China: Can Smoot-Hawley Only Happen in the US?

Yesterday in a meeting I was asked by an investor why, even while I have been writing maniacally about the crucial importance of global cooperation, I was so consistently pessimistic about the possibility of the major economies arriving at a “grand bargain” that will minimize over the long term the cost of the current crisis. I think, in fact, that a nasty fight over trade is very probable and I worry that not only will trade conflict come as a huge shock to China’s economy, but also that Chinese actions and public statements are actually contributing more to that probability than all the buy-America, buy-Europe talk filling the air.

Let me pluck one reason from the headlines of today’s People‘s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the country’s ruling party. The article, titled “Buy American can’t save the US economy”, is based on interviews with a number of Chinese commentators. One question:

Why does the US, which has always advocated trade liberalization, put forward such a clause? Can the “Buy American” provision offer effective solutions to the US’ economic problems? What impacts will the implementation of this economic plan produce?

All the responses are the same. The US, according to this article, is playing dangerous games with global trade even while Chinese policymakers are trying to hold back the tide of protectionism. The response by Song Hong, Director of the Research Section of International Trade at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS):

The US is a country that has a tradition of free trade. But the US Congress has tarnished its own reputation with narrow-minded and selfish acts that place US interests above global interests. During the 1930s, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act enacted by the US Congress greatly aggravated the global economic crisis. Today’s situation seems to repeat that historic tragedy.

It is really worrying that the stupid and destructive Smoot-Hawley Act, which was terrible not because it was passed by the US but because it was passed by the country with the largest export of overcapacity in the world at the time, is perceived by some as something that can only happen in the US, and not in China. On the contrary, US policies can be extremely unhelpful, of course, and it would come as no surprise to me that many of their policies turn out to be harmful to US and global interests, but the US cannot possibly engineer a repeat of Smoot-Hawley’s disastrous impact on global trade and the US economy. As the largest trade deficit country in the world anything that results in a contraction in net US demand is not only not bad, it is a necessary part of any adjustment.

The US cannot give us another Smoot-Hawley. In 2009 only China and Germany are really in a position to enact the current version of Smoot-Hawley – to engineer polices that expand their massive export of overcapacity or, what amounts to the same thing, their massive import of demand – and if you want to figure out who might be doing it, you need only to look at the direction of trade surpluses.

The response by Li Quan, Deputy Director of the Department of International Economy and Trade at Peking University, to the questions posed by the People’s Daily was:

The reason why the US emphasizes the protection of the steel industry is that its steel sector is a declining industry that does not have any international comparative advantage. At the same time the sector is of strategic importance to the US, as evidenced by the fact that Steel City Incorporated, based in Florida, has close relations with the US government. As a matter of fact, in 2002, following the September 11 attacks, the US openly raised the rate of import duties on iron and steel in order to protect its own steel sector. EU countries complained about US protectionism and submitted the case to relevant institutions of the WTO for judgment, eventually leading to the US’ defeat.

Although I agree with Professor Li about the value of the steel industry to the US, what depresses me about the prospects for trade war is that there doesn’t seem to be any recognition on his part that boosting steel production by any country is harmful to the global adjustment process. Apparently only American boosting of steel production is. I just don’t think this makes sense.

Very ironically the same issue of People’s Daily has another headline: “China announces stimulus plans for nonferrous metals, logistics.” The article starts:

China’s State Council on Wednesday announced support plans for the country’s nonferrous metals and logistics sectors. Presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, Cabinet members agreed to promote company restructuring and will offer subsidized loans to support technical innovations within the nonferrous metals sector. The export rebate rates of nonferrous products should be adjusted, said the Cabinet without elaborating.

That’s not all. Today’s Xinhua helpfully lists China’s stimulus package for ten different sectors announced between January 14 and today. These consist of machinery, textile industries, shipbuilding, autos, steel industries, electronics and information industry, light industry, petrochemical sector, nonferrous metals and logistics.

Nearly all of these products are in global oversupply, so the full focus must be on boosting consumption, right? Wrong. A quick run-down of the related article shows that some of the measures are certainly pro-consumption:

* provide subsidies for home appliances for rural buyers
* boost demand for petrochemical products
* lower the purchase tax on cars
* provide one-off allowances to farmers to upgrade their three-wheeled vehicles and low-speed trucks
* improve the credit system for car purchase loans

But too many of them are actually likely to decrease Chinese contribution to global consumption (i.e. increase its negative contribution) by acting more to boost production than consumption:

* promote company restructuring and offer subsidized loans to support technical innovations within the nonferrous metals sector
* adjust export rebate rates of nonferrous products
* lift processing trade restrictions on some labor-intensive, technology-intensive, energy-efficient, and environment-friendly products
* provide more credit access for firms in the petrochemical sector
* boost innovation in information technologies (whatever that means)
* increase financial input for the country’s electronics and information industry
* give tax rebates for electronics and information product exports
* encourage large auto companies, as well as major auto-part makers, to expand through mergers and acquisitions so as to optimize resources and improve their competitiveness on the international market (does this mean prevent bankruptcies?)
* increase credit support for ship builders
* suspend construction of new docks and the expansion of slipways (which doesn’t increase production but, I think, might slow investment-based consumption)
* increase export rebates for textile producers
* help auto manufacturers raise their share of the auto market in China from 34% to 40%
* create a special textile-industry fund for structural adjustment and technological upgrading

