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Trump thinks tariffs will add U.S. manufacturing jobs. Economic reality says they won’t.

Monday, August 26th, 2019

Adam BehsudiWhen then-Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina went to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Kent International in 2014, the bicycle company had grand plans for expansion at its assembly plant to make its products in the United States.

“Manufacturing, it’s never as easy as it looks and people kind of laughed at us, but won’t be laughing very much longer,” Kent International Chairman and CEO Arnold Kamler said. “We are not reinventing the wheel; we just have a really talented bunch of workers and managers.“

President Donald Trump had promised that his steep tariffs on Chinese goods would help bring jobs back to the U.S. But five years later, paradoxically, it is the very tariffs that Trump has imposed that have kept that plant in Manning, S.C., from expanding, Kamler said in an interview.

Firms are indeed moving out of China but are not flocking to the United States, undermining the central promise of Trump’s trade war. Cheaper labor markets in Southeast Asia are the ones benefiting the most amid the trade war that has ratcheted up duties on Chinese goods.

In fact, the administration’s actions have prompted Kent International to still rely on its joint venture partner, Shanghai General Sports, to supply more of its bicycles. For its part, Shanghai General is planning to build a factory on a plot of land in Cambodia. By the end of year, 40,000 square feet of production capacity will be complete.

Kamler estimates that 30 percent of the company’s annual production of 3 million bicycles will come from Cambodia, at the expense of China.

The tariffs are also taking a toll on Kent International’s ambitions to bring jobs to the U.S. The company needs steel tubes as components in the welding assembly line, which currently can only be bought at a reasonable price from foreign suppliers.

The administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports — as well as the threat of new tariffs on the majority of the components used in bicycle production — has meant that additional phases of bringing jobs to the U.S. have yet to happen.

The latest U.S. economic trends aren’t helping efforts. U.S. economic growth has slowed this year and the 3 percent growth Trump promised last year was revised down to almost 2.5 percent.

Manufacturing job trends are also cooling. The latest U.S. jobs report showed manufacturing employment rose by an average of 8,000 per month so far in 2019, compared with an increase of 22,000 jobs per month in the sector in 2018.

Across-the-board tariffs on all Chinese imports could create more than 1 million U.S. jobs in five years, contends the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a major backer of Trump’s tariffs. The reality, however, is other nations with lower wages are the ones benefiting from the president’s strategy.

“The majority of jobs are going to other countries,” said Jeff Ferry, chief economist for the coalition, which has advocated a complete decoupling from the Chinese economy to benefit the U.S.

The group‘s study found only a small gain in production returning to the U.S. the first year of a blanket tariff, representing only about 0.2 percent of the more than $500 billion worth of imports from China. By year 5 though, that number would increase to 13 percent compared to the value of last year’s imports from China, he said.

For his part, Trump pledged that his strategy to escalate the trade war against China would create jobs in the U.S. in the long term.

“Tariffs are a great negotiating tool, a great revenue producer and, most importantly, a powerful way to get companies to come to the USA and to get companies that have left us for other lands to COME BACK HOME,” Trump tweetedlast month.

Acecdotal evidence, not hard numbers.

There have been some prominent announcements from companies trumpeting that they have “reshored,” or brought jobs back to the United States.

Stanley Black & Decker said this year it would move production of its Craftsman line of tools, which it acquired from Sears, from China to Texas where it would add 500 jobs. High-end furniture seller Restoration Hardware said in a recent earnings report that tariffs were spurring it to bring some manufacturing to the U.S.

The U.S. Commerce Department published this year a “case study” on reinvesting in the U.S., highlighting the experiences of six companies moving production to America. The report makes the case “that anecdotal evidence of hundreds of reshoring cases is very real,” but it also admits that tariffs are a “challenge” for companies wanting to move production to the U.S.

Half of the companies profiled by the Commerce Department highlight the harm of tariffs on investment decisions.

Quality Electrodynamics, an Ohio-based company that designs and produces parts for medical devices, “recommended that the U.S. government could promote reshoring and expansion in the United States by revising U.S. tariffs on Chinese components in a way that does not disadvantage U.S. companies.”

Those working to find ways to increase reshoring say the tariffs are making it harder for companies to make decisions on where, or even whether, to add capacity.

Harry Moser, president of the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative, said he agrees 100 percent with the goals of Trump’s tariffs, but said they have had a “modest net negative” effect on jobs coming back to the U.S. as companies look elsewhere to relocate production.

