Archive for the 'International trade' Category

Mar 06 2012

Planet Money Podcast – “China’s Giant Pool of Money”

NPR’s Planet Money team did a great podcast last week about China’s accumulation of US dollars from its large trade surplus with the United States. This story offers a great illustration of the theories I introduced in my recent video lesson, The Relationship between the Current Account Balance and Exchange Rates

Listen to the podcast, watch the video lesson, and respond to the discussion questions that follow.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the Chinese Central Bank possess over $3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves?
  2. What does the Chinese Central Bank do with the vast majority of the money it earns from the sale of its exports that it does NOT spend on US goods? Why not keep this money in cash?
  3. Why does the Chinese Central Bank manage the value of its currency, the RMB? Why not let the exchange rate be determined by the free market?
  4. As the RMB is slowly strengthened against the dollar, who are the winners and losers? What impact should a stronger RMB have on the balance of trade between China and the US?


2 responses so far

Feb 27 2012

A closer look at Apple’s iPad and iPhone – “made in America”?

I have two  interesting stories on Apple and the iPad to reflect on today.

First, ABC’s Nightline recently became the first Western journalists actually welcomed into an Apple assembly plant in China. The show recently aired a 15 minute feature on working conditions inside Apple’s Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China last week. Watch the video and then scroll down for what may be some additional surprising news about Apple’s operations in China.

Next, the story that has gone unreported lately is a University of California study titled “Capturing Value in Global Networks: Apple’s iPad and iPhone”. The study’s most interesting finding, in my opinion, is the tiny percentage of the total value of Apple’s iPhone and iPad that actually goes to the Chinese manufacturers of the products. The charts below, from the study, show how the value is divided among the various groups involved it their production and sales:

The Economist provides the analysis:

The chart shows a geographical breakdown of the retail price of an iPad. The main rewards go to American shareholders and workers. Apple’s profit amounts to about 30% of the sales price. Product design, software development and marketing are based in America. Add in the profits and wages of American suppliers, and distribution and retail costs, and America retains about half the total value of an iPad sold there. The next biggest gainers are South Korean firms like Samsung and LG, which provide the display and memory chips, whose profits account for 7% of an iPad’s value. The main financial benefit to China is wages paid to workers for assembling the product and for manufacturing some inputs—equivalent to only 2% of the retail price.

A student today asked why Apple doesn’t produce its products in the United States, where an economic downturn has left 14 million American out of work for the last three or four years. If iPads and iPhones were just made in America, jobs could be created, households would have more income to spend on Apples products, and both the country and the economy would benefit.

The data in the UC study indicates that in fact, more than half the value of an iPad or iPhone does end up in the hands of Americans. But Apple could never achieve the low costs and high profits that it does by assembling its products in the US. After watching the Nightline video above, it should be clear that the type of production involved in Apple factories’ is very low-skilled and labor-intensive. Using American labor, with its unions, minimum wages and 40 hour work weeks, would require Apple to employ such large numbers of workers and raise the company’s variable cost to such a level that the firm’s profits would be reduced significantly and its sales would fall dramatically. Apple would lose out to foreign producers of smart phones and tablet computers, such as LG, Samsung, Sony and others, which would continue assembling their goods with Chinese labor.

Ultimately, any gain to the low-skilled American workers (presuming Apple could even find enough to do the work of the 400,000 Chinese employed in the production of Apple products in China), would be offset by a loss of profits enjoyed by the millions of Americans who hold shares in Apple Computer and the thousands of American who are employed engineering and designing its products, as the firm’s sales would slip in the face of lower-cost competitors.

So this student’s question identifies an interesting paradox: America, with its large pool of unemployed workers, will never be attractive as a place to produce labor-intensive products such as phones and tablet computers, due to the vast wage differential between the US and China. And even if one firm did decide to produce its products in America, the gains to low-skilled workers who may find minimum wage work in the new assembly plants would be off-set by losses to the firms’ shareholders and the high-skilled workers whose jobs would be lost as sales decline due to the lower prices offered by lower-cost competitors.

The lesson here is two-fold: First, Apple and other American technology companies should continue using Chinese labor to assemble their products, and second, America is better off for it: lower costs mean cheaper products and higher sales, thus greater employment in the high-skilled sectors of the US economy, and more profits and returns on the investments of shareholders in American corporations. Americans are richer and enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to the millions of Chinese working in factories assembling the goods we consume.

Keep in mind, this analysis did not even consider the effect on the Chinese economy and the millions of Chinese workers (whose lives are much harder than the typical American) should companies like Apple shut down their Chinese manufacturing plants. That’s a whole other blog post!

