Apparently YUM Brands stock is falling because investors are worried about KFC's prospects in China. I am not a YUM supporter particularly, nor am I a patron of KFC, but from some exposure to China I can say that KFC in China is like Taco Bell in the movie Demolition Man. They own the market.
Posts tagged ‘china’
I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night. As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog). Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:
One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics. They look at unemployment and observe that it falls. They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises. They look at GDP and see that it rises.
But these are the wrong metrics. What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want? Are they wealthier?
These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being. And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being. That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being. More resources, more well-being.
But in war time, all this gets changed. Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up. Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context. Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis. But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being. This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.
What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die. Are they better off so employed? Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off). GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks. This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured. This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it. In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.
Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything. Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples. This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy. Do we consider them to have been well off?
There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars. The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence. Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them. But is this really the way we want to prosper? And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains? For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.
Kevin Drum begins this post by making a point I have made forever -- that selling debt to Chinese investors does not somehow put the US in China's power. In fact, one can argue just the opposite, that Chinese policy options vis a vis the US are circumscribed to some extent by the desire to get paid back on all this lending some day.
However, he goes on to make this incredible statement:
Rising U.S. debt hasn't caused inflation. It hasn't sent interest rates skyrocketing. It hasn't reduced Chinese demand for American bonds. It hasn't reduced demand for long-dated bonds. Really, it hasn't done any of the things that conservatives have been predicting with apocalyptic fervor for the past four years.
I am left agog at the incredible blindness of this position, and find it intriguing how it contrasts with Drum's position on rising atmospheric CO2 levels. In the latter case, he constantly argues that lack of warming today is not an excuse for inaction, that CO2 is dangerous and its production must be greatly curtailed. He takes this position despite any real historic evidence of harm from CO2 levels -- ie future harm is hypothetical and without precedent. But still he wants action now.
On the other side, there is plenty of historical evidence for what rising deficit spending and government debt will do to a country and an economy. Heck, you don't even have to look at history -- it is being pushed in our face every day by Greece and Spain and Italy. And yet he councils full steam ahead.
Even most climate skeptics (including myself) would not make a statement about CO2 as denialist as Kevin Drum makes about debt. We acknowledge CO2 is rising, believe it has some impact on rising temperatures, but differ from the most alarmist in the amount of future temperature increases expected. We expect more modest anthropogenic temperature increases that make more sense to deal with by adaption -- but we don't generally deny its effect altogether (crazy talk show host and a few prominent bloggers notwithstanding).
Postscript: The Weimar Republic went from relative normalcy to hyperinflation in less than three months, the time between two quarterly meetings of the Fed. In Europe, one day there was no problem in Greece and Spain and Italy and a day or a week later, boom, the crisis is upon them.
These two articles were back to back in my feed reader this morning. First, Joe Biden argues that medical procedures should be free if you feel you need one
“Everyone knows, everyone in this room knows that President Obama has increased the benefits available to people on Medicare by the action he took,” Biden said. “You are now able to go get a wellness exam, and guys, if you conclude you need a colonoscopy because of the feeling you had or you need a breast health examination, you don’t have to pay a co-pay for that.”
As part of its 8 day Golden Week celebration, China's central planners decided to do a good thing for the people and remove all tolls from expressways. That was the populist explanation. The fundamental one was that this act would somehow spur the economy. Alas, while the same people may have saved some transit money in the process, what they did not save was on transit times. As South China Morning Post reports, millions were promptly stuck in traffic jams as a result of the politburo's generosity. From SCMP: "A bid by authorities tostimulate the economy by suspending road tolls for the "golden week" holiday brought huge tailbacks across the mainland yesterday as almost 86 million travelers took to the roads. That's 13.3 per cent more than on the first day of the National Day holiday last year." And then the fun began.
"One traveller blogged that he could only move 200 metres in an hour on the Zhengzhou to Shijiazhuang expressway in Henan province. Others said the queue of cars on the Guangzhou to Shenzhen expressway was 40 kilometres long. All roads leading out of Guangdong were jammed, with cars moving at about a kilometre an hour in front of some toll gates. Provincial traffic-management authorities estimated traffic on expressways would increase by 40 to 80 per cent compared with the same period last year, the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily reported. The People's Daily reported dozens of accidents on 24 highways across the mainland, further aggravating the congestion."