Based on the Reshoring Initiative’s own study, 2018 was a banner year for the return of jobs to the U.S., but that progress dropped off in 2019. Already, $250 billion worth of imports are subject to a 25 percent tariff, and Trump has threatened to slap duties on almost all that the U.S. brings in from China.

Trump has announced that he would hit an estimated $112 billion in imports from China with a 10 percent as of Sept. 1, while another $160 billion subject to the duty as of Dec. 15.

“Clearly Trump caused work to come here more by the things he did on taxes than by pounding on the table with tariffs,” Moser said. “The uncertainty caused by the tariffs are hurting reshoring and foreign direct investment.”

Trump’s trade chief, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, acknowledged recently that tariffs were diverting some production to the U.S. but also to other countries.

“The imposition of tariffs can have many effects, including modifications to supply chains,” he wrote in a response to a written questions from Congress on whether tariffs are benefiting producers in other countries.

“I have closely followed reports of manufacturing coming back to the United States from China or going to third countries in some instances,” he said.

Sebastien Breteau, the CEO of Hong Kong-based supply chain inspection company Qima, said the data his firm collects supports the theory that neither China nor the U.S. is winning the trade war.

The company, which has 6,000 clients worldwide, has seen a 13 percent drop for China-based inspections from U.S. companies.

Meanwhile, inspections for U.S. clients increased 21 percent in Vietnam, 25 percent in Indonesia and 15 percent in Cambodia. Mexico inspections for U.S. clients jumped by a staggering 119 percent in the first six months of 2019.

“There is a clear sign that in the trade war between the U.S. and China, the winner is not going to be the U.S. and it’s not going to be China,” he said. The winners are “going to be Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and very likely Mexico and Bangladesh.”

The Qima data is supported by a recent report from consulting firm AT Kearney, which found that imports from low-cost Asian countries in 2019 outpaced U.S. manufacturing output.

A report by the investment firm China International Capital Corporation released last month estimated that across eight manufacturing sub-sectors in China, the first two batches of tariffs from the United States would likely result in 1.5 million job losses in China. The authors said that looking across the whole manufacturing sector, “this estimate may be low.”

However, there is little evidence to suggest that many of these jobs are flocking to the United States.

George Whittier, CEO of Morey, a Chicago-based custom electronics manufacturer, said his company still relies on imported parts to make GPS tracking devices and controllers for vehicles. Most of those components imported from China are subject to tariffs, but the finished products are not. The result is more time spent haggling over costs with existing customers rather than expanding production and jobs.

Whittier also questioned whether the U.S. labor pool could absorb a major increase in manufacturing. He said he has 15 positions open that he has been unable to fill even after raising the offered salaries twice.

“If there was this big boom of manufacturing coming back from China into the U.S., I gotta be honest, I have no idea where the workers are going to come from,” he said.

Kamler, of Kent International, said previous discussions with the Trump administration had been frustrating because of a perspective that only goods made from “start-to-finish in the U.S.” count as “real” domestic manufacturing. But he added that recent talks with the Commerce Department had been more fruitful.

Kamler has formed a coalition of 12 American companies in an attempt to bring an entire supply chain cluster back to the United States. If the alliance can prove that it’s assembling entire bicycles in the United States, it would “be able to import all the component parts for five years, duty free,” Kamler said.

Still, he said he was told the alliance would only get the tariffs eliminated if it could prove that it could increase U.S. bicycle assembly from 600,000 annually to 4 or 5 million. Kamler said the industry would ultimately have to seek permanent relief from tariffs through legislation, which he said is in the early stages of being developed.

“These things don’t happen so fast, but this is a long-term play and this is actually my hope and part of my legacy that I’m hoping to leave, that I can help bring back the American bike industry,” he said.

Counterfeiting, not tariffs, prompt some moves

For other companies, the threat of intellectual property, or I.P., theft and not tariffs has driven decisions to relocate production to the U.S.

Isaac Larian is the chief executive officer of MGA Entertainment, the world’s largest privately owned toy company. Last year, one of his company’s brands, Little Tikes, reshored production of fashion accessories for its line of L.O.L. Surprise! Dolls to an existing plant in Hudson, Ohio, in a bid to avoid fake versions of its products from being sold to consumers.

