Archive for the 'China' Category

Aug 15 2011

Oh the times, they are a changing!

The Economist – Sticking it to China

Not long ago, China was known as a source of low-skilled, manufactured goods imports to the United States. China’s abundant workforce andcheap raw materials made it the perfect place for American firms to source their toys, cheap electronics, and textiles from. But today things are different. China’s economy grew at over 10% in the first half of 2011, a rate that shocked many who predicted that weak international demand for its exports would slow China’s growth rate and begin to put pressure on employment. However, slow grown and weak employment figures are more characteristic of the US economy in 2011 than its Asian rival (or partner, depending on how you look at it).

So I guess I should not be surprised to see this article in the Economist, in which it appears that, at least in certain industries, the United States is now the source of low-skilled, labor and land intensive imports into China. But China’s famous “plastic toys” are even higher tech than America’s new export to China, chopsticks.

Jae Lee, a former scrap-metal exporter, saw an opportunity and began turning out chopsticks for the Chinese market late last year…

In May Georgia Chopsticks moved to larger premises in Americus, a location that offered room to grow, inexpensive facilities and a willing workforce. Sumter County, of which Americus is the seat, has an unemployment rate of more than 12%. Georgia Chopsticks now employs 81 people turning out 2m chopsticks a day. By year’s end Mr Lee and Mr Hughes hope to increase their workforce to 150, and dream of building a “manufacturing incubator” to help foreign firms take advantage of Georgia’s workforce and raw materials.

America as a source of abundant and cheap labor, raw materials, and capital… sounds more like China in the 1990s, doesn’t it?

Some say that the asendancy of the East will be defining event of the 21st Century. China, 600 years ago, was not only the world’s most populous country, but it was also the world’s most innovative, richest, and largest economy. The West, at the same time, was relatively poor and technologically under-developed compared to China. Today, after 300 years of Industrialization, the West is typically thought of as the “developed world” and China and its Asian neighbors fall under the designation of the “developing countries”.

But as the size of the developing worlds’ economies continues to grow at rates that far exceed those achieved in the developed world, the income gap between the two grows ever narrower; therefore it should not be a surprise to see the identities of their economies grow increasingly muddled. China, once the low-cost producer of basic manufactured goods, now finds it resources (land, labor and capital) growing increasingly scarce. The US, on the other hand, with its nearly stagnant growth, 16% under-employment, large amounts of idle capital and relatively abundant forests and other natural resources, will grow more attractive to manufacturers from the East looking for a place to source cheap, low-skilled goods from, even something as simple as chopsticks!

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Apr 11 2011

“A glimmer of hope” – rising incomes in China lead to rising demand for US exports

A nation’s balance of payments measures all the transactions between the residents of that nation and the residents of foreign nations, including the flow of money for the purchase of goods and services (measured in the current account) and the flow of financial or real assets (measured in the financial or capital account). The sale of exports counts as a positive in the current account, while the purchase of imports counts as a negative. In this way, a nation can have either a positive balance on its current account (a trade surplus) or a negative balance (a trade deficit).

The US has for decades run persistent deficits in its current account. As the world’s largest importer, Americans’ appetite for foreign goods has been unrivaled in the global economy. Of course, this is not to say that the US has not been a large exporter as well. In fact, the US is also one of the largest exporting nations, along with China, Germany and Japan, in the world. However, the total expenditures by Americans on imports has exceeded the country’s income from the sale of exports year after year, resulting in a net deficit in its current account.

So the news that rising incomes in China have fueled a boom in US export sales should come as a relief to US politicians and more importantly, firms in the American export industry:

Last year, American exports to China soared 32 percent to a record $91.9 billion.

A study by a trade group called the U.S.- China Business Council says China is now the world’s fastest-growing destination for American exports.

While United States exports to the rest of the world have grown 55 percent over the past decade, American exports to China have jumped 468 percent.

Most of those exports have come from California, Washington and Texas, which have shipped huge quantities of microchips, computer components and aircraft. But states that produce grain, chemicals and transportation equipment have also benefited.

China, which last year surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy (measured by total output), is soon expected to become the world’s second largest importer as well:

And while much of what China imports is used to make goods that are then re-exported, like the Apple iPhone, Mr. Brasher says a growing share of what China imports from the United States, including cotton and grain as well as aircraft and automobiles, is staying in China.