Since the government still keeps hammering down doctor supply, through enforcement of tough licensing procedures and through price caps (that keep getting cut) on doctor visits, we should soon be seeing the equivalent of this highway traffic jam in medicine. Which is why every socialized medicine country in the world has queues and why their citizens keep flying to the US for treatment.
I missed Tom Junod's original article on targeted killing, but his response to Andrew Sullivan's defense of the Obama Administration is terrific:
I did not -- and do not -- condone the use of torture any more than Sullivan does. But the moral risk of torture is not so different from the moral risk of targeted killing. Indeed, the moral risk of torture provides a template for the moral risk of targeted killing. What was introduced as an option of last resort becomes the option of first resort, then the only option. Sullivan always understood that torture was a temptation, and that the day would come when it was applied not in emergency, "ticking-clock" situations, but as a matter of routine. Well, that day has come, only now with targeted killing, where the option of first resort meets the court of no appeal.
Yes, killing is a part of war, and torture isn't. But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama? The Obama Administration vigorously denies this, just as it vigorously denies that it is combating terrorism by practicing a policy of extermination against terrorists. But the numbers -- the thousands killed by drone and raid against the single high-value asset captured and interrogated outside the theater of war in Afghanistan -- tell a story that can't simply be shrugged off. Interrogation has been replaced by assassination.
Moreover, I talked to a source familiar with the targeting process who told me that the people involved in the life-or-death decisions of the Obama administration often do not know the credibility of intelligence sources. This was a highly informed and involved source who, when asked the most essential question -- "how good is the intelligence?" -- paused and finally couldn't answer. In fact, when I raised the question of whether those who were once captured are now being killed, the source suggested that it was the wrong question:
"It's not at all clear that we'd be sending our people into Yemen to capture the people we're targeting. But it's not at all clear that we'd be targeting them if the technology wasn't so advanced. What's happening is that we're using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture."
Unfortunately, I think targeting killing is here to stay, by the "only Nixon could go to China" logic. By having a Democrat start this policy, it has avoided a lot of critique from the usual defenders of humanity against arbitrary power, for the simple reason that many of these folks consider Obama to be "on their team." Just look at Andrew Sullivan, for God sakes, defending the practice. The Left spent more time criticizing Bush over looting at the Bagdad museum than it has over Obama's targeted killing (Glen Greenwald being a notable exception). Having set the precedent under Obama, there will be no going back under either party in the future.
The problem with the media is not outright bias, but an intellectual mono-culture that fails to exercise the most basic skepticism when stories fit their narrative.
By the way, I find it likely that there are factories in China making products with household names for western markets that have practices from wildly unsafe to outright slavery that deserve shaming and boycotts, as a minimum, when discovered.
But I often find the discourse around "sweatshops" to be colored by weterners' middle class notions of what our own personal alternatives are. "I would never work for a $1 a day..." Sure, but your alternative is not 15 hours a day in a rice paddy with the constant threat of outright death and starvation for your entire family if one years' crops fail.
In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country. By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.
Update: Maybe he will be reincarnated in Avignon:
At 72, the Dalai Lama, who has lived in India since 1959, is beginning to plan his succession, saying that he refuses to be reborn in Tibet so long as it’s under Chinese control. Assuming he’s able to master the feat of controlling his rebirth, as Dalai Lamas supposedly have for the last 600 years, the situation is shaping up in which there could be two Dalai Lamas: one picked by the Chinese government, the other by Buddhist monks.
First, I will admit that this was probably a throwaway line, but it does represent the worldview of a lot of Americans. In an article showing a funny story about poor preparation of college students, Kevin Drum ended with this:
This does not bode well for our coming economic war with China, does it?
Trade is not war. Trade is cooperation, exactly the opposite of war. By definition, it benefits both parties or it would not occur, though of course it can benefit one more than the other.
Treating trade like war is a very dangerous game engaged in by some politicians. At best, it leads to protectionism that makes the country poorer. At worst, it can lead to real war.
