Brad Setser

Follow the Money

Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

Imports Normally Would Have Subtracted More From 2016 U.S. Growth

by Brad Setser Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I follow the news, some would say obsessively. I know there are far more important things afoot than backward looking analysis of the United States’ 2016 economic performance.

But I do think in some ways the U.S. was lucky not to have slowed more in 2016.

Why? Because import growth stalled, and imports did not subtract as much from U.S. growth as normally would be expected (and yes, that obviously wasn’t the dominant narrative of the 2016 election).

Plus the U.S. essentially got a small GDP boost as a result of a bad harvest in Brazil that raised U.S. soybeans exports in q3 (a rise that was only partially reversed in q4). The U.S. isn’t (yet) a commodity-driven economy, but it also isn’t (yet) a robot-based intellectual property rights (IPR) royalty-driven economy totally divorced from natural sources of economic volatility.

Imports are essentially a function of domestic demand growth and the exchange rate. More domestic demand than the exchange rate: the exchange rate in nearly all careful studies tends to have a stronger impact on U.S. exports than on U.S. imports. In the Fed’s U.S. international transactions model, for example: “The equations for goods and services exports predict that a 10 percent appreciation of the real dollar would reduce the level of overall real exports by about 7 percent after three years. After three years, the model predicts that real imports would be almost 4 percent higher.”

Over the last twenty years the negative contribution of imports to growth—think of it as U.S. demand that is shared with the world—has been about 25 percent of U.S. domestic demand growth. So typically 75 percent of any increase in U.S. demand goes toward domestic output, and 25 percent goes to the rest of the world (the U.S. of course also benefits from demand growth elsewhere, as growth outside the U.S. pulls up exports).

That is somewhat higher than that import share of GDP—as one would expect, if, over time, the import share of GDP is rising.

But something strange happened in 2016. From mid-2015 to mid-2016 (I like to look at the change over four quarters, a typical year-over-year comparison is the average over the last four quarters versus the average over the preceding four quarters so it uses eight quarters of data rather than four) U.S. imports were essentially flat (the negative contribution over four quarters was only 5-10 basis points of GDP) while U.S. demand growth—even counting inventories—contributed 1.5 to 2 percentage points to GDP growth.

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The Price of U.S. Imports From China Keeps Falling

by Brad Setser Friday, January 27, 2017

The way trade is to be taxed at the border may—or may not—be about to change radically. But rather than speculate on the nature of the new world, I wanted to highlight one feature of the old.

I sometimes hear that China is loosing trade competitiveness because of rising domestic costs. And thus Chinese manufacturing firms need to move out of their ancestral homeland, either to low cost manufacturers like Vietnam or even to advanced economies like the U.S., in order to remain competitive.

I do not see it in the data. At least not in aggregate — the stories of individual sectors of course could differ. .

If the price of imports from China (as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor) is compared to the price of U.S. made finished goods and the price of domestic manufactures, Chinese goods not only look very competitive, but broadly speaking have been gaining in price competitiveness against U.S. made goods ever since the yuan stopped appreciating—and with the yuan depreciation of the past year, are poised to become even more competitive.

us-import-price-indexes

China maybe has lost a little of its previous edge over Canada and Europe thanks to the depreciation of the Canadian dollar and the euro over the past couple of years. But broadly speaking, the price of goods imported from China is back to where it was in 2004 (when the data series starts) while price of manufactured goods from the United States wealthier trading partners has gone up since then.

There is one potentially significant problem with the U.S. data here. About a quarter of U.S. imports from China are computers and cell phones. And getting the right “price” for goods marked by rapid technological change over time is hard. I suspect that the gap over time between the evolution of Chinese prices and U.S. finished goods prices would be smaller if computers and consumer electronics were removed. In fact, I would be thrilled if the BLS put out such a series. The area of real overlap between the U.S. and China increasingly is in the production of machined parts and capital goods (suggestions for how best to capture this most welcome, the right measure of U.S. prices might not be final goods excluding food and energy).

Setting that caveat aside though, I do not doubt that the basic story in the U.S. import price data is true: Over the past couple of years, the combination of U.S. workers and U.S. industrial robots has been loosing price competitiveness to the combination of Chinese workers and Chinese industrial robots.

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Chicken Feet And China: Back to the Future

by Brad Setser Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yes, this is a blog about chicken feet exports—technically, NAICS code 311615, “poultry processing.”

