In few policy areas does good economics seem to conflict so dramatically with good politics as in the practice of subsidies to food and energy. Economics textbooks explain that these subsidies are lose-lose policies. In the political world that can sound like an ivory tower abstraction. But the issue of unaffordable subsidies happens to be front and center politically now, in a number of places around the world. Three major new leaders in particular are facing this challenge: Sisi in Egypt, Jokowi in Indonesia, and Modi in India.read more
A long-awaited reform of the International Monetary Fund has now been carelessly blocked by the US Congress. This decision is just the latest in a series of self-inflicted blows since the turn of the century that have needlessly undermined the claim of the United States to global leadership.
The IMF reform would have been an important step in updating the allocations of quotas among member countries. From the negative congressional reaction, one might infer that the US was being asked either to contribute more money or to give up some voting power. (Quotas allocations in the IMF determine both monetary contributions of the member states and their voting power.) But one would then be wrong. The agreement among the IMF members had been to allocate greater shares to China, India, Brazil and other Emerging Market countries, coming largely at the expense of European countries. The United States was neither to pay a higher budget share nor to lose its voting weight, which has always given it a unique veto power in the institution.read more
On July 27 negotiators reached a compromise settlement in the world’s largest anti-dumping dispute, regarding Chinese exports of solar panels to the European Union. China agreed to constrain its exports to a minimum price and a maximum quantity. The solution is restrictive relative to the six-year trend of rapidly rising Chinese market share (which had reached 80% in Europe), and plummeting prices. But it is less severe than what had been the imminent alternative: EU tariffs on Chinese solar panels had been set to rise sharply on August 6, to 47.6%, as the result of a “finding” by the EU Trade Commissioner that China had been “dumping.” The threat of likely retaliation by China helped persuade the Europeans to back off from their determination to impose such high protective walls around their own solar panel industry.
My preceding blog-post discussed the process whereby the undervalued renminbi and large Chinese trade surplus have begun to adjust in earnest, over the last three years.
The adjustment in the Chinese trade balance is reminiscent of Japan with a 30-year lag, like other aspects of the US-China relationshkp (though not all). Japan’s balance of trade in goods and services went into deficit in 2011, for the first time since 1980. Special factors have played a role in the last year, including high oil prices and the effects of the tsunami in March 2011. But the downward trend in the trade balance is clear. Even the current account temporarily showed a deficit in January. (Because Japan has long been the world’s largest creditor, a large surplus in investment income is usually enough to change any trade deficit into a surplus on the overall current account.)read more
The world is waiting to see whether China has successfully achieved a soft landing, slowing down the economy from its overheated state of a year ago to a more sustainable rate of growth. Some China-watchers fear it could hit the ground in a crash landing as have other Asian dragons before it. But others, particularly American politicians in this presidential election year, talk only about one thing: the trade balance.
Here the important message is that long-term forces of adjustment are at work in the Chinese economy. Foreign perceptions need to be adjusted as well. It is true that not long ago the yuan was substantially undervalued and China’s trade surpluses were very large. But the situation is changing.
China’s trade surplus peaked at $300 billion in 2008, and has been declining ever since. In fact it even reported a trade deficit in the month of February ($31 billion, its largest deficit since 1998). It is not hard to see what is going on. Ever since the Middle Kingdom rejoined the world economy three decades ago, its trading partners have been snapping up exports of manufacturing goods, because low Chinese wages made them super-competitive on world markets. It was known as the unbeatable “China price.” But in recent years, following the laws of economics, relative prices have adjusted to the demand.
The change can be captured by real exchange rate appreciation. This comprises in part nominal appreciation of the yuan against the dollar, and in part Chinese inflation. Government officials would have been better advised to let more of the real appreciation take the form of nominal appreciation (dollars per RMB). But since they didn’t, it has shown up as inflation instead. (See charts below, which show both nominal and real appreciation, against the dollar or against an index.)
The natural process was delayed. In the first place, as is well-known, the authorities intervened to keep the exchange virtually fixed against the dollar, in the years 1995-2005 and 2008-2010. In the second place, workers in China’s increasingly productive coastal factories were not paid their full value. The economy has not completed its transition from Mao to market, after all. As a result of these two delaying mechanisms, Chinese continued to undersell the world.