“The biggest problem we face in China is the theft of I.P. There are over 200 factories in China that make L.O.L. Surprise! counterfeit products and very little can be done about it,” Larian said. “These counterfeit products are unsafe for children.”

He said MGA tested moving one item’s production to the U.S. and found it was successful. Now, it plans to move more accessories, especially because toys made in China are among the items subject to a 10 percent tariff as of Dec. 15.

“It will definitely affect business due to lower sales, and we are looking at options” to move more manufacturing out of China, he said, adding that “it is too late for this year.”

Another toy seller, Unit Bricks, examined moving production to the U.S. by pricing out the plastic elements of its production as well as packaging. But the company decided it was unaffordable at this stage because profit margins on toy sales are too thin to justify the costs of relocating production to the U.S.

“Everything is about margins,” said Timothy Stuart, the owner of the educational toy maker. “The issue with the U.S. is that labor intensive items become too expensive.”

“All production is in China for us: plastic, wood, packaging. Industry follows labor, and America can’t afford cheap labor,” said Stuart.

With the threat of a new tariffs looming, Stuart said that his business could absorb a 10 percent levy, but should it rise to 25 percent, “we would have zero choice at that point” but to leave China.

“Frankly, I still have hope that the 10 percent won’t hit, but we are prepared for it and have already spoken to customers. They’ve increased the quantities of their orders, so that helps,” said Stuart.

But should things escalate, the U.S. and Poland are both active options but due to the higher cost, “the U.S. is the last resort.”

This article was originally published at Politico on August 24, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adam Behsudi is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Prior to joining POLITICO, he covered international trade policy for Inside U.S. Trade, where he tracked down the latest news on the Trans-Pacific Partnership from exotic locales such as Auckland, New Zealand; Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia; and Leesburg, Va.Before writing about anti-dumping, export controls and other trade subjects, Behsudi covered city hall for the Frederick News-Post. He got his start in journalism chasing crooked sheriffs and other crime-related news in the mountains of western North Carolina for the Asheville Citizen-Times

Behsudi earned his bachelor’s degree in 2005 from the University of Missouri. With the hope that journalism could return as a growth industry within his lifetime, he earned a master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University in 2010.

Trump’s Trade War with China Benefits Big Corporations—Not Ordinary Workers

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

Some events give extraordinary insights into the biases of the economics profession. The trade war with China clearly fit the bill.

The origins of the trade war can be traced to campaign promises Trump made to go after China over its large trade surplus with the United States, which he attributed to “currency manipulation.” The argument was that by intervening in currency markets (buying up U.S. dollars), China was propping up the value of the dollar against its own currency.

This makes Chinese goods and services relatively cheaper to U.S. consumers and makes U.S. goods more expensive to Chinese purchasers. The net effect is to increase U.S. imports of Chinese goods and reduce U.S. exports to China, thereby leading to a large trade deficit.

While most economists now acknowledge that China was intervening in currency markets in the last decade (they did not acknowledge the currency intervention at the time), they insist that this is no longer an issue. China is no longer a large net buyer of dollar denominated assets, so the argument goes, therefore it is not currently keeping down the value of its currency against the dollar.

As I have argued elsewhere, this argument ignores the effect of China holding well in excess of $3 trillion worth of dollar denominated assets. Its decision to hold a massive stock of dollar assets depresses the value of the Chinese yuan against the dollar, thereby maintaining the competitive advantage from a lower valued currency.

This is the same logic that applies with the Fed’s decision to hold trillions of dollars worth of assets that it acquired as part of its quantitative easing program. Even though the Fed is not currently buying assets, most economists argue that its holding of assets still works to keep down interest rates. Perhaps in the next decade they will acknowledge that the same relationship holds with China’s massive stock of dollars and the relative value of the dollar and the yuan, but for now they insist that currency intervention was only an issue in the past.

This is important background, because currency values will directly affect our trade balance with China, and thereby impact the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States. While reducing the trade deficit will not get back most of the relatively high paying manufacturing jobs that were lost in the last decade, it would likely still be a plus for relatively less-educated workers who still rely on manufacturing as a source of higher paying jobs.

Although currency is mostly off the table in Trump’s trade war, intellectual property is very much on the table. And here Trump has the support of economists across the political spectrum, who argue that he has a legitimate complaint, even if they don’t endorse his go it alone cowboy tactics.