Consider two examples of a country treating trade like war, both from Japan. In the 1930's, Japan developed an imperial desire to directly control all the key resources it needed, rather than to trade for them. The wealthy ports of China and iron-rich Manchuria were early targets. This desire was compounded when the US used trade embargoes as a policy tool to protest Japanese invasions and occupation of China. This eventually led to war, with Japan's goal mainly to capture oil and rubber supplies of southeast Asia. Obviously, this effort led to Japan essentially being left a smoking hole in the ground by late 1945.
The second example was in the 1980's, as Japan, via MITI, actively managed its economy to promote trade. The "trade as war" vision was common among Japanese leaders of the time. The results was a gross, government-forced misallocation of resources and bubble in the real estate and stock markets that led to a couple of lost decades.
Here is what I remember from the late 1980's - just about every technocratic pundit of the leftish bent, and a number on the right, all hailed Japan as the government economic planning model the US should follow. One fawning essay after another lauded Japan's MITI and its top-down approach to economic investment.
Practically within hours of when these editorials peaked, the Japanese economy began to crumble. We know now that MITI and other Japanese officials were creating gross distortions and misallocations in the economy, and inflating an economic bubble with gobs of cheap credit. These distortions have still not been entirely cleared from the Japanese economy 20 years later, and the country experienced what was called "the lost decade" which may become the lost two decades.
For over a year, it has appeared to me (and many other observers more knowledgeable than I) that China was headed for a crash for many of the same reasons as Japan. I am now sure this is true, as today Andy Stern (formerly of the SEIU) writes an essay lauding the Chinese top-down state-planned economic model.
The current debates about China's currency, the trade imbalance, our debt and China's excessive use of pirated American intellectual property are evidence that the Global Revolution—coupled with Deng Xiaoping's government-led, growth-oriented reforms—has created the planet's second-largest economy. It's on a clear trajectory to knock America off its perch by 2025....
There is no doubt that China will pass the US in total economic size -- it has three times more people than we do. But their success is clearly due to the small dollops of free enterprise that are allowed in a statist society, and advances are made in spite of, not because of, the meddling state.
Exactly how much economic progress had China made before its leaders brought in the very free market ideas Stern says are dead? None, of course. To read China as a triumph of statism and as the death nell of capitalism, when in fact it is one of the greatest examples in history of the power of capitalist ideas and how fast they can turn around a starving and poverty-stricken country, is just willful blindness.
I will include just one other excerpt
While we debate, Team China rolls on. Our delegation witnessed China's people-oriented development in Chongqing, a city of 32 million in Western China, which is led by an aggressive and popular Communist Party leader—Bo Xilai. A skyline of cranes are building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily—including, our delegation was told, 700,000 units of public housing annually.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government can boast that it has established in Western China an economic zone for cloud computing and automotive and aerospace production resulting in 12.5% annual growth and 49% growth in annual tax revenue, with wages rising more than 10% a year.
My first thought on reading this was that Houston used to look exactly like this, with cranes all over the place building things, until we had an Administration that actively opposed expansion of domestic oil production. My second thought is that this reads so much like the enthusiast essays written by leftists when they used to visit the Soviet Union and came back telling us Russia was so much superior to the US -- just look at the Moscow subway!
The emergence of hundreds of millions of people in China and India from poverty is exciting as hell, and at some level I don't blame Stern for his excitement. But I fear that what he is seeing is the US housing bubble on steroids, a gross misallocation of capital and resources driven by a few technocrats who think they can manage a billion person economy from their office in Beijing.
Disclosure: I seldom do anything but invest in generic bond funds and US stock funds, but right now I am out of US equities and I have a number of shorts on Chinese manufacturing and real estate.
Dispatches From the Corporate State: Apparently, Taxpayers Don't Give Enough Money to Solar Companies
More subsidies for the solar industry in Arizona are crucial to avoid being left behind by other states and China, a Phoenix business leader said today at a solar-power conference.
Tax incentives and loan guarantees "make a lot of sense" right now in Arizona, which is already a leader in the industry, said Barry Broome, president and CEO of theGreater Phoenix Economic Council at the Solarpraxisconvention.
Despite the high-profile financial failure of the Solyndrasolar plant this year in California, Broome told a packed conference room that solar power is destined to be a major force in Arizona and elsewhere. The only question, as he sees it, is whether sunny-skied Arizona will take full advantage....