“You know all those BMW X5 S.U.V.’s that are in China? They’re being imported from the U.S.,” Mr. Brasher said in a telephone interview Thursday. “They’re being made by a BMW factory in South Carolina.”

All this must be good news for the US, right? Growing exports to China must mean a smaller current account deficit, greater net exports and thus stronger aggregate demand, more employment and greater output in the United States. However, this may not be the case. While exports to China grow, the US economy’s recovery has led to a boost in the demand for imports from China as well. So, ironically, even as exports have grown 468 percent in the last decade, the US has still managed to maintain a stunningly large trade deficit with China: 

Last year, China’s trade surplus with the United States was between $180 billion or $250 billion, according to various calculations.

Still, the combination of a weakening American dollar and China’s growing economic clout is likely to bode well for American exports. With China short of water and arable land, exports of crops to China jumped to $13.8 billion last year.

Study the graph below and answer the questions that follow.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the primary determinant of demand for exports that has lead to the growth over the last decade seen in the graph above?
  2. What types of goods has China primarily imported from the US in the past? As incomes in China rise, how will the composition of its imports from the US likely change?
  3. How is it possible that the US current account deficit remains as large as it does (as much as $250 billion) despite the growth in exports to China?
  4. The value of China’s currency, the RMB, is closely managed by the Chinese Central Bank to maintain a low exchange rate against the US dollar. How does maintaining a low value of its currency exacerbate the imbalance of trade between China and the US? How would allowing greater flexibility in the RMB’s value help reduce the large imbalance of trade between the two countries?
  5. If the US spent $250 billion more on Chinese goods than China did on US goods in 2010, where did that $250 billion end up? What does China do with the money the US spends on its goods that it does not spend on US goods? Define the financial account and explain the relationship between a nation’s current account balance and its financial account balance.

43 responses so far

Nov 23 2010

Exchange rates and trade: a delicate balancing act, currently out of balance!

FT.com / Asia-Pacific – Renminbi at heart of trade imbalances.

“The Americans get the toys, the Chinese get the Treasuries and we get screwed.” Thus a European Union official once characterised the pattern of Beijing accumulating US assets by selling renminbis for dollars, while nothing stood in the way of a rapid and destabilising appreciation of the euro.

In a world of freely floating exchange rates trade imbalances between countries would ultimately be reduced and eliminated. At least, that’s the belief of those advocating a floating exchange rate between East Asian currencies and the United States.

Here’s how it is supposed to work:

  • Cheap labor and cheap imports from China following China’s joining the world economy 30 years ago led to a rapid increase in demand for Chinese manufactured goods in the US, creating growth, jobs, and rising national income for China.
  • A trade imbalance emerges between the US and China as US spending on imports increases more rapidly than America’s  sale of exports. If the Chinese currency were allowed to float freely on foreign exchange markets, however, this imbalance would be temporary, because…
  • The US current account deficit means, literally, that Americans are supplying more of their dollars in the foreign exchange market, while demanding more Chinese RMB. The forces of supply and demand would naturally lead to an appreciation of the RMB and a depreciation of the dollar.
  • The weaker dollar resulting from the trade deficit with China would eventually make Chinese goods less attractive to Americans. Despite their lower costs of production, the weak dollar makes imported Chinese goods more expensive and less appealing to the American consumer.
  • The strong RMB, on the other hand, makes American produced goods and services cheaper to Chinese consumers, who begin to import more from the US at the same time that Americans demand fewer of China’s products.
  • Through free-floating exchange rates, a current account imbalance is eventually reduced and eliminated as exchange rates adjust to the flows of goods and services between trading partners.

A graphical version of this story is told here:

Floating ER

This, of course, is precisely what has NOT happened, thanks to China’s strict management of the value of the RMB. In order to keep its currency weak, Beijing directly intervenes in foreign exchange markets, “by selling renmenbi for dollars” to accumulate American assets. As seen in the next graph, such interference has the effect of keeping the dollar strong against the RMB.

As any IB student knows, the Balance  of Payments between two countries includes not only the trade in goods and services, but also the flow of real and financial assets, such as government securities, stocks, real estate, factories, and so on, between the countries. China has actively promoted a policy of acquiring such American assets, which keeps demand for dollars strong in China, and supply of RMB high in America, without creating any jobs in manufacturing or services for Americans. China has financed America’s current account deficit by assuring it maintains a capital account surplus!