Welcome to the glamorous world of tit-for-tat trade spats. The biggest trade case of 2009 was the tires “421 safeguards” case, which prompted China to respond with duties on U.S. exports of chicken parts.

The possibility that the U.S. and China could embark on a cycle of sanction and counter-sanction will, I expect, force a new group of people to explore the nooks and crannies hiding in the data on U.S. exports to China.

Some of the sectors are well known.

Aircraft, of course. They are one of several sectors that account for about 10 percent of total U.S. exports to China and Hong Kong. Along with autos. Auto exports fell a bit in 2015, but in 2014 auto exports were almost as big as aircraft exports. Mostly SUVs I think, with many coming from the German transplants. In numeric terms, the legacy of the United States once powerful electronics manufacturing sector matters—though there hasn’t been much growth, alas, since the crisis.

Hopefully everyone now knows about the bling—gold and jewelry are about a third of U.S. exports to Hong Kong (and have at times been as much as ten percent of combined exports to China and Hong Kong).

And then there are the commodities. Soybeans of course. They can account for as much as 10 percent of total U.S. exports to China and Hong Kong if the price of beans is high. Cotton and hides and other inputs for clothing are a decent chunk — around 3 percent — of U.S. exports to China and Hong Kong. Wood pulp and timber account for about 4 percent of combined exports to China and Hong Kong. Metals are about 4 percent of US exports to China and Hong. And so on. Not all U.S. exports to China are super high-tech.

U.S. chicken part exports to China are mostly feet, from what I understand. A clear case of the gains from trade that emerge from different culinary preferences.

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China’s WTO Entry, 15 Years On

by Brad Setser Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Late last year Tim Duy asked for an assessment of the decision to allow China to join the WTO, now that 15 years have passed.

Greg Ip met the call well before I did, in a remarkable essay.

But I will give my own two cents. Be warned, this isn’t a short post. Frankly it is an article disguised as a post. I added the subheadings to make it a bit easier on the eye.

Autor, Dorn, and Hanson Deserve All the Attention They Have Received

It now seems clear that the magnitude of the post-WTO China shock to manufacturing was significantly larger than was expected at the time of China’s entry into the WTO. China already had “most-favored-nation” (MFN)/“normal trade” access to the U.S. market, so it wasn’t clear that all that much would change with China’s WTO accession. But China’s pre-WTO access to the U.S. came with an annual Congressional review, and the resulting uncertainty seems to have deterred some firms from moving production to China.

The domestic labor market adjustment to the “China” shock was not smooth. Autor, Dorn, and Hanson’s research shows the China shock left a significant number of Americans temporarily without jobs and left some workers and communities permanently worse off. The U.S. labor market isn’t as homogenous or as flexible as many thought; displaced workers in the most exposed regions often dropped out of the work force rather than finding new, let alone better, jobs.

Similar effects to those that Autor, Dorn, and Hanson found in the U.S. also seem to be present in manufacturing intensive parts of a number of European countries (France, for example). Bob Davis and the Wall Street Journal also deserve credit for their reporting on this topic: Davis and his colleagues really helped flesh out the narrative that goes with the Autor, Dorn, and Hanson data.

Not All China—The Underreported Impact of Dollar Strength (2000-2002)

All that said, the shock from the rise in imports that came with China’s WTO entry was not the only source of the enormous decline in manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2005.
The broad strength of the dollar from 2000 to 2002 mattered.

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China’s Reserves Fell by Around $45 Billion in December (Using the PBOC Data)

by Brad Setser Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The pace of decline in China’s foreign reserves matters.

Not because China is about to run out.

But rather because China will at some point decide that it doesn’t want to continue to prioritize “stability” (against a basket) and will instead prioritize the preservation of its reserves, and let the yuan adjust down. Significant voices inside China are already making that argument.

And I fear that if the yuan floats down, it will stay down. China will want to rebuild reserves, and—if exports respond to the weak yuan—(re)discover the joys of export-led growth. Relying on exports is easier than fighting the finance ministry’s opposition to a more expansive (on-budget) fiscal policy, or seriously expanding the provision of social insurance to bring down China’s savings.

