Category Archives: Trade

Nicholas R. Lardy – The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?

Nicholas R. Lardy – The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?

Lardy’s “core conclusion is that absent significant further economic reform returning China to a path of allowing market forces to allocate resources, China’s growth is likely to slow, casting a shadow over its future prospects.” In this case, Lardy largely echoes other recent works such as Elizabeth C. Economy’s The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State and Ronald Coase and Ning Wang’s How China Became Capitalist.

China has taken a decidedly dirigiste turn under Xi Jinping. If Xi continues down an increasingly statist path, China’s growth will slow. If market reforms continue, China will prosper. Given the outsize amount of power centralized in his person, this choice is up to him more than anyone else. This will remain the case regardless of whether the current U.S.-China trade war ends tomorrow or continues for years. U.S. presidents come and go, but Xi will likely be around for a long time. And if not him, then someone in his inner circle with similar policy views.

Lardy is an excellent economic analyst, parsing through China’s not-entirely-truthful official statistics as well as international data to give as accurate a picture of China’s trajectory as he can, given the sources. One of his major conclusions is that China’s state-run businesses are severely underperforming compared to the country’s private businesses. State-run enterprises consistently make more and larger losses, are more heavily in debt, and the ones that are profitable tend to be less profitable than their private counterparts. They are also concentrated in legacy industries; China’s growth is less in energy and manufacturing and more in services and technology—precisely where China’s private sector is strongest.

This sounds like good news, but the trouble is that under Xi, the poor-performing state-run share of the economy has been growing. Since government tends to make a hash of whatever it does, if Xi keeps this up, China’s growth will slow. This is an avoidable mistake, but it is an open question if Xi will be willing to admit it.

China has several massive white elephant projects that are wasting precious capital, such as its Belt and Road initiative. While this program and others like it scare China hawks in the U.S., they are weakening China. Government infrastructure projects worldwide are late, overpriced, and often of low quality. The Belt and Road initiative is no different, according to available evidence so far. Moreover, the billions of dollars Beijing is putting into it now cannot put into more productive ventures.

Lardy, like everyone else, is unable to guess which path China will take—state-run and poor, or free and prosperous. Unlike many analysts, Lardy is humble enough to admit that he cannot predict the future. He is hoping Xi will eventually decide to turn China’s policy momentum back towards liberalization. The Chinese people share this hope, and China observers of all stripes should hope the same, whether their politics are hawkish or dovish.

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New $7.5 Billion Tariffs against European Union

The Trump administration has announced tariffs on $7.5 billion of goods from the European Union. This time, it is being done with the World Trade Organization’s blessing. Here is what is different about these tariffs—and what isn’t.

The EU gives subsidies to airplane manufacturer Airbus, giving it an unfair advantage over U.S.-based Boeing. So the U.S. filed a complaint with the WTO. The decision came down yesterday. As expected, it was in the U.S.’s favor, since corporate subsidies are fundamentally unfair. As part of the ruling, the U.S. is allowed to enact tariffs against up to $7.5 billion of EU goods to counteract the Airbus subsidies without violating WTO rules. This being the Trump administration, the new tariffs were announced within hours of the decision coming down. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Aside from the usual economic objections to tariffs, the Trump administration’s strategy won’t work in a repeated-play setting. Because America’s relationship with the EU is longer than a one-time interaction, the new tariffs will soon do more harm than simply make some consumer goods more expensive.

Boeing gets subsidies of its own from the U.S. government, and the EU has its own WTO complaint pending about that. Corporate subsidies being fundamentally unfair, the EU will likely win. It will then likely have the option to put up its own additional tariffs against U.S. goods. If this next round of the repeat-play game plays out as expected, both Airbus and Boeing will continue to receive subsidies, same as before. Moreover, two new tariff increases will harm consumers and businesses on both sides of the Atlantic. At this point, the Trump administration’s latest tariffs will have caused double harm. Again, just because they can enact a new tariff doesn’t mean they should.

As has happened in almost every instance of the trade war so far, Trump’s opponents are using a tit-for-tat strategy. His tariff hikes are not met with the reforms he wants. They are responding in kind with their own tariff hikes. Trump’s tariff hikes reliably cost both Americans and our trading partners double.

