August 26, 2016

Trade Barriers Do Not Cause Trade Deficits --
  Except When Currency Markets Fail

The tariff and non-tariff barriers imposed by China, Japan, and many other countries have been blamed repeatedly by many Americans for causing America’s trade deficits, lost jobs, and closed factories.  Their argument holds that, were it not for such trade barriers, America could export more of its goods and services to these countries, thereby helping balance its external trade.

However, trade barriers such as import duties, lengthy inspections, idiosyncratic technical requirements, licensing restrictions, and even bans do not actually cause trade deficits – unless currency markets fail.

In line with the classical trade theories of economists such as Ricardo and Hume, exchange rate markets will automatically assure that trade remains balanced, regardless of changes in factors such as inflation, productivity, and, yes, trade barriers.  However, forty years of trade deficits provide clear evidence that classical trade theory no longer works to balance U.S. trade.

The reason is straightforward: Today’s global currency markets fail to determine exchange rates that will balance U.S. trade because exchange rates are now determined by international trade in capital, not by trade in goods and services.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, if a country imported more goods and services than it exported, it paid for the difference with gold (or silver), or it paid with paper money backed by a precious metal. If the trade deficit was relatively large, cross-border payments made to cover the deficit would gradually deplete the country’s reserves.

When the gold ran out, the country would print more paper money. If it printed more than the world wanted to hold, the value of the country’s currency would fall, making exports cheaper and imports more expensive. As exports increased and imports decreased, trade would more back into balance – regardless of trade barriers.

Any trade barriers present would simply reduce trading volumes, thus reducing the efficiency and benefits of trade. Trade deficits did not cause the deficits. Currency misalignments caused the deficits, and these misalignments would automatically be fixed by a well-functioning global currency market.

The Case of America Today

Why doesn’t the global exchange rate system work like this for America today?
The answer is very simple. The world has changed dramatically over the past 200-300 years, but American trade policy has not. The key changes in the global economy include:
  1. A surge in the number of countries trading on a global rather than regional basis, their level of development, and their average wage rates.
  2. A sharply higher ratio of international trade to global GDP.  Globally important financial markets developing in countries around the world.
  3. Greatly increased integration of global financial markets, thanks largely to the explosion of computer and information technology.
  4. The U.S. dollar’s rise to dominant reserve currency status during the 20th century.
  5. The emergence of U.S. financial markets as a global safe haven.
  6. The collapse of the gold standard between WWI and WWII, and of the Bretton Woods system in 1971-73.

Despite these dramatic changes, most of which were dominated by or closely linked to global capital flows, the international monetary policies of the United States have changed but little. Forty years of virtually continuous U.S. trade deficits since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system prove that policies adequate to deal with the realities of the 21st century have not yet been implemented.

 Sure, some measures have been introduced. For example, changes were made in the way the U.S. handled global currency market interventions to manage the value of the U.S. dollar during and after the Bretton Woods system. Also, the Omnibus Trade Act of 1988 included measures designed to fight currency manipulation, but these measures have failed to solve U.S. trade deficits.

During the recent Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) discussions, strong emphasis was placed by many in Congress on the importance of including an enforceable clause against currency manipulation in the TPP, but as Bergsten and Schott noted recently with respect to the commitments that ministers of finance made in their Joint Declaration on currency manipulation: “Are the commitments … enforceable through the dispute settlement procedures of the TPP? … The short answer is, no.”  If not enforceable, they will fail.

For decades, the Federal Reserve has used the Federal Funds Rate to keep the flow of domestic capital consistent with its goals for growth, inflation, and employment. Furthermore, the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 gave the Fed an official mandate to assure that its monetary policies are consistent, not only with employment, growth and inflation targets, but also with "an improved trade balance" based on, “improvement in the international competitiveness of agriculture, business, and industry.”

Nevertheless, the Fed lacks any policy similar to its Fed Funds Rate that would allow it to moderate the massive inflows of foreign capital that drive the dollar’s overvaluation and America’s trade deficits.

In short, the U.S. has no meaningful international monetary policies designed to keep the dollar close to its trade-balancing equilibrium exchange rate – and thus no meaningful instruments to prevent trade deficits from sapping the economic and social vitality of our nation.

Policies for the 21st Century

America needs to implement a set of international monetary policies that will bring the value of the U.S. dollar back close to its trade-balancing equilibrium exchange rate and keep it there – regardless of how illegal or misguided the trade policies of other countries may be. This could easily be accomplished by passing a law mandating the introduction of three policies. Ranging from general to specific:

  • Market Access Charge (MAC): When ordinary market forces such as the dollar’s reserve currency status and America’s status as a safe haven for investors cause the dollar’s overvaluation, impose a modest Market Access Charge (MAC) on all foreign capital inflows whenever the trade deficit exceeds one percent of GDP. By moderating inflows, the MAC would reduce upwards pressure on the dollar, allowing it to return to its trade-balancing equilibrium exchange rate.
  • Countervailing Currency Intervention (CCI): When currency misalignments are clearly the result of official currency manipulation by specific countries, the U.S. Government would make countervailing purchases of an equal value of the offending country’s local currency.
  • Currency-adjusted Countervailing Duties (CCD): In line with legislation proposed by Schumer and Brown, allow the U.S. Government to treat currencies manipulated by foreign governments as subsidies to their exporters and add a proportional currency surcharge to countervailing duties on specific imports from such countries.

These three simple measures would fill a gaping monetary policy hole in America’s current trade policy tool box, and they would help America become more internationally competitive in the 21st century.

John Hansen     Aug. 31, 2016

America Needs a Competitive Dollar - Now!