I thus disagree with those who argue that the “China” shock is over. It depends a bit on the exchange rate. China’s exports of apparel and shoes have probably peaked. But China’s exports of a range of machinery and capital goods continue to remain strong—and at a weaker exchange rate, China could supply more of the components that go into our electronic devices, and export far more auto parts, construction equipment parts, engines, generators, and even finished autos than it does now. “Mechanical” engineering writ large continues to be a significant part of the U.S. economy, and even more so the European economy.

china-fx-settlement-cny

One of the main indicators—PBOC balance sheet reserves—that I follow for tracking China’s reserve sales is now out for December, and it points to around $45 billion in sales. I prefer to look at all the foreign assets the PBOC reports on its balance sheet rather than just its reported foreign exchange reserves. That variable was down $43 billion in December, and $133 billion for q4. Actual foreign exchange reserves fell by a bit more—$46 billion in December and $141 billion in q4. The difference between foreign exchange reserves and all of the PBOC’s foreign assets is primarily the foreign exchange the banks hold at the PBOC as a result of their reserve requirement.
The loss of reserves in December was a bit smaller than in November. But only just. The average monthly fall in q4 was over $40 billion.

That is a pace that is ultimately unsustainable. I think China would be fine with $2 trillion in reserves, given how little foreign debt it holds. Others say $2.5 trillion. If reserves are falling by a steady $40 billion a month/$500 billion year, it is only a matter of time before China hits its limit. With China, it may be a long time though…

However, there are two reasons why I am not yet convinced that it is only a matter of time before outflows overwhelm the PBOC’s reserves and other exchange rate defenses.

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The U.S. Needs More Manufactured Exports

by Brad Setser Wednesday, January 11, 2017

I previously have noted that—if you exclude processing imports—China’s imports of manufactures are low relative to its GDP. I suspect the interlinked “China, Inc” connections between Party and State (described well by Mark Wu) have something to do with this. Manufactured imports, net of processing imports (processing imports are re-exported), peaked as a share of China’s GDP back in 2003.

ae-manufacturing-imports

The other “trade” outlier among the world’s big economic blocks is the United States. U.S. imports of manufactures aren’t out of line with those of say the eurozone. Or for that matter with Japan, which imports a lot more manufactures now than it used too. The U.S. though does stand out for the low level of its manufactured exports.

ae-manufacturing-exports

I am using an imperfect proxy for U.S. manufactures here—the sum of capital goods, autos, and consumer goods in the end use data. That leaves out manufactured goods in industrial supplies (notably chemicals, which sort of blur the line between manufactures and commodities given that competitive advantage is often determined by proximity to a low cost supply of ethane and the like). Adding in chemicals and plastics though would not significantly alter the picture (and would make the data harder to replicate). I confess that I prioritized using easy to reproduce (and easy to update) data that tells the basic story over analytical perfection.

I also adjust the Chinese data by netting out processing imports from China’s exports in a way that I do not adjust the other countries data. Without that adjustment, China is on a different scale.

The result of this pattern of exports and imports is that the U.S. runs a sizable trade deficit in manufactures, while the other big integrated economic blocks run surpluses in manufactures.

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Two Trade Variables To Watch in 2017

by Brad Setser Monday, January 9, 2017

I suspect that few variables will tell us more about the course of the global economy, and perhaps global policy, than the evolution of Chinese and U.S. exports. Sometimes the most important indicators are simple and straightforward.

China’s exports matter for a simple reason: they could provide the basis for a true change in the narrative around China’s currency.

I tend to think controls can play a role in stabilizing expectations. The trade account doesn’t signal an underlying overvaluation of the yuan. China’s goods surplus is quite substantial. And China’s exports, as the chart below shows, have outperformed U.S. exports both during the period of dollar weakness (05 to 13) and in the recent period of dollar strength (chart uses a volume index, Chinese data starts in 05).

us-v-china-real-goods-exports

With an ongoing trade surplus, the right exchange rate is ultimately a function of the scale of outflows—and those are in part determined by expectations about what others are likely to do. If everyone wants out and can get out, it is rational to try to get out first. That is why the controls could work, especially as the nominal return on safe assets in China (still) exceeds the nominal return on safe global assets. There is also a normative judgment here too: a new China shock from a significant further depreciation against the basket and against the dollar would not help the global economy, and would add to the already considerable risks of trade conflict.

At the same time, there are likely to be limits to how tight the controls can be. It should be relatively easy for China, if it wants too, to keep its state banks from running up their foreign assets. And to keep state-run financial institutions from buying U.S. corporate bonds for their portfolio. It is far harder to control the activities of China’s export sector. Chinese exporters will be far more likely to sell their dollars and euros for yuan if the exporters believe that there is real two-way risk on the currency.