5 responses so far

Nov 23 2011

Why the falling rupee makes Mr. Welker a happy man! (and may help the Indian economy in the long-run)

Indian Rupee hits all-time low against the dollar – CBS News

A couple of years ago I wrote what I would call a “fantasy” blog post about how the recent depreciation of the British pound would have made a ski trip to India a whole lot cheaper since the tour company I was planning to go with quoted its prices in the British currency. Well, at the time I wasn’t really planning to go skiing in the Himalayas, but this year, because of a fall in the value of another currency, I really AM going to ski in the Himalayas!

The chart below shows how the value of the Swiss franc has changed against the Indian rupee over the last year and a half.

The Value of the Swiss Franc in terms of India Rupees – last 18 months

As can be seen, the franc, which is the currency in which I get paid here in Switzerland, has risen from only 40 rupees 18 months ago to as high as 63 rupees in August this year, and is currently at 57 rupees per Swiss franc. We’ll explore the underlying causes of this appreciation of the franc in a moment, but first let’s examine its effect on my dream of skiing in the Himalayas.

So just yesterday morning I did, at last, after six years of dreaming of this adventure, book a six day guided ski trip in the Indian Kashmir town of Gulmarg, which sits at an elevation of 2800 meters and has lift-accessed skiing up to 4,000 meters, making Gulmarg the second highest ski resort in the world. Okay, enough facts. The strong franc made this trip a reality for me for the following reason:

  • 18 months ago, the 40,000 rupee price tag of this ski trip would have meant a cost of 1,000 swiss francs.
  • Today, due to the strong franc, the 40,000 rupee price tag means this trip is only costing me 700 swiss francs.
Due to the strengthening of the franc, and the weakening of the rupee, my Himalayan ski odyssey is now costing me 30% less than it would have 18 months ago… so… I’m doing it! YEAH!
The Swiss currency has appreciated by 42.5% in the last 18 months against the India rupee. WHY?! What could be going on in the world that accounts for this massive swing in exchange rates? There are a few causes worth mentioning here, which have to do with factors within Switzerland and India, but also external factors beyond the control of either country. Here are some of the major ones:
In Europe:
  • The franc has risen against most world currencies, not just the rupee, due, ironically, to economic uncertainty in the rest of Europe. Since Switzerland has its own currency, and a strong economy, whereas all of its European neighbors have a common currency (the euro), and struggling economies, investments in Swiss assets (primarily savings accounts and government debt) have become increasingly attractive. This has caused demand for francs to rise, causing its value to increase against most currencies.
  • The debt crisis in the rest of Europe, most notably in Greece and Italy, reduces certainty among investors in these European governments’ ability to repay their debt, creating further demand for investment in Switzerland, causing the franc to rise.
In India:
  • According to the Associated Press, “Slowing growth, a swelling current account deficit and waning investor interest in India are adding to pressure on the rupee…” India runs a large trade deficit, equaling about 3% of the nation’s GDP. This means Indians are dependent on imported goods, while foreigners do not demand as many of its exports. This puts downward pressure on the exchange rate of the rupee.
  • In addition, the “slowing growth” rate in India sends the signal that the country’s central bank may lower interest rates to try and stimulate GDP. However, the expectations of lower interest rates in the future make international investors look elsewhere for investments with relatively higher returns.
  • Next, weaker growth prospects make investments in Indian assets (such as corporate stocks or bonds) less attractive to international investors, since they expect demand for Indian output to slow in the future, thus demand for rupees declines now.
  • Finally, the decline in the rupee’s value itself is fueling a further increase in the value of the franc. Not all currency exchanges are for the purpose of purchasing a nation’s goods or its assets. Much currency trading is among forex brokers who buy and sell currencies to hold as assets themselves. The weakening of the rupee may be fueling speculation about the future value of the rupee, which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as forex investors will continue to swap rupees for other currencies, including the Swiss franc.
All this adds up to one thing for me: A 30% discount on my ski vacation to India! Of course, for the Indian economy, a weaker rupee might be just what is needed to boost future economic growth. As the rupee falls and the Swiss franc and the US dollar gain value, not only will ski vacations to India become more attractive to foreigners, but so will other exports from the South Asian nation. That 3% trade deficit that has contributed to the rupee’s decline may begin to move towards the positive if foreigners like me begin taking more trips to and buying more goods from Indian firms.
The weaker rupee could, in the long-run, increase total demand for India’s output, which would improve employment and growth prospects on the sub-continent. Furthermore, if India’s growth rate picks up due to increased net exports, the Indian central bank may be able to raise interest rates a bit, reducing the incentive for investors to flee the rupee and put their money in countries with higher returns.
Through this process of self-balancing, in time the weaker rupee will probably lead to an improvement in India’s economic situation and eventually the rupee will begin to strengthen against the currencies of India’s trading partners. But for now, I’m going to enjoy my week of guided skiing in the Himalayas, and thank the forex traders and currency speculators for allowing me to take this dream vacation for such a bargain price!


