Safeguarding A Rules-based Trading System against America First Trade Economics


October 16, 2018

Safeguarding A Rules-based Trading System against America First Trade Economics

by Dr. Mari Pangestu, Universitas Indonesia

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

 

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“Without concerted effort and a coalition of willing leadership, including from the EU and East Asia, the future of the rules-based trading system will remain under threat.”–Dr. Mari Elka Pangestu

Despite expectations that the US Federal Reserve would raise interest rates, capital flows to the United States have led to the appreciation of the US dollar against most major currencies.

The hardest hit countries are Argentina and Turkey, which are experiencing fiscal issues complicated by their political situations. Brazil, South Africa and the emerging countries in Asia have also been affected — albeit at a lower rate of depreciation of their currencies in the 10 to 12 per cent range. Even Australia and China have experienced depreciation of around 8 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

The level of depreciation experienced by different economies reflects how investors perceive their different fundamental macroeconomic conditions, especially the level of their current account and fiscal deficits and policy outlooks.

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The rising US dollar raises questions about the capacity of emerging economies to service their dollar-denominated debts and the vulnerabilities this could expose in their financial systems. Even if the current economic conditions point to a low potential for contagion from Argentina and Turkey, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde recently warned that ‘these things could change rapidly’. The uncertainty that already exists is a clear and present danger.

The uncertainty in the world economy has been increasing since Brexit and the election of President Trump in 2016, and in 2017 as the United States left the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announced many threats to impose trade restrictions. This uncertainty has heightened since January 2018 when US President Donald Trump made good on his threats to remedy bilateral trade deficits — what he sees as ‘unfair trade’ practices against the United States — by imposing tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, followed by aluminium and steel.

Since March, the greatest uncertainty has been from the brewing tit for tat trade conflict between the United States and China, which started with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on US$50 billion worth of China’s exports to the United States. China retaliated with the same sized tariffs on the same amount of trade from the United States. Trump then escalated the trade war further in September with the announcement of 10 per cent tariffs on US$200 billion worth of China’s exports to the United States.

The US–China trade conflict and the uncertainty surrounding it is expected to have knock on effects on global trade and investment flows. The impact of the reduction in China’s exports to the United States on China’s growth will reduce China’s imports, which in turn will impact the many countries that China has become a major trading partner for.

This means that China and other countries facing US trade restrictions will look for new markets for their goods. The situation has already led some countries to impose restrictions or initiate trade remedy investigations, for instance on steel. This uncertainty has and will continue to influence trade and investment, as businesses evaluate how the increased restrictions will affect their supply chains.

It is too early to tell how large the disruption will be, as it is not easy to dismantle supply chains. But the costs down the line could be great as businesses re-evaluate their trade and investment decisions to insulate themselves from tariffs rather than to maximise their competitiveness.

The most concerning aspect of all this is that, after 75 years of being its greatest advocate, the United States is now the biggest threat to the future of the rules-based trading system that has provided predictability and fairness in the way the world engages in trade. There is no clear light at the end of the tunnel.

The key question is: what is Trump’s intention? Is it to change the rules of the game to benefit the United States and address China’s ‘non-market-oriented policies’ or is it just anti-trade and America First? Assuming it is the former, there are at least three important responses needed.

First is safeguarding the stability of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the overarching framework to provide predictability, fairness and stability. To this end, it is vital that the WTO dispute settlement mechanism continues to operate. The test case is the Chinese and EU case against US steel and aluminium tariffs and getting past the blocking of panel judge nominations by the United States.

Ensuring that the United States does not use blunt unilateral instruments to address its concerns also means that reforms to the WTO rule book are needed. More must be done to address concerns around intellectual property rights, investment, the environment, labour, competition policy, subsidies, tax, digital data and the treatment of developing countries.

Second, the process of opening-up must continue, with or without the United States. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is a good start. And it is of the utmost importance that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations are concluded in November this year. These are all important processes to signal the continued commitment of East Asia to expanding markets and fostering flows of trade and investment.

Third, and what most will agree is the most important process, is unilateral reforms. Given increased global uncertainty and limited policy space for fiscal stimulus, structural reforms are a must for East Asian countries, especially China. These range from trade and investment reforms, as well as reforms related to competition policy, intellectual property, the role of state-owned enterprises and sustainability. As in the past, unilateral reforms are more successfully undertaken when there is peer pressure and benchmarking from international commitments.

Without concerted effort and a coalition of willing leadership, including from the EU and East Asia, the future of the rules-based trading system will remain under threat.

Dr. Mari Pangestu is former Indonesian trade minister and Professor at the University of Indonesia.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asian crisis, ready or not’.