And one thing that could convince the exporters that they risk losing out if they hold their export proceeds abroad is a run of decent trade data. China’s November exports were pretty strong—China releases its own export volume data with a month lag, and the latest data shows that exports were up 8% in November. In today’s global environment that is a solid increase—though the November increase needs to be evaluated in light of October’s weak numbers. December data (out Friday) will be interesting.

And U.S. exports matter for a host of reasons.

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China’s Q3 Balance of Payments Data Helps Explain Why Q3 Reserves Fell So Much

by Brad Setser Thursday, January 5, 2017

I want to step back a bit from the rather extraordinary moves in the offshore yuan market over the past few days. It seems quite clear that China’s authorities felt the need to signal that the yuan isn’t currently a one way bet against the dollar. And stepping back in this case means taking a deep dive into the details of the balance of payments data — details that come out with a quarter lag, and thus provide information that is stale from the point of view of a forward-looking market. A lot, and I mean a lot, changed in the fourth quarter.

I generally like it when China’s data series line up. Line up with each other. And, when possible, when China’s data also lines up with data reported by China’s trading partners.

So I have been bothered for some time by the large discrepancy between the fall in China’s foreign exchange reserves (as reported on the PBOC’s balance sheet, $108 billion in the third quarter) and the much smaller net sales of foreign exchange by China’s banks (as reported in the FX settlement data, $50 billion in the third quarter without adjusting for the forwards reported in the settlement data, $63 billion with the forward adjustment). Fx settlement includes all the banks, not just the central bank. Historically, though, it has been very correlated with overall reserves.

The initial balance of payments (BoP) data for the third quarter showed large reserves sales ($136 billion), sales on a scale that was consistent with the PBOC balance sheet numbers. The BoP reserves sales thus seemed to suggest a big pickup in capital outflows in the third quarter.

est_chi_off_asset_growth

However, the detailed balance of payments data suggests that the signal from the FX settlement data may be more accurate. Much of the q3 fall in China’s reserves seems tobe explained by the buildup of foreign assets by other state controlled financial institutions, not “private” capital outflows. I see a likely increase of around $85 billion in the foreign assets of state institutions other than the PBOC in q3.

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Three Takes on China to Start a New Year

by Brad Setser Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Christopher Balding (Balding’s World) highlights the risks from the interaction between PBOC tightening—whether because China’s own economy has picked up or a need to mimic the Fed’s tightening cycle —and rising levels of debt (mostly corporate debt, counting the debts of state enterprise as corporate) in a carefully argued Bloomberg view column.

Adair Turner’s column “A Socialist Market Economy with Chinese Characteristics” emphasizes how surprised many were by China’s 2016 rebound: “Almost all non-Chinese economists anticipated a significant slowdown, which would intensify deflationary pressures worldwide. In fact, the opposite has happened. Central and local government borrowing in China has soared: bank and shadow-bank credit has grown rapidly: and the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has increasingly issued direct loans to state-owned banks in a maneuver closely resembling monetary finance of government spending.”

Turner highlights the risks of large losses from the bad lending that has come with rapid credit growth, while—correctly in my view—noting that financial crises ultimately come from a run on the liability side of the balance sheet.

Turner also notes that even if a quarter of China’s investment is unproductive, the three-quarters that is invested productively still equals about a third of China’s GDP. That alone would drive a strong expansion in China’s stock of useful capital. I like to be reminded just how unique China is.

I have my own take out as part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ look at global economic issues at the start of the new year.

I was less surprised than many by China’s 2016 rebound, though there isn’t much of an electronic record to document my views. I thought that China’s 2014-2015 slowdown was in no small part a consequence of a poorly timed policy decision to tighten “off balance sheet” fiscal policy (by limiting local government financing and infrastructure investment) when real estate investment was in the doldrums. Since I viewed the 2014-2015 slowdown more as a function of policy tightening than as a direct consequences of the underlying weaknesses in China’s growth model, I also believed that policy easing was likely to support growth—even if I would have preferred more of the easing to come through a larger rise in the central government’s headline fiscal deficit and less through the usual off-balance sheet funding channels.

While both Balding and Turner emphasize the risks created by China’s rapid credit growth, I put more emphasis on what I view as the more fundamental problem: China’s exceptionally high level of savings.

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