The problem, as I see it, is while an awful lot of experts here are busy explaining why the US must be careful about how quickly it reduces its contribution to global demand, which the US absolutely must do as part of its adjustment process, they seem to miss the point that China must increase its contribution to net demand, but it is actually reducing it. It may be confusing to many if I claim that subsidizing credit to steel producers or auto manufacturers is the 2009 equivalent of Smoot-Hawley – after all isn’t Smoot Hawley all about tariffs? – but the point is the reason Smoot-Hawley was such a disaster is because it involved an attempt by the largest trade surplus country in the world to increase its trade surplus in spite of collapsing world demand, and the 2009 equivalent must necessarily be Chinese or German moves that have the same effect.

And for my Chinese readers whose hackles are being raised by all this “criticism” of Chinese policy, please know that I am not pointing all this out in order to provide ammunition for trade warriors in the US and Europe. I am only pointing it out because there is a real and growing risk that while busily crying “Smoot-Hawley” at the US, China is going to blunder its way into the same terrible mistake the US made in 1930, and my conversations with US and European officials convince me that frustration levels are already too high. Needless to say it is not just readers of my blog who have noticed that China’s trade surplus has risen inexorably during the time this crisis has taken place, and even a very superficial reading of the world press suggests that this is causing rising anger. Trade conflict would be terrible for China, and I don’t see how it can end well for China if something doesn’t change soon.

It’s not that no one in China understands this. Nearly all of the non-government economists I speak to (ok, maybe not a representative sample) are worried by the direction events are taking and many of them are even more pessimistic than I am about the prospects for trade conflict. The WSJ blog translated a very interesting comment by the PBoC. According to their translation:

China has a problem of high savings and low consumption. For a long time our country’s economic growth has been mainly driven by investment and exports, and the ratio of final consumption [in gross domestic product] has been in a gradual declining trend. The share of investment [in GDP] has steadily risen from 36.6% in 1992 to 43.5% percent in 2008, while the share of consumption has dropped from 62.4% in 1992 to 48.6% in 2008, well below the world average. The high share of investment and exports and the low share of consumption are not conducive to the healthy and stable development of the economy.

The significant slowdown in global economic growth and the great downside risks for the future will directly affect China’s exports and investment in the tradable [goods] sector. Since external demand is inadequate, the driver for economic growth must come from increasing investment or consumption. Because the investment-led model of economic development increases the pressure on resources and environment, leads to a widening of the income gap and urban-rural inequality, and can easily lead to large fluctuations in economic growth as serious excess capacity emerges in some industries, it cannot be sustained for the long term. Therefore it is necessary to, in accordance with the requirements of the “scientific outlook on development,” speed up the transformation of our economic development model, and strengthen consumption as a driver of economic growth, in order to achieve a balanced growth pattern based consumption, investment and exports.

The PBoC is right, of course, but what I would add is that they need either to speed up the process very rapidly so as to head off rising trade frictions (very difficult at best), or they need to get together with the US and Europe and work out a viable long-term plan that will allow them to adjust at a reasonable pace while heading off trade conflict.

Meanwhile more of the wrong kind of news comes from Goldman Sachs, via an article in today’s Bloomberg:

China investors should be “defensively positioned” as a decline in the nation’s tax receipts signals a steeper slowdown in spending than retail sales figures show, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “Tax data show much sharper deceleration in income and consumption in the past few months than suggested by official retail sales or income growth figures,” Goldman Sachs analysts Joshua Lu, Caroline Li and Fiona Lau wrote in a note today.

Value-added tax has “de-linked sharply” from retail sales figures, the analysts wrote. VAT rose 1 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, while retail sales gained 21 percent, according to the note.

…Growth in China’s individual income-tax receipts “slowed down significantly” in the second half and shrank in December and January, the Goldman Sachs analysts wrote. This compares with nominal wage growth of 21 percent in the third quarter, the report said. “We think the government’s fiscal stimulus package announced so far may help create jobs, but may not necessarily help boost wages which, in our view, is the key driver of consumption growth,” the note said. “As such we are not hopeful that China’s consumption slowdown will bottom out soon.”

I am not smart enough to figure out whether or not Goldman’s methodology makes sense, but the furious drop in imports relative to exports makes me anyway doubt any evidence that Chinese consumption isn’t slowing sharply.

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About Michael Pettis 166 Articles

Affiliation: Peking University

Michael Pettis is a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He has also taught, from 2002 to 2004, at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and, from 1992 to 2001, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

Pettis has worked on Wall Street in trading, capital markets, and corporate finance since 1987, when he joined the Sovereign Debt trading team at Manufacturers Hanover (now JP Morgan). Most recently, from 1996 to 2001, Pettis worked at Bear Stearns, where he was Managing Director-Principal heading the Latin American Capital Markets and the Liability Management groups.

Visit: China Financial Markets

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