Jerome Powell’s Big Challenge at The Federal Reserve


March 1, 2018

Jerome Powell’s Big Challenge at The Federal Reserve

by John Cassidy@www.newyorker.com

https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/jerome-powells-big-challenge?mbid=nl_Daily 022818&CNDID=49438257&spMailingID

“…Powell has taken over the Fed at a delicate moment. With no reliable partner in the White House or on Capitol Hill, he has to finish the job that Yellen started: rolling back the extraordinary measures the Fed took in the wake of the Great Recession without causing a relapse. Even if he succeeds, the journey is unlikely to be without some turbulence.”–John Cassidy

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Dr Janet Yellen welcomes her successor Jerome ‘Jay’ Powell to The Fed

When Jerome Powell, the new head of the Federal Reserve, emerged from the Rayburn House Office Building on Tuesday at lunchtime, he may well have said to himself, “Mission accomplished.” During more than three hours of testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Powell, who replaced Janet Yellen at the start of this month, didn’t say anything that was particularly unexpected or that raised doubts about his competence.

Still, the Dow fell by three hundred points after Powell’s appearance. Wall Street, which had been expecting the Fed to raise interest rates three times this year, cottoned onto his assertion that the economic outlook had strengthened recently, taking this to mean that four rate hikes, rather than three, could be on the way. Anticipating this possibility, traders sold stocks.

Despite the reaction in the markets, Powell was careful to leave himself plenty of flexibility. He emphasized that he “wouldn’t want to prejudge” the future course of rates, and he pointed out that inflation “remains below our two-per-cent longer-run objective.” In the future, he said, the Fed would “continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheating economy and bringing . . . price inflation to two per cent on a sustained basis.”

Yellen could easily have spoken these same words. In fact, she did utter very similar ones. Addressing the National Association for Business Economics in September, she said, “Without further modest increases in the federal funds rate over time, there is a risk that the labor market could eventually become overheated, potentially creating an inflationary problem down the road that might be difficult to overcome without triggering a recession.”

Yellen’s response to the inflation risk she perceived was to raise the federal funds rate slowly. Since an initial move, in December, 2015, the Fed’s gradual policy tightening has taken the funds rate from zero to 1.5 per cent. By historical standards, this is still a very low level, and Powell expressly said that he was working toward “continuity in monetary policy.”

Yellen could easily have spoken these same words. In fact, she did utter very similar ones. Addressing the National Association for Business Economics in September, she said, “Without further modest increases in the federal funds rate over time, there is a risk that the labor market could eventually become overheated, potentially creating an inflationary problem down the road that might be difficult to overcome without triggering a recession.”

Yellen’s response to the inflation risk she perceived was to raise the federal funds rate slowly. Since an initial move, in December, 2015, the Fed’s gradual policy tightening has taken the funds rate from zero to 1.5 per cent. By historical standards, this is still a very low level, and Powell expressly said that he was working toward “continuity in monetary policy.”

As I noted a few weeks ago, this policy move was the opposite of what most economics textbooks would recommend, partly because it raised the risk of the economy running into capacity constraints. Even before Powell’s testimony, investors had started fretting that Congress’s recent actions would prompt the Fed to raise rates more rapidly, and these worries contributed to the recent wild swings in the stock market.

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Powell, a Republican investment banker who served in the Bush Administration, didn’t openly criticize the policy priorities of President Trump and the G.O.P. But he did point out that “some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds,” and he specifically mentioned the recent change in fiscal policy. Asked about the rising national debt, he said, “I think we are not on a sustainable fiscal path.”

Powell also noted that he and his colleagues were still in a “process of discovering” how low the jobless rate could go before inflation started rising. For now, there is no reason to suppose that he will abort this process, which has allowed employment and incomes to grow steadily in the past few years. Inflation remains quiescent, and, despite the G.O.P. fiscal stimulus, it may well remain that way.

Even today, there could be some hidden slack left in the economy, which, in any case, may be less inflation-prone than it once was, thanks to structural shifts such as digitization and globalization. As the Fed watcher Tim Duy, an economist at the University of Oregon, pointed out on Twitter during Powell’s testimony, “our inflation concerns over the past two decades have been much ado about nothing.”

The fact remains, however, that Powell has taken over the Fed at a delicate moment. With no reliable partner in the White House or on Capitol Hill, he has to finish the job that Yellen started: rolling back the extraordinary measures the Fed took in the wake of the Great Recession without causing a relapse. Even if he succeeds, the journey is unlikely to be without some turbulence.

John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.