The complaint is the China is not respecting “our” intellectual property. This lack of respect takes two main forms. One is simply not honoring the patents, copyrights, and trademarks of U.S. corporations. The other is requiring technology transfers by U.S. corporations that locate operations in China. This usually means taking on a domestic Chinese company as a partner, which will then gain expertise in the use of the U.S. company’s technology.

It is very impressive how the bulk of the economics profession has been willing to legitimate the switch in focus of Trump’s trade war. He had run around the country in his campaign denouncing China as a world class currency manipulator. He pledged to take punitive actions against China for its currency practices on Day One of his administration. Getting China to raise the value of its currency against the dollar actually would have provided some benefit to U.S. workers. But now currency is off the table and we are fighting a trade war to protect “our” intellectual property.

If it’s not obvious already, it is not “our” intellectual property that Trump and his bipartisan crew of economist cheerleaders are interested in protecting. It is the intellectual property of large corporations like Boeing, GE, Pfizer, and Microsoft. Very few people in the United States are in a position where they have to worry about China using their patents or copyrights without compensation. This is a real concern to many large U.S. corporations. The question is whether it should be a concern to the rest of us.

Most immediately, the concerns of ordinary workers are likely to go in the opposite direction. If companies like Boeing and General Electric don’t have to worry about being forced to transfer technology to Chinese companies when they outsource to China, they will have more incentive to outsource to China. That’s about as straightforward as it gets. Instead of reducing our trade deficit in manufacturing goods, this change is likely to increase it.

But this goes to an even deeper issue. We have seen a massive increase in wage inequality over the last four decades. Most economists probably believe some version of the skills biased technical change story – that new technologies have placed a greater premium on skills like math, science, and engineering – while reducing the value of less-educated workers.

Trump’s trade war gives us an insight into the real story. It was not technology that led him to focus his efforts on protecting intellectual property to the neglect of currency issues; it was a political decision made in response to the political power of the most affected groups. And, Boeing, GE, and the rest have far more political power than the workers who labor in their factories or indeed, less-educated workers as a class.

Trump and the political elites more generally are prepared to have a trade war to protect the intellectual property of large U.S. corporations, and indirectly to benefit the more highly paid segment of the labor force. They would not do the same to increase the employment and wage prospects for less-educated workers, the two-thirds of the labor force without a college degree.

To be clear, there is an issue that we should not be allowing China to take at no cost the technology that we spent hundreds of billions of dollars to develop. That is a reasonable argument, but that hardly implies that we need to force them to respect patent and copyright protection.

We need to ensure that China and other countries share in the cost of developing new technologies. There are far more modern and efficient mechanisms than patent monopolies, which are a relic of the Medieval guild system. While negotiating sharing mechanisms may be a difficult process, it is not obviously more difficult than preserving the patent system. President Obama likely would have had the Trans-Pacific Partnership completed and approved by Congress before he left office if it had not been for haggling over terms of drug patent-related protections.

It is also important to recognize that we will likely have far more to gain from having access to China’s technology than the other way around. China is already far and away the global leader in clean technologies, with as much installed solar and wind energy as the rest of the world combined, and an electric car industry that now produces as many cars as all other countries put together.

China currently spends roughly the same share of its GDP on research and development as the United States. Its economy is already 25 percent larger than the US economy and will be more than twice as large in less than a decade. Rather than focusing on bottling up U.S. technology, a forward-thinking trade agenda would be focused on ensuring our access to Chinese technology.

Unfortunately, trade policy is not crafted in the national interest, it is crafted with the goal of making the rich richer. This is what Donald Trump’s trade war is all about. And, as is the case with so many other wars, it is about working class people being forced to sacrifice by paying high tariffs to advance the goals of the rich.

This blog was originally published at CEPR on May 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Authors: Dean Baker co-founded CEPR in 1999. His areas of research include housing and macroeconomics, intellectual property, Social Security, Medicare and European labor markets. He is the author of several books, including Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich RicherGetting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working PeopleThe End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets ProgressiveThe United States Since 1980Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot), and The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. His blog, “Beat the Press,” provides commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan. Brian Dew holds a B.A. in Psychology and Organizational Sciences from the George Washington University and an M.A. in Economics from American University. His previous research has focused on international trade, network analysis, and open-economy macroeconomics, while his current research interests include domestic trade, employment, and monetary policies. Brian worked previously for the International Monetary Fund.

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