The protectionism bogeyman

I have to admit to hyping the debate now swirling about protectionism. I believe that tariffs are not a very good solution to a trade problem as they are likely to result in retaliation and/or escalation. Moreover, they end up protecting small groups at the expense of higher prices for everyone else.  That is why I wrote the provocatively-titled “Murder-Suicide in Chimerica.”

But taking a step back from the rhetoric for a second, I want to highlight two recent articles and make a few comments.

Is the protectionist bogeyman really coming?

First, while a protectionist backlash is a distinct possibility which I see as the main threat to sustained recovery, I recognize that countries like China and the United States are co-dependent and loath to permanently altering the status quo unilaterally. So while I condemn the recent tariffs imposed on Chinese tires, I recognize that the tariffs were imposed in the calculus that this issue would not or could not escalate.

This is what James fallows argues in a post yesterday:

I keep putting this off, so before it finally disappears into the mists of time, here is a bullet-point summary of what I would have said at greater length when the Chinese tire tariff first arose.

1) There is not now, and there never was, a serious possibility that this would escalate into some sweeping, self-intensifying, global-recovery-threatening "trade war."  The many publications and commentators who raised their hands in "Oh no! It’s Smoot Hawley again!" horror need to calm down — and to have their tendency toward over-reaction noted for the record. Yes, I’m talking about you, Economist magazine cover-designers (last week’s cover image, below), but you had tons of company.

There is too much going on, on too many other fronts, involving affairs of incomparably greater consequence between China and America, for this to have been more than a contained, specific dispute — contained in both duration and sweep. This was clear at the time and should have buffered the shock-horror tone of the stories. Why this matters: because of the  boy-who-cried-wolf principle. There are issues between China and the outside world in which a small disagreement could spiral into a very dangerous confrontation. Many of these involve Taiwan, for reasons to be spelled out another time. But tire tariffs, agree with them or not, were never going to set off a global economic confrontation.

In effect, Fallows is saying that it undermines one’s argument to scream, “Smoot-Hawley, Smoot-Hawley” every time there is some issue that deviates from the idealized world of free trade. Eventually people will block this out, especially in an environment like this, in which populist sentiment is running high. Fair enough.

Protectionism is more than just tariffs

So with those thoughts in mind, I read Edmund Conway’s article “We are entering a new age of protectionism” in the Telegraph. Conway says:

Some are "traditional" measures, familiar from the Depression and elsewhere – subsidies for domestic producers or tariffs on imports, President Obama’s move to slap a 35 per cent charge on Chinese tyres being a prime example. Such measures are provoking fury, and with good reason: the protectionist spiral into which the world plunged in the 1930s almost certainly contributed to the war at the end of the decade.

However, such visible signs of protectionism tell a fraction of the story. For the shocking truth is this: over the past year, the costs and obstacles faced by exporters have, according to a study by economists David Jacks, Christopher Meissner and Dennis Novy, increased by almost the same scale as in the early 1930s when the US and others were imposing a range of protectionist laws, including the infamous Smoot-Hawley Act.

Partly this is one of the perverse consequences of the financial crisis, which crippled the system of trade credit that underpinned the international flow of goods, making it impossible for some companies to ship products from one part of the world to another. But, far more worryingly, it is also a product of explicitly protectionist measures imposed by countries such as the UK in an effort to save their domestic banking systems from collapse. Most egregiously, these included so-called financial mercantilism, whereby governments, having rescued a bank, insisted that it had to lend far more to domestic customers than business or individuals overseas businesses.

This new protectionism is a different beast from that of the early 20th century, but the result is the same. According to the Bank for International Settlements, the amount of money flowing across national borders has collapsed in a way never before witnessed. Put simply, financial globalisation, which helped power economic growth in recent years, has gone into reverse over the past year. All the more worrying is that it has done so without people noticing.

If I read Conway correctly, he is rightly pointing out that all the bailouts and subsidies we have seen – especially in the financial sector – are the economic equivalent of tariffs.  Protectionism is not just about tariffs. We are moving to a world in which domestic jobs are ‘protected’ via non-tariff remedies.

Extending Conway’s argument to the auto industry, it should be patently clear that this is what is happening. Here are a few posts I wrote on the issue.  The titles should give you the gist.

Every car company has its hands out for a subsidy or bail out and most of them are receiving it. Certainly, the U.S. has led the way, but the Germans have been as bad as anyone here.  The deal that the German government struck to save Opel with Magna, a Canadian-Austrian auto parts manufacturer, is widely perceived as having been slanted in favor of German jobs over Spanish, Belgian or British.  All of these countries are complaining bitterly to the EU that the deal represents a subsidy and is anti-competitive.

This is why you see the Germans talking up regulatory reform in finance and the Americans and the British are talking up re-balancing:  The U.S. and the U.K. have strong financial services industries and Germany has a strong export sector. Of course the Americans are opposed to financial reform.  Of course the Germans don’t want global rebalancing.

Politics is domestic

In a prior life I was a foreign policy guy.  In my time living and breathing foreign policy it became evident to me that politics is always domestic first.  If you want to know why a foreign leader is acting a certain way or taking a specific position, take a look at the domestic political environment.

Do you think the Chinese cared what Americans think when they threatened to retaliate to the tire tariffs? Do you think Angela Merkel cares what happens to workers at Vauxhall plants in the U.K. when she arranged the Magna deal? Do you think the Americans care about what happens to Frankfurt as a financial center when they bailed out BofA and Citgroup? Of course not.

What matters is placating domestic concerns and consolidating power domestically. So while I talk about the “cozy” relationship between China and the U.S. as a marriage, I am under no illusion that this is anything more than a business relationship. When push comes to shove domestic concerns will win out. And if that means placating rioting workers in fear of losing jobs, so be it.

Expect more, not less protectionism

So I am not optimistic this protectionist wave is going to go away. My baseline sees more not less protectionism.  What would be wonderful is if the recovery taking hold were robust enough so that nations came together and worked out a workable forward-looking global solution to some of the more intractable macro problems. However, for the time being most people are retreating to their corners, making protectionism a continued threat.

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