Brad Setser

Follow the Money

Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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Showing posts for "U.S. trade deficit and external debt"

Auto Trade with China

by Brad Setser

Autos are one of the United States’ most important exports to China—ranking just behind aircraft and soybeans and (at times) non-monetary gold (through Hong Kong).

Broadly speaking, the U.S. exports completed autos to China, and imports auto parts.

But change is in latest end-use data.

U.S. exports of autos to China have stalled after a few years of spectacular growth subsequent to the global crisis, and the U.S. has started to import finished autos from China. GM is now making a Buick for the both the Chinese and the U.S. market in China.

U.S. imports of auto parts remain substantial — though the growth in imports in 2016 was modest, consistent with the broader slowdown in imports of all kinds.

The net deficit in autos and auto parts increased a bit in 2015 — and remained roughly at that level in 2016 (if you exclude tires, imports of tires are falling again).

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Just How Much Money Should the Border-Adjusted Tax Raise Be Expected To Raise?

by Brad Setser

I have a new paper out with David Kamin of New York University Law School—it will be formally out in Tax Notes in a couple of weeks, but given that there is a live debate on the topic, we are posting it in draft form now—and the New York Times had a related editorial linking to it earlier this week.

So this is a joint post with David Kamin.

Our paper makes two arguments.

1) Even with fairly optimistic assumptions about long-term growth and long-term interest rates and the persistence of “excess returns” from U.S. direct investment abroad, the U.S. cannot sustain trade deficits of approaching 3 percent of GDP over the long-run. The CBO’s estimates for long-run growth and the long-run nominal interest rate on the U.S. debt stock imply a sustainable long-run trade deficit of about 1 percent of GDP. That would generate maybe 20 basis points of GDP in permanent revenue. If the excess returns (“dark matter”) on U.S. foreign direct investment go away, the U.S. would need to run a small trade surplus—and the border adjustment would lose revenue over the long-term.

As a result, realistic projections of revenue from a border adjustment should show that revenue falling considerably and, possibly, entirely disappearing over the long-term.

Remember the border adjustment acts as a tax on imports (imports are not deductible as a cost) and a subsidy for exports (a portion domestic wage and other content of exports is effectively rebated, as exports are not considered revenues while domestic wages are considered expenses, creating a tax loss). So it only generates revenue in net if the revenue collected on the border adjustment on imports exceeds the revenue lost on the export rebate.

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Capital Is No Longer Flowing Uphill

by Brad Setser

So report Emine Boz, Luis Cubeddu, and Maurice Obstfeld of the IMF —the net financial outflow from emerging markets that characterized the pre-crisis global economy is no more. Capital isn’t exactly flowing downhill, e.g. from rich, advanced economies to poorer emerging economies. The aggregate current account of the emerging world is close to balance.

But the basic flow of funds is not from one set of advanced economies (Europe, Japan, the Asian NIEs) to another set of advanced economies (U.S., UK, Canada, Australia). It is no longer uphill.

In my view, there is both more and less than meets the eye here.

Less, because Asia’s surplus hasn’t actually changed much from the pre-crisis period. China’s surplus is a bit smaller after its 2016 stimulus. But the surplus of the NIEs is bigger than it was before the crisis (I do not quite understand how the NIEs can be considered advanced economies for discussions of the global flow of funds but be judged against the reserve adequacy standards for emerging economies—but that is a topic for another time). Japan’s surplus is back to roughly it pre-crisis level — and the rise in Japan’s surplus in 2016 has partially offset the fall in China’s surplus. The split within East Asia between “emerging” and “advanced” is a bit arbitrary. All the major east Asian economies are importers of resources and exporters of manufactures.

Emerging Asia is still in aggregate an exporter of savings to the world. Especially if India and others in South Asia are excluded, or if the NIEs are included.

More, because the relatively constant surplus in emerging Asia means there has been a giant swing in the aggregate current account balance of the commodity exporters. One proxy is the aggregate current account balance of the former Soviet Union, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. These regions of the world ran a surplus of $300-400 billion before the global crisis and a similar surplus in 2011 and 2012. They now run a deficit of similar size.

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The January U.S. Trade Data

by Brad Setser

Over the last year, U.S. import growth stalled. Capital goods imports did nothing—in part because of weakness in non-residential investment. And consumer goods imports were flat.

That appears to have changed. Real consumer goods imports were up 9 percent year over year in January. Real capital goods imports were up 7 percent (table 10 in the trade data release).

To be sure, the January trade data can be a bit funky. As Bill McBride of Calculated Risk notes, the timing of China’s lunar new year plays havoc on the United States’ own seasonal adjustment. But the ISM import index suggests February won’t be much different.

Of course, there are different ways to interpret the recent strength in imports.

Import growth can reflect an acceleration in demand growth that is also supporting strong growth in domestic activity (China right now?).

Or it can mean that more of a given amount of demand growth is bleeding out to the benefit of the rest of the world, leaving the “home” economy short demand — slowing the economy (U.S. from 2001 to 2004?).

In practice it is often a bit of both. See Neil Irwin.

