Trade wars and tariffs never solve anything. Nonetheless Congress addresses Chinese currency manipulation

After years of trying, Congress is taking another stab at retaliating against what many see as Chinese manipulation of its currency to make its exports to the United States cheaper and U.S. goods more expensive in China.

The Senate is expected to take up legislation Monday that would impose higher U.S. duties on Chinese products to offset the perceived advantage that critics say China gets by undervaluing its currency.

The Senate bill has bipartisan support and is expected to clear a procedural hurdle Monday evening. But intense lobbying against it by American-based multinational corporations and their trade associations could spell trouble for the legislation.

Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., along with others, have tried for at least six years to pass legislation making it easier to impose higher tariffs on Chinese goods. That would help compensate for what they say is Beijing’s effort to keep its currency, the yuan, undervalued against the dollar.

Among Republicans, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has said he would penalize China for keeping its currency artificially low.

The Senate bill, which does not specifically mention China, has two main components:

–Up to now, the Treasury Department has had to declare that a country was willfully manipulating its currency to trigger a response, which is something the Bush and Obama administrations have avoided doing. The legislation would require Treasury to determine only that another country’s currency is misaligned, then give its government 90 days to make corrections before countervailing duties are imposed.

–The bill makes it easier for specific industries to petition the Commerce Department for redress under claims that the misaligned currency of China or another country amounts to an export subsidy. That more narrowly focused provision passed the House last September on a 348-79 vote. The last Congress, however, ended before the Senate could take it up.

Supporters point to studies by the Peterson Institute for International Economics that say a 20 percent appreciation of the yuan would reduce the U.S. trade deficit by up to $120 billion and create a half-million U.S. jobs. The more liberal Economic Policy Institute estimates that a 28.5 percent appreciation would create more than 2 million jobs.

Tariffs Will Cost Jobs

Anyone who thinks government officials can determine if and when currencies are “misaligned” has no economic sense, is engaging in populist rhetoric to buy votes, or both.

The clowns at the Economic Policy Institute think tariffs will create 2 million jobs and reduce the trade deficit by $120 billion.

I suggest tariffs will cost jobs. Manufacturing will not return to the US, nor will manufacturing of any sort, on account of tariffs. Wage differentials are too great and trade channels will simply shift (at great expense) to another country.

However, prices will rise, sales will slow, and the squeeze on consumers will accelerate. Here is a simple example: Let’s assume a 35% tariff on underwear. How many jobs will return to the US ? 50? 100? Any?

Let’ be generous and assume 500 (although the answer is most likely zero). In return for those 500 jobs, everyone in the United States has to pay 35% more for underwear? Is that a good trade-off?

Clearly the answer is no, but it is much worse than that. We also need to address the question “how many jobs would be lost because underwear is 35% higher?”

Whatever additional money is spent on underwear by 300 million Americans will come at the expense of those consumers spending less on something else, perhaps eating out, perhaps buying toys, or perhaps buying shirts.

To save 500 or whatever manufacturing jobs, everyone buying underwear will cut back on something else. Those cutbacks will have a real effect on shipment of goods (trucking), eating out, recreation, etc., just to benefit underwear manufacturers.

Magnify the underwear example by the vast numbers of idiotic lawsuits from manufacturers that will stem from a law that only requires some bureaucrat to figure out if a currency is misaligned. Then figure out how much bureaucratic expense and waste will that cause?

Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney are definitely on the wrong side of this issue.

If Congress is foolish enough to pass such a law, and president Obama is foolish enough to sign it, expect to lose a half million jobs minimum because of it. Depending on retaliations and how things escalated, 2 million jobs lost would not be surprising in the least.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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