Calamity: How to Stop the Global Subsidies Race," zeroes in on one of the most troublesome legal and economic issues surrounding the whole currency/CVD debate: it opens the door to some serious protectionism, and not just against China. 

To understand why this is requires some quick background on how a subsidy is determined to exist under the US countervailing duty law.  As I first note in the paper, "A subsidy is defined as a 'financial contribution' by a 'government' or 'public body' that confers a 'benefit' on the recipient."  While that definition seems pretty harmless, it would be, except for the fact that the US Department of Commerce does some pretty, ahem, creative things to magically find a subsidy "benefit" where none might actually exist:
Existing U.S. law gives DOC ample discretion to measure the benefit (and thus the magnitude of an alleged subsidy), including the use of external subsidy benchmarks that have no relation to the domestic market at issue. This can lead to the imposition of CVDs that exceed the actual level of subsidization in the market and thus penalize U.S. importers and consumers rather than offset the injurious subsidies at issue. As noted above, in cases of grants or tax breaks, the calculation of benefits is straightforward—it is the amount of the grant or the tax revenue foregone. However, in many other cases (particularly for government-provided loans, goods, or services), DOC resorts to external benchmarks from other markets or world-market prices, where it determines that domestic interest rates or prices—the preferred benchmark—are unusable. These benchmarks often have little to do with the unique comparative advantages of the domestic market at issue and are expressly preferred over constructed benchmarks (e.g., cost of production plus profit) based on prevailing market conditions in the country of provision.

As a result of this policy, DOC has used external benchmarks to determine the magnitude of many subsidies, including those related to government-provided loans, land, water, stumpage (wood), and metals. The calculations resulting from DOC’s use of external benchmarks have produced subsidy amounts that often have very little to do with the market value of the actual government-provided loan or good/service at issue and negate the investigated countries’ natural comparative advantages. Thus, final CVD rates for these subsidies are often much larger than the actual benefit, if any, that an exporter has received from the government transaction.

DOC’s recent CVD investigation of aluminum extrusions from China provides an example of the difficulties involved with external benchmarks. In that case, DOC used prices for raw aluminum from the London Metal Exchange and prices for land from Thailand, rather than in-country prices for these goods. Although one could reasonably argue that London Metal Exchange aluminum prices are roughly comparable to those in China because aluminum is a globally traded commodity, no such reason applies for something so uniquely country-specific as land. Thus, any “land subsidy” found to exist in this case has little relationship to the actual subsidy, if any, conferred by the Chinese government.
Ok, so how does this all relate to currency?  Well (emphasis mine)...
Legislative proposals to address “currency misalignment” would exacerbate existing concerns because they would authorize DOC to calculate the amount of a currency’s undervaluation by using a basket of other comparable countries’ currencies as a surrogate for what that currency’s value should actually be in an uncontrolled market. Such a market benchmark would not reflect the many unique circumstances surrounding the value of a nation’s currency. Moreover, because such legislation is not limited to China (such limitation would violate WTO non-discrimination rules) and because many other countries engage in similar forms of currency management, currency/CVD proposals would open the door to copycat cases against imports from many countries other than China. For example, a recent study by the Peterson Institute alleged that counties like Switzerland, Malaysia, Algeria, Russia, and others engage in “currency manipulation.” Should a currency/CVD proposal become law, there would be nothing to stop domestic industries and unions—and their lawyers—from pursuing CVD cases against all of these countries, using external subsidy benchmarks to find a benefit where none might actually exist.
In short, once our politicians open the door to a currency tariff, there will be very little to stop protection-seeking unions, industries and (of course) their crafty lawyers from asking the US government to impose duties on imports from many other countries.  And they have plenty of empirical support (whether I agree with it or not!) from well-respected think tanks to make those scary arguments. 

Oh, goody.

And, oh by the way, after the recent QE3 announcement here in the states, several countries (most notably Brazil) have angrily accused the US government of - you guessed it - devaluing the dollar to boost exports.  Most of these countries also have CVD laws too, you know.

Those currency CVD proposals ain't looking so hot now, eh?

More tidbits from my new paper are available here, if you're interested.

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