Put more simply, China has exported goods and services to America, while America has exported ownership of its real and financial assets to China. This is a major area of concern for US policy makers, who would like to see a more balanced current account between the two countries, since it is the export of goods and services that creates jobs for American workers, not the sale of bonds, stocks and real estate.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Europe care about China’s fixed exchange rate with the US dollar?
  2. Do you believe that American demand for Chinese goods would actually decline if the RMB were allowed to appreciate against the dollar? Why or why not?
  3. Besides American workers and firms, who else suffers from a weak Chinese currency? How could China actually benefit from allowing the RMB to strengthen against the dollar?
  4. How does China maintain the RMB’s peg against the dollar without buying large quantities of US exports?

31 responses so far

Nov 10 2010

Yeah, we have a trade deficit, SO WHAT?!

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 22  – “Balance of Payments” of my soon to be published textbook “Pearson Baccalaureate Economics”

If the total spending by a nation’s residents on goods and services imported from the rest of the world exceeds the revenues earned by the nation’s producers from the sale of exports to the rest of the world, the nation is likely experiencing a current account deficit. The situation is not at all uncommon among many of the world’s trading nations. The map belowmap  represents nations by their cumulative current account balances over the years 1980-2008. The red countries all accumulated current account deficits over the three decades, with the largest by far being the United States with a cumulative deficit of $7.3 trillion. The green countries are ones which have had a cumulative surplus in their current accounts, the largest surplus belonging to Japan at $2.7 trillion, followed by China at $1.5 trillion.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cumulative_Current_Account_Balance.png

The top ten current account deficit nations are represented below. It is obvious from this chart that the United States alone accounts for a larger current account deficit then the next nine countries combined. At $7.3 trillion dollars in deficits over 28 years, the US deficit surpasses Spain’s (at number 2) by 1,000 percent.

The consequences of a nation having a current account deficit are not immediately clear. It should be pointed out that it is debatable whether a trade deficit is necessarily a bad thing, in fact. Below we will examine some of the facts about current account deficits, and we will conclude by evaluating the pros and cons for countries that run deficits in the short-run and in the long-run.

Implications of persistent current account deficits: When a country like like those above experience deficits in the current account for year after year, there are some predictable consequences that may have adverse effects on the nation’s macroeconomy. These include currency depreciation, foreign ownership of domestic assets, higher interest rates and foreign indebtedness.

The effect of a current account deficit on the exchange rate: In the previous chapter you learned about the determinants of the exchange rate of a nation’s currency relative to another currency. One of the primary determinants of a currency’s exchange rate is the demand for the nation’s exports relative to the demand for imports from other countries. With this in mind, we can examine the likely effects of a current account deficit on a nation’s currency’s exchange rate. Additionally, we will see that under a floating exchange rate system, deficits in the current account should be automatically corrected due to adjustments in exchange rates.

When households and firms in one nation demand more of other countries’ output than the rest of the world demands of theirs, there is upward pressure on the value of trading partners’ currencies and downward pressure on the importing nation’s currency. In this way, a movement towards a current account deficit should cause the deficit country’s currency to weaken.

As an illustration, say that New Zealand’s imports from Japan begin to rise due to rising incomes in New Zealand and the corresponding increase in demand for imports. Assuming Japan’s demand for New Zealand’s output does not change, New Zealand will move towards a deficit in its current account and Japan towards a surplus. In the foreign exchange market, demand for Japanese yen will rise while the supply of NZ$ in Japan increases, as seen above, depreciating the NZ$.

The downward pressure on exchange rates resulting from an increase in a nation’s current account deficit should have a self-correcting effect on the trade imbalance. As the NZ$ weakens relative to its trading partners’ currencies, consumers in New Zealand will start to find imports more and more expensive, while consumers abroad will, over time, begin to find products from New Zealand cheaper. In this way, a flexible exchange rate system should, in the long-run, eliminate surpluses and deficits between nations in the current account. The persistence of global trade imbalances illustrated in the map above is evidence that in reality, the ability of flexible exchange rates to maintain balance in nations’ current accounts is quite limited.

Foreign ownership of domestic assets: By definition, the balance of payments must always equal zero. For this reason, a deficit in the current account must be offset by a surplus in the capital and financial accounts. If the money spent by a deficit country on goods from abroad ends up in the does not end up returning to the deficit country for the purchase of goods and services, it will be re-invested into the county through foreign acquisition of domestic real and financial assets, or held in reserve by surplus nations’ central banks.