The Myth of Sound Fundamentals


February 26, 2018

The Myth of Sound Fundamentals

by Stephen S.Roach*

http://www.project-syndicate.com

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The recent correction in the US stock market is now being characterized as a fleeting aberration – a volatility shock – in what is still deemed to be a very accommodating investment climate. In fact, for a US economy that has a razor-thin cushion of saving, dependence on rising asset prices has never been more obvious.

NEW HAVEN – The spin is all too predictable. With the US stock market clawing its way back from the sharp correction of early February, the mindless mantra of the great bull market has returned. The recent correction is now being characterized as a fleeting aberration – a volatility shock – in what is still deemed to be a very accommodating investment climate. After all, the argument goes, economic fundamentals – not just in the United States, but worldwide – haven’t been this good in a long, long time.But are the fundamentals really that sound? For a US economy that has a razor-thin cushion of saving, nothing could be further from the truth. America’s net national saving rate – the sum of saving by businesses, households, and the government sector – stood at just 2.1% of national income in the third quarter of 2017. That is only one-third the 6.3% average that prevailed in the final three decades of the twentieth century.

It is important to think about saving in “net” terms, which excludes the depreciation of obsolete or worn-out capacity in order to assess how much the economy is putting aside to fund the expansion of productive capacity. Net saving represents today’s investment in the future, and the bottom line for America is that it is saving next to nothing.

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Alas, the story doesn’t end there. To finance consumption and growth, the US borrows surplus saving from abroad to compensate for the domestic shortfall. All that borrowing implies a large balance-of-payments deficit with the rest of the world, which spawns an equally large trade deficit. While President Donald Trump’s administration is hardly responsible for this sad state of affairs, its policies are about to make a tough situation far worse.

Under the guise of tax reform, late last year Trump signed legislation that will increase the federal budget deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. And now the US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has upped the ante by another $300 billion in the latest deal to avert a government shutdown. Never mind that deficit spending makes no sense when the economy is nearing full employment: this sharp widening of the federal deficit is enough, by itself, to push the already-low net national saving rate toward zero. And it’s not just the government’s red ink that is so troublesome. The personal saving rate fell to 2.4% of disposable (after-tax) income in December 2017, the lowest in 12 years and only about a quarter of the 9.3% average that prevailed over the final three decades of the twentieth century.

As domestic saving plunges, the US has two options – a reduction in investment and the economic growth it supports, or increased borrowing of surplus saving from abroad. Over the past 35 years, America has consistently opted for the latter, running balance-of-payments deficits every year since 1982 (with a minor exception in 1991, reflecting foreign contributions for US military expenses in the Gulf War). With these deficits, of course, come equally chronic trade deficits with a broad cross-section of America’s foreign partners. Astonishingly, in 2017, the US ran trade deficits with 102 countries.

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The multilateral foreign-trade deficits of a saving-short US economy set the stage for perhaps the most egregious policy blunder being committed by the Trump administration: a shift toward protectionism. Further compression of an already-weak domestic saving position spells growing current-account and trade deficits – a fundamental axiom of macroeconomics that the US never seems to appreciate.

Attempting to solve a multilateral imbalance with bilateral tariffs directed mainly at China, such as those just imposed on solar panels and washing machines in January, doesn’t add up. And, given the growing likelihood of additional trade barriers – as suggested by the US Commerce Department’s recent recommendations of high tariffs on aluminum and steel – the combination of protectionism and ever-widening trade imbalances becomes all the more problematic for a US economy set to become even more dependent on foreign capital. Far from sound, the fundamentals of a saving-short US economy look shakier than ever.

Lacking a cushion of solid support from income generation, the lack of saving also leaves the US far more beholden to fickle asset markets than might otherwise be the case. That’s especially true of American consumers who have relied on appreciation of equity holdings and home values to support over-extended lifestyles. It is also the case for the US Federal Reserve, which has turned to unconventional monetary policies to support the real economy via so-called wealth effects. And, of course, foreign investors are acutely sensitive to relative returns on assets – the US versus other markets – as well as the translation of those returns into their home currencies.

Driven by the momentum of trends in employment, industrial production, consumer sentiment, and corporate earnings, the case for sound fundamentals plays like a broken record during periods of financial market volatility. But momentum and fundamentals are two very different things. Momentum can be fleeting, especially for a saving-short US economy that is consuming the seed corn of future prosperity. With dysfunctional policies pointing to a further compression of saving in the years ahead, the myth of sound US fundamentals has never rung more hollow.

Stephen S. Roach

*Stephen S. Roach, former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist, is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and a senior lecturer at Yale’s School of Management. He is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.