Also worth noting—Airbus gets about 40 percent of its parts from the U.S. and has a factory in Mobile, Alabama. While all tariffs harm the country that enacts them, this one will cause more direct harm.

For more, see Iain Murray’s and my paper “Traders of the Lost Ark.” My recent paper on the Export-Import Bank, known around Washington as “Boeing’s Bank,” sheds some light on Boeing’s subsidies that may soon lead indirectly to yet more tariffs on U.S. businesses and consumers.

Ex-Im Bank Reauthorization: Lesson in Institutional Design

For all its flaws, the Export-Import Bank’s charter gets an important thing right: the agency must be reauthorized every few years, or it will close. This makes Ex-Im an important case study in institutional design. Its reauthorization requirement should be applied to nearly every government agency. Reauthorization offers regularly scheduled opportunities for Congress to enact possible reforms, or close an agency entirely. It also adds a level of democratic accountability to agencies that mostly lack it.

The executive branch has long since become too powerful. The other branches have too few meaningful checks on executive power. The result has been that agencies often face no consequences for abusing their authority, wasting resources, corruption, or ineffectiveness. If an agency has to face reauthorization every so often, it gives agencies more incentive to self-police against problems and reform them proactively, so emerging problems do not metastasize.

More to the point, the burden of proof properly lies on agencies for justifying their existence. If they are going to command resources rather than other agencies or taxpayers, they should have good reasons. If the federal government really needs an Economic Development Administration, a Hass Avocado Board, or a U.S. Board on Geographic Names, that agency should have no problem making its case every few years to Congress. If it has compelling arguments, the agency can continue on. If it does not, reauthorization provides regular opportunities to reform or end wasteful or harmful policies. This is an important part of governmental hygiene. Reauthorization allows Congress to enact reforms an agency cannot, or will not enact on its own.

Reauthorization also means that an agency’s window for reform never fully closes. Sometime soon, depending on how the current federal funding fight goes, the Export-Import Bank’s charter will almost certainly be renewed. Some needed reforms might even be part of the deal. Usually, a minor agency like Ex-Im will only garner congressional attention once every few decades, if at all. But charter reauthorization guarantees regular opportunities to enact reforms, or discipline the agency where needed. As happened temporarily in 2014-2015, Congress was able to close Ex-Im by simply declining to vote on reauthorization.

The only agencies that should fear a reauthorization requirement are the ones that do not deserve reauthorization. Policymakers and the public can identify them by their reaction to a potential requirement.

For more on reauthorization and other lessons from Ex-Im’s last five years, my new paper is here. For a short summary of the main findings, a press release is here.

Export-Import Bank Fight Not Over Yet

The Export-Import Bank’s charter is currently set to expire on September 30. If authorization lapses, the agency will shut down. On Thursday, the House passed a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through November 21—specifically including Ex-Im. The Senate will likely pass it next week. This means the Ex-Im fight could drag on for an additional seven weeks, and possibly longer. Here is a breakdown of the current situation.

The most likely reauthorization vehicle is a bill from Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). It contains no positive changes and several bad ones. It would do away with board approval for large projects, increase Ex-Im’s portfolio cap to $175 billion, and would last for ten years, more than double the usual period. It would mainly benefit large companies like Boeing and Caterpillar that don’t need help, plus large state-owned enterprises such as China Air.

Because the bill is so tilted against reform, it would likely have difficulty making it through the standard legislative process without significant amendments. So while an up-or-down vote on the merits is possible, Ex-Im backers will avoid one if they can. The easiest way is to fold the bill into some other piece of must-pass legislation. That way, even Ex-Im opponents will still have to vote to renew Ex-Im on Cramer-Sinema’s terms, possibly without amendment.

The continuing resolution that passed the House yesterday is clean, in that its only Ex-Im language is extending it through November 21. It does not contain Cramer-Sinema or any of its provisions. This will likely remain the case when the Senate takes it up next week.

But—when November 21 approaches, Congress might well punt again and pass a second CR that goes until early next year. If Congress does not separately pass Cramer-Sinema by then, another Ex-Im extension is likely. Maybe it would be another clean extension until CR round 3 (and possibly beyond). Or someone could add in Cramer-Sinema to the bill text.