Essentially, a country with a large current account deficit, since it cannot export enough goods and services to make up for its spending on imports, instead ends up “exporting ownership” of its financial and real assets. This could take the form of foreign direct investment in domestic firms, increased portfolio investment by foreigners in the domestic economy, and foreign ownership of domestic government debt, or the build up of foreign reserves of the deficit nation’s currency.

The effect on interest rates: A persistent deficit in the current account can have adverse effects on the interest rates and investment in the deficit country. As explained above, a current account deficit can put downward pressure on a nation’s exchange rate, which causes inflation in the deficit country as imported goods, services and raw materials become more expensive. In order to prevent massive currency depreciation, the country’s central bank may be forced to tighten the money supply and raise domestic interest rates to attract foreign investors and keep demand for the currency and the exchange rate stable. Additionally, since a current account deficit must be offset by a financial account surplus, the deficit country’s government may need to offer higher interest rates on government bonds to attract foreign investors. Higher borrowing rates for the government and the private sector can slow domestic investment and economic growth in the deficit nation.

Side note: While the interest rate effect of a large current account deficit should be negative (i.e. causing interest rates to rise in the deficit country), in recent years the country with the largest trade deficit, the United States, has actually experienced record low interest rates even while maintaining persistent current account deficits. This can be understood by examining by the macroeconomic conditions of the US and global economies, in which deflation posed a greater threat than inflation over the years 2008-2010. The fear of deflation combined with low confidence in the private sector among international investors has kept demand for US government bonds high even as the US trade deficit has grown, allowing the US government and central bank to keep interest rates low and continue to attract foreign investors.

Whereas under “normal” macroeconomic conditions a build up of US dollars among America’s trading partners would require the US to raise interest rates to create an incentive for foreign investors to re-invest that money into the US economy, in the environment of uncertainty and low confidence in the private sector that has prevailed over the last several years, America’s trading partners have been willing to finance its current account deficit at record low interest rates.

The effect on indebtedness: A large current account deficit is synonymous with a large financial account surplus. One source of credits in the financial account is foreign ownership of domestic government bonds (i.e. debt). When a central bank from another nation buys government bonds from a nation with which it has a large current account surplus, the deficit nation is essentially going into debt to the surplus nation. For instance, as of August 2010, the Chinese central bank held $868 billion of United States Treasury Securities (government bonds) on its balance sheet. In total, the amount of US debt owned by foreign nations in 2010 was $4.2 trillion, or around 50% of the country’s total national debt and 30% of its GDP.source: http://www.ustreas.gov/tic/mfh.txt

On the one hand, foreign lending to a deficit nation is beneficial because it keeps demand for government bonds high and interest rates low, which allows the deficit country’s government to finance its budget without raising taxes on domestic households and firms. On the other hand, every dollar borrowed from a foreigner has to be repaid with interest. Interest payments on the national debt cost US taxpayers over $400 billion in 2010, making up around 10% of the federal budget. Nearly half of this went to foreign holders of US debt, meaning almost $200 billion of US taxpayer money was handed over to foreign interests, without adding a single dollar to aggregate demand in the US.

The opportunity cost of foreign owned national debt is the public goods and services that could have been provided with the money that instead is owed in interest to foreign creditors. If the US current account were more balanced, foreign countries like China would not have the massive reserves of US dollars to invest in government debt in the first place, and the taxpayer money going to pay interest on this debt could instead be invested in the domestic economy to promote economic growth and development.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would a large current account deficit cause a nation’s currency to depreciate? How could a weaker currency automatically reduce a nation’s current account deficit?
  2. Why should governments be concerned about a large trade deficit? What is one policy a government could implement to reduce a deficit in the current account?
  3. Would a nation with a large trade deficit be better off without trade at all? Why or why not?
  4. Discuss the validity of the following claim: “Americans buy tons of Chinese imports, but the Chinese don’t buy anything from America, this is why the US has such a huge trade deficit with China”. To what extent is this claim true or false?

8 responses so far

Oct 07 2010

US / China Trade War – Could this be the beginning?

This post was originally published on September 15, 2009. It is being reposted today for my year 2 IB Econ students, who are studying free trade and protectionism as part of Unit 4 of the IB Econ course.