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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 11 2010

Okay, a trade deficit is bad, what can we do about it?

In my last post, I outlined the consequences of a nation running a persistent deficit in its current account. In the post below, I will share some thoughts on how a nations can reduce its trade deficit by promoting increased competitiveness in the global economy through the use of expansionary supply-side policies. Earlier in the chapter from which this post is taken, I outlined other deficit reduction strategies, including the use of protectionism, currency devaluation and contractionary demand-side fiscal and monetary policies. In my opinion, each of these methods creates more harm than good for a nation, resulting in a misallocation of society’s scarce resources (in the case of protectionism) and negative effects on output and employment (in the case of contractionary demand-side policies)

Therefore, the following presents the “supply-side” strategies for reducing a deficit in a nation’s current account.

From Chapter 22 of my upcoming textbook: Pearson Baccalaureate Economics

Contractionary fiscal and monetary policies will surely reduce overall demand in an economy and thereby help reduce a current account deficit. But the costs of such policies most likely outweigh the benefits, as domestic employment, output and economic growth suffer due to reduced spending on the nation’s goods and services. A better option for governments worried about their trade deficit is to pursue supply-side policies that increase the competitiveness of domestic producers in the global economy.

In the long-run, the best way for a nation to reduce a current account deficit is to allocate its scarce resources towards the economic activities in which it can most effectively compete in the global economy. In an environment of increasingly free trade between nations, countries like the United States and those of Western Europe will inevitably continue to confront structural shifts in their economies that at first seem devastating, but upon closer inspection will prove to be inexorable.

The auto industry in the United States has been forever changed due to competition from Japan. The textile industry in Europe has long passed its apex of production experienced decades past, and the UK consumer will never again buy a television or computer monitor made in the British Isles. The reality is, much of the world’s manufactured goods can be and should be made more cheaply and efficiently in Asia and Latin America than they could ever be produced in the US or Europe.

The question Europe and the United States should be asking, therefore, is not “how can we get back what we have lost and restore balance in our current account”, but, “what can we provide the world with that no one else can?” By focusing their resources towards providing the goods and services that no Asian or Latin American competitor is capable of providing, the deficit countries of the world should be able to reduce their current account deficits and at the same time stimulate aggregate demand at home, while increasing the productivity of the nation’s resources and promoting long-run economic growth.

Sure, you say, that all sounds great, but how can they achieve this? This is where supply-side policies come in. Smart supply-side policies mean more than tax cuts for corporations and subsidies to domestic producers. Smart supply-side policies that will promote more balanced global trade and long-run economic growth include:

  • Investments in education and health care: Nothing makes a nation more competitive in the global economy than a highly educated and healthy work force. Exports from Europe and the US will lie ever increasingly in the high skilled service sector and less and less in the manufacturing sector; therefore, highly educated and skilled workers are needed for future economic growth and global competitiveness, particularly in scientific fields such as engineering, medicine, finance, economics and business.
  • Public funding for scientific research and development: Exports from the US and Europe have increasingly depended on scientific innovation new technologies. Copyright and patent protection assure that scientific breakthroughs achieved in one country will allow for a period of time over which only that country will enjoy the sales of exports in the new field. Green energy, nano-technology, bio-medical research; these are the field that require sustained commitments from the government sector for dependable funding.
  • Investments in modern transportation and communication infrastructure: To remain competitive in the global economy, the countries of Europe and North America must assure that domestic firms have at their disposal the most modern and efficient transportation and communication infrastructure available. High speed rail, well-maintained inter-state or international highways, modern port facilities, high-speed internet and telecommunications; these investments allow for lower costs of production and more productive capital and labor, making countries goods more competitive in the global marketplace.

Reducing a current account deficit will have many benefits for a nation like the United States, Spain, the UK or Australia. A stronger currency will assure price stability, low interest rates will allow for economic growth, and perhaps most importantly, less taxpayer money will have to be paid in interest to foreign creditors. Governments and central banks may go about reducing a current account deficit in many ways: exchange rate controls, protectionism, contractionary monetary and fiscal policies, or supply-side policies may all be implemented to restore balance in the current account. Only one of these options will promote long-run economic growth and increase the efficiency with which a nation employs its scarce factors of production.

Supply-side policies are clearly the most efficient and economically justifiable method for correcting a current account deficit. Unfortunately, they are also the least politically popular, since the benefits of such policies are not realized in the short-run, but take years, maybe decades, to accrue. For this reason, we see time and time again governments turning to protectionism in response to rising trade deficits.

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