This complicates matters for reformers. The current 43-page CR was introduced on Wednesday night after working hours, and passed by the House the very next day. If congressional leadership pulls similar last-minute shenanigans with the next CR, Ex-Im reformers will need to have amendments ready in advance to the extent possible. Section numbers and such for amendments to refer to can only be accurately identified once the final text is available, so there would still be plenty of late-night work for reform-minded staffers.

This dynamic could repeat for any number of rounds until Congress can finally pass a budget—and even this budget could be a vehicle for Cramer-Sinema or another Ex-Im bill. Reformers’ job until then is to be both patient and persistent. There might be no rest for the wicked, but the same goes for those of us who oppose cronyism.

For positive reforms for Ex-Im, see my recent paper “How the Ex-Im Bank Enables Cronyism and Wastes Taxpayer Money.” For reasons to shut down Ex-Im entirely, see this paper from Ex-Im’s previous reauthorization fight.

Conservatives Should Oppose Ex-Im, Too

Over at CNS News, I argue that conservatives should favor closing the Export-Import Bank, even though President Trump supports the agency:

Finally, an underappreciated point is how Ex-Im can make some U.S. businesses less competitive. When Ex-Im offers favorable financing for a foreign airline to buy a Boeing plane, that airline often directly competes with U.S. airlines such as American, United, or Southwest. Often, Ex-Im can only help one U.S. business by hurting others. Besides being zero-sum, this opens up a fierce lobbying game with predictable ethical consequences. The Trump administration supports Ex-Im as part of its larger trade agenda. In practice, Ex-Im turns out to undermine it.

Read the whole piece here. My recent paper on Ex-Im is here.

Ex-Im Bank Reauthorization: Major Victory against Cronyism, Despite Setback

Nobel laureate economist Ronald Coase wrote in his 1975 essay “Economists and Public Policy” that “An economist who, by his efforts, is able to postpone by a week a government program which wastes $100 million a year (which I would call a modest success) has, by his action, earned his salary for the whole of his life.” By Coase’s measure, the Ex-Im fight that began in 2014 was an enormous success, despite the coming reauthorization setback.

Based on data available in Ex-Im’s annual reports, this fight over a relatively small agency was worth $47.9 billion of dollars in reduced Ex-Im activity from 2014-2018. This reduced taxpayer risk exposure by an average of nearly $12 billion per year. Moreover, this figure assumes Ex-Im activity would have remained constant without the shutdown and board quorum fights of the last five years. Agencies tend to grow, so $47.9 billion in savings is likely an underestimate.

By another measure, the size of Ex-Im’s total portfolio went from $112.3 billion in 2014 to $60.5 billion in 2018, reducing taxpayer exposure by a total of nearly $52 billion, or an average of just under $13 billion per year. If this much in savings can come from temporary activity reductions in one agency, savings from successful permanent reforms of larger agencies could be substantial.

The free-market movement deserves a lot of credit for one of its biggest victories in recent years. Veronique de Rugy at the Mercatus Center, Bryan Riley at the National Taxpayers Union, Daniel Ikenson at the Cato Institute, Diane Katz at the Heritage Foundation, and many others have been tireless in their advocacy against cronyism, and pushing for a pro-market, rather than a pro-business, approach to policy.

While this month’s reauthorization is a setback, there is still a chance to enact some helpful reforms. Moreover, the fight is not over. Ex-Im will also require another reauthorization in a few years’ time, which will be another opportunity to finally end an 85-year old monument to cronyism.

The whole paper is here. For a short summary of the main findings, a press release is here.

Washington Examiner: Close Ex-Im, Two-Year Reauthorization, Tops

The Washington Examiner has an excellent editorial opposing Export-Import Bank reauthorization, citing my recent paper:

Their bill would reauthorize Ex-Im for an unprecedented 10 years. This is a blatant effort to avoid reform and scrutiny from Congress. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute pointed out in a new paper on the Cramer-Sinema bill, “Ex-Im-related legislation would likely almost never appear on the congressional calendar if occasional reauthorization did not require it to.”

It also argues for a two-year reauthorization cycle, rather than 10 years–while noting that closing the bank altogether would be best. Read the whole editorial here.