Monday, March 16, 2009

If Americans don't consume, will global trade crash and burn to the ground?

A couple of comments I made on another blog page:
One of the big lenses through which most Americans view the world’s trade is very approximately as follows: “If Americans don’t consume, global trade will crash and burn to the ground.” I expect that Fabius Maximus would have followed the reasoning in Brad Setser’s explanation for China’s February trade data. China’s exports are showing a decreasing year on year rate of decline in February versus January. The Chinese Lunar New year dates are used by Setser, Macroman, and other commentators to explain this trend. They’re unable to accept that China’s overall export volumes are not responding as expected to the fall in US aggregate demand.Another lens through which several people view the US status is that might be possible to reduce the import dependence through a “divide and rule” policy. For instance, one of the themes I’ve come across is that you can massively do away with imports from China through tariffs, etc, while the oil-exporters continue to hold dollar assets. Thus a currency crisis is prevented, and an imaginary “rapid and orderly rebalancing” can ensue, even as millions more are laid off abroad and political crises emerge there. The divide and rule advocates are unable to see the new alliance amongst the Eurasian powers, consisting mainly of Germany, Russia and China. Despite various differences amongst countries, the US dollar hegemony has become a rallying cry, and the US is now more widely seen in the world as the common enemy of all. (246 words)
What FM seems to be thinking about is a gradual import substitution, sector by sector, whatever. This is radically different from the “rapid and orderly” fantasies.The ruse here is very simple. Most people, unless they’re specialized in economics, or naturally very bright, have a belief that doing away with imports will result in higher local employment. For instance, people seem to imagine that, if you ban imports from China, local companies will come up rapidly, and local people will get jobs to manufacture things imported from China. The fact is that real wages of US workers are much higher than almost anywhere else. Consider a situation where all kinds of items, from textiles, nail clippers, electronics, etc are produced locally, and have to be priced accordingly. This provides two choices; either reduce the wages of US workers, or increase the prices of those goods. Neither of these choices results in a better economy or a better standard of living for people. Apart from reducing people to consuming only the barest essentials, the other effect is that aggregate employment will drop drastically. There’s no way to employ lots of high-paid Americans and hope to sell the same volumes at high prices. If you don’t pay the Americans well enough, despite lower prices, they won’t buy so much, so the factories will be unviable. As for hoping to increase exports, which country will buy US exports in the presence of a huge US Tariff? (245 words)

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