US president Barack Obama made a speech directly to Wall Street today. In his speech, Obama reflected on the many lessons America has learned in the last year since the financial crisis began. He urged his audience of investors, bankers and brokers that

“Normalcy cannot lead to complacency,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment. Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we are still recovering, they are choosing to ignore them.”

“They do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation’s,” the president added.

In addition to his warnings about the threat posed by overly risky financial markets to the US economy, President Obama expressed his commitment to free trade and “the fight against protectionism”.

Obama says:

…enforcing trade agreements is part and parcel of maintaining an open and free trading system.

The enforcement of existing trade agreements Obama refers to is his way of justifying a decision his administration made over the weekend that actually limits free trade between America and one of its largest trading partners, China.

Trade relations between two of the world’s biggest economies deteriorated after Barack Obama, US president, signed an order late on Friday to impose a new duty of 35 per cent on Chinese tyre imports on top of an existing 4 per cent tariff.

In his first big test on world trade since taking office in January, Mr Obama sided with America’s trade unions, which have complained that a “surge” in imports of Chinese-made tyres had caused 7,000 job losses among US factory workers.

So, in his speech today, Obama decries protectionism and calls for expanded trade and free trade agreements which are “absolutely essential to our economic future”. But only three days ago, he supported a blatantly protectionist measure aimed at keeping foreign produced goods out of America in order to save a few thousand American jobs.

Obama’s decision is a bad one for several reasons. As an economics teacher, I will turn firstly to a diagram for an illustration of the net loss to the American people of higher tariffs on imported tires:
Tire protection

The key point to notice in the above graph is that a tariff on imported tires results in a net loss of welfare in America. The blue area represents the increase in the welfare of tire manufactures (this could be interpreted as the jobs saved in the tire industry and the profits earned due to higher prices); the black areas, on the other hand, are welfare loss. Since all tire consumers in America pay more for their tires due to the 35% tariff, real income is affected negatively for the nation as a whole.

One effect of the protectionist policy the graph does not illustrate, and perhaps the most serious negative impact of the tariff on America, is the response the Chinese are likely to take to what they interpret as a violation of existing free trade agreements between the US and China.

“This is a grave act of trade protectionism,” Mr Chen said in a statement. “Not only does it violate WTO rules, it contravenes commitments the US government made at the [April] G20 financial summit.”

Beijing said it had requested WTO-sanctioned consultations with the US over Washington’s new duties on tyres. Yao Jian, a commerce ministry spokesman, said the duties were in ”violation of WTO rules”.

China said it would now investigate imports of US poultry and vehicles, responding to complaints from domestic companies.

The problems with protectionism are myriad. Clearly American consumers suffer through higher tire prices. In addition, Chinese manufacturers will see sales fall as their product becomes less competitive in the US market. According to the CCTV report below, as many as 9,000 workers in the Chinese tire industry will lose their livelihoods due to declining demand from the US. But the unforseen effects of the US tariff on Chinese tires is the retaliatory measures China will almost certainly take. If China imposes new tariffs on American automobiles and poultry, the scenario in the graph above will be reversed, and Chinese consumers will face higher prices, Chinese car and poultry producers will experience rising sales, while the American auto worker and chicken farmer will suffer.

Free trade tends to result in net benefits for economies that choose to participate in it. American tire manufacturers are certainly harmed by cheap Chinese imports; however, America as a whole benefits through cheaper goods, more consumer surplus, higher incomes in China and therefore greater demand for imports of products made in America. The road to protectionism is a dangerous path to take for the Obama administration. Justifying these new tariffs by claiming that they “enforce existing free trade agreements” is a political maneuver aimed at covering up the truth, which is that the Obama administration has sided with a special interest group to save a few thousand jobs and garner political favor at a time when 700,000 American jobs are being lost each month. By doing so, he is calling into question his own commitment to free trade, and harming America’s image as a global proponent of global economic integration.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is the Chinese government so upset about a new tax on such an insignificant product as automobile tires?
  2. “Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty”: Do you agree?
  3. Some would say that it is a small price to pay for Americans to face higher prices for one product like tires in order to “save” 7,000 Americans’ jobs. Would you agree? Why or why not?
  4. If 7,000 Americans were to lose their jobs due to free trade with China, what would we call the type of unemployment experienced by these workers? Is this the same type of unemployment experienced by the 700,000 workers who have lost their jobs each month during the last year of recession in the United States?

33 responses so far

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