But then two things happened. First, the yuan was finally allowed to appreciate against the dollar during 2005-08 and 2010-11, by 25% cumulatively [=17% + 8%]. Second, and more importantly, labor shortages began to appear and Chinese workers at last began to win rapid wage increases. Major cities raised their minimum wages sharply over each of the last three years [FT, Jan. 5]: 22% on average in 2010 and 2011 (somewhat less this year, in response to slowing demand: 8.6 % in Beijing, 13% in Shenzhen and Shanghai). Meanwhile another cost of business, land prices, rose even more rapidly.
As a result, whereas all signs still pointed to a substantially undervalued yuan as recently as four or five years ago, this is no longer the case. One important measure of undervaluation — a comparison of China’s prices with what is normal given the country’s level of income (the so-called Balassa-Samuelson relationship) – showed the renminbi as undervalued against the dollar by as much as 36% on 2000 data (Frankel, 2005) . Even after an improvement in the international price data, Balassa-Samuelson regressions estimated the undervaluation at roughly 30% in 2005 and 25% as recently as 2009. (Others had other ways of estimating undervaluation; see Goldstein, 2004, and those surveyed by Cline and Williamson, 2008.)
The renminbi’s real appreciation against the dollar over the last three years has amounted to 12%, reducing the degree of undervaluation by roughly half, depending on whether one measures it against the dollar or against all countries. More is to be expected, as Chinese relative wages continue to rise. In any case, China’s real exchange rate is already closer to this measure of equilibrium than are most countries’ exchange rates (Cheung, Chinn and Fuji, 2010).
Obama’s slogan for the SOTU last night, “An Economy Built to Last,” was a way of referring to one of the accomplishments of his first years: successfully reviving the auto industry, which many had said couldn’t be done without nationalizing it. References to other accomplishments were stated more quickly, such as national security (withdrawal from Iraq, disposing of Osama bin Laden) or more obliquely, such as health care reform, financial reform, and arresting the freefall of the economy that Obama inherited in January 2009 (via fiscal stimulus and TARP – both of which are not especially popular programs).read more
Libyans have a new lease on life, a feeling that, at long last, they are the masters of their own fate. Perhaps Iraqis, after a decade of warfare, feel the same way. Both countries are oil producers, and there is widespread expectation among their citizens that that wealth will be a big advantage in rebuilding their societies.
Meanwhile, in Africa, Ghana has begun pumping oil for the first time, and Uganda is about to do so as well. Indeed, from West Africa to Mongolia, countries are experiencing windfalls from new sources of oil and mineral wealth. Adding to the euphoria are the historic highs that oil and mineral prices have reached on world markets over the last four years.read more
Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, the G-20 has made addressing food-price volatility a top priority this year, with member states’ agriculture ministers meeting recently in Paris to come up with solutions. The choice of priorities has turned out to be timely: world food prices reached a record high earlier in 2011, recalling a similar price spike in 2008.
Consumers are hurting worldwide, especially the poor, for whom food takes a major bite out of household budgets. Popular discontent over food prices has fueled political instability in some countries, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia. Even agricultural producers would prefer some price stability over the wild ups and downs of the last five years.read more
My last blog post listed some policies and institutions with which various small countries around the world have had success — innovations that might be worthy of emulation by others. Of course there are plenty of other examples of policies and institutions that have been tried and that are to be avoided. The area of agricultural policy is rife with them. Many start with a confused invoking of the need for “food security.”
The recent run-up in wheat prices is a good example. Robert Paarlberg wrote an excellent column in the Financial Times recently, titled “How grain markets sow the spikes they fear.” Grain producing countries point to the high volatility of prices on world markets and the need for food security when imposing taxes on exports of their own grain supplies, or outright bans, as Russia did in July. The motive, of course, is to keep grain affordable for domestic consumers. But the effect of such export controls is precisely to cause the price rise that is feared, because it removes some net supply from the world market. (The same could be said when grain importing countries react to high prices by enacting price controls, because that adds some net demand to the world market.)read more
I agree with Greg that the dominant empirical fact about investment is its procyclical volatility (the main reason investment has been depressed for the last two years is that the economy has been depressed), and also that the recent credit crunch made it worse. But I don’t agree with a third item on his list: “the policy environment seems adverse to business.” As in many areas, it is when we get to the politics that I disagree.read more