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U.S. Manufacturing Exports—Excluding NAFTA—Are Surprisingly Small

by Brad Setser

Take out U.S. exports of manufactures to Canada and Mexico, and the United States manufacturing exports to the world are about 3 percent of U.S. GDP.*

Non-NAFTA manufacturing imports are over 7 percent of U.S. GDP.

These calculations are based on the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) data for manufacturing trade, but exclude refined petrol. I cannot bring myself to count “product” as a manufacture. The division between the petrol and the non-petrol balance has long been central to my understanding of trade.

Within NAFTA manufacturing exports and imports are roughly balanced—about 2.5 percent of GDP in both directions.**

This supports Greg Ip’s view that China’s entry into the WTO—viewing WTO entry as short-hand for China’s increased integration into the global economy—in the 2000s had a materially different impact on the U.S. economy than NAFTA. By all measures, U.S. trade within NAFTA is much more balanced than U.S. trade with the world.*

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Offshore Profits and U.S. Exports

by Brad Setser

One important result of my theory about the sources of “dark matter” in the U.S. balance of payments is a concern that “border adjustment” might not generate the expected revenues. American multinationals would have a strong incentive to shift their offshore income on intellectual property rights that are now located in subsidiaries offshore back to the U.S..

A lot depends on the details of any proposed tax reform, but I think a firm with U.S. expenses and export revenues would generate a tax loss on its exports (export revenues are excluded from calculation of revenues for the purpose of the tax, and domestic expenses can be deducted). If that tax loss is refundable, exporters essentially get a check back from the government for a sum equal to their domestic labor costs (see Chad Bown on the “subsidy” component of a border tax adjustment).* Profits that now show up in subsidiaries in Ireland, Puerto Rico, Singapore, and the like** based on intellectual property that is held in the Caribbean, thanks to the low price headquarters charges for the global rights on their intellectual property, might show up back in the U.S.—and I suspect the royalties their offshore subsidiaries pay headquarters for research and design and engineering (e.g. exports) would soar.

I haven’t started to figure out how European companies that now report very little income on their direct investment in the U.S. might try to game the system. I suspect that they have an incentive to try to lower their reported intra-firm imports—e.g. reduce the transfer prices they charge their U.S. subsidiaries to lower their “border adjustment”. Auerbach, Devereux, Keen and Vella have emphasized that introducing a destination based cash flow tax in one country would have quite different effects than introducing a destination based cash flow tax in all countries.

But I also wanted to draw out the implications of the rapid growth in the offshore profits of American companies for the broader debate on globalization.

Consider the following chart: normalized versus GDP, the “reinvested” (tax-deferred, or less politely, largely untaxed as of now) profits of U.S. multinationals have more than doubled over the past twenty years, while U.S. exports of capital goods, consumer goods, and autos (my measure for “core” manufacturing exports) have stayed constant as a share of GDP. Imports of that set of goods have increased by roughly 25 percent on this measure.

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Dark Matter. Soon To Be Revealed?

by Brad Setser

The debate around the House Republicans’ proposal for a border adjusted (destination-based cash flow) tax will, I think, force an important debate about the impact of corporate tax strategies on global trade flows.* My guess is that tax strategies do have a significant impact on the trade data (one hint: the trade deficit in pharmaceutical the U.S. now runs with Ireland and Switzerland). And in turn I suspect that the revenue projections from the House’s proposals will depend in part on how firms are expected to adapt to a world where export revenues booked in the U.S.—including export revenues from the royalties on intellectual property—are not taxed. A world where the U.S. suddenly becomes tax competitive with Ireland, the Netherlands and others.

I suspect that the size of the impact will surprise many people.

I first started looking at the impact of firms’ tax strategies on the balance of payments back in early 2006, as part of a debate over the sustainability of the U.S. trade and external deficit. One argument at the time was that Americans had nearly magical skills at cross-border investing—magic that produced a surplus on net foreign direct investment (FDI) income (the dividends that American firms receive on their foreign investment relative to the dividends foreign firms receive on their U.S. investments) that would perpetually negate the United States’ interest payments on its net external debt. That magical surplus on investment income in the balance of payments effectively made conventional measures of U.S. external debt sustainability moot.

Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann has always had a way with words. He named the forces that kept the U.S. income balance positive even as the U.S. ran persistent trade and current account deficits: dark matter.

Time, I think, has helped bring the sources of dark matter—or, put differently, the sources of the United States’ exorbitant privilege—into the light. I suspected back in 2006, and now suspect even more strongly now, that “dark matter” is largely a function of the tax strategies employed by firms like Apple (here is a 2005 Wall Street Journal article focusing on another large tech firm).

The “income” the U.S. earns on its equity investment abroad now heavily shows up in low-tax jurisdictions. The “stock” position is now relatively balanced (the market value of U.S. direct investment abroad was $7 trillion at the end of 2015, which is not that different from the $6.5 trillion value of foreign direct investment in the U.S). The net income the U.S. earns on investments abroad essentially comes from the difference between the low cash returns foreign companies report on their U.S. equity investment and the large returns American firms report on their non-repatriated (e.g. tax deferred) income abroad.

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

by Brad Setser

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

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

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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