Behind Broome on an overhead screen, a chart showed that Texas, Oregon, Nevada and other states provide more "aggressive economic development tools," (a.k.a. public money), for solar power than Arizona, and the state can't compete without doing the same thing.
What is this, a football game? This strikes me as turn-of-the-century small town boosterism updated to the 21st century, with a dollop of tribal rivalry thrown in. He's talking mainly about manufacturing of solar components. I am left with a couple of questions
- Why should the fact that Arizona has sunny skies have any bearing on whether or not it is an appropriate spot to manufacture solar panels. Should Seattle subsidize umbrella manufacture because it is rainy there? My sense is that transportation costs are a small part of the price to end users. Arizona clearly will be a great spot for solar panels to be installed -- why does that mean we need to manufacture them?
- If other states like Oregon or China are subsidizing solar products that we might buy, shouldn't we celebrate that? Thanks, taxpayers of Oregon, for forking over your tax money so we can buy solar panels cheaper in Arizona. Why in the hell should be try to out-do them at this? Now we can go invest our capital in a business that actually makes money.
- I am obviously not a fan of government-led economic/industrial policy, but if I were, why in the hell would I want to direct my state's capital and manpower towards a business that requires subsidies, ie can't make a profit on its own in the marketplace?
Its just too easy to snipe at about everything in this article, but this caught my eye in particular
To help move the industry's message, Broome said, solar advocates must stop infighting over their competing technologies and present a unified and positive position.
Normally, I think an economist would argue that in an immature (both market-wise and technologically) product, competition and creative destruction between various competitors is critical to ultimate success. So in fact this advice is totally senseless, unless you see the industry as a taxpayer-money-magnet rather than a real business, and then it makes perfect sense. Politics, after all, demands simple sound bytes and a unified front.
Update: In the first week of Harvard Business School, I learned a lesson from strategy class, in a series of two cases, that still may be the most important thing I learned there. The cases were a hot, sexy electronics company, and a boring, dull as dirt water meter company. To cut to the chase, the electronics company sucked as an investment, and the water meter company was a gold mine. The moral, among several takeaways, is don't get fooled into thinking the hot, sexy business of the moment is necessarily a good investment. Our development agencies in AZ are making this mistake in spades. In fact, the entire history of government economic development efforts in Phoenix has been to chase sexy businesses at the top of the market, spend taxpayer money to get some plant relocations, and then see the businesses struggle. We certainly did this with semiconductor fabs a couple of decades ago.
I don't have time today to link all the evidence, but the combination of crashing real estate markets and the Chinese government jamming liquidity into its banks tells me the China bubble is bursting as we speak.
This is an interesting test of the Austrian view of depressions vs. the Keynesian / Krugman / Thomas Friedman / MITI view of government-orchestrated prosperity. If the latter are right, then China is doing more right to keep their economy going than any country in history and you should go invest all your money in Chinese real estate.
However, if one believes the Austrian model about government-enforced mis-allocation of capital and labor leading to bubbles and crashes; if one believes that the technocrat-beloved MITI was largely responsible for the Japanese lost decade; if one believes that the US govenrment through articially low interest rates and government-directed reductions in underwriting quality helped create the housing bubble -- then the mother of all crashes is looming in China. Because no country has done more to reallocate resources and capital based on the whims of a few technocrats and well-connected industrialists than has China. After all, this is why Thomas Friedman loves China, that it does not rely on the judgement of millions of individuals to allocate capital, but instead on the finger pointing of a few at the top.
In these grim economic times, one U.S. industry has defied gravity. Not only is it growing, it's thefastest growing industry in the country. It now employs 100,000 Americans at 5,000 mostly small businesses spread across all 50 states. Unlike in so many others, in this industry the U.S. has a positive trade balance with China; it is a net exporter of high-tech manufactured products....
The startling counter-cyclical growth of this industry had been unleashed by a modest bit of economic stimulus: a cash grant program that helps project developers compensate for the crippling credit crunch. In contrast to the familiar tax credits -- which tend to go to large, mature companies that have enough profit to benefit from them -- cash grants help small, innovative, growing businesses that are plowing revenue into growth. In fact, a recent study found that they work twice as well as tax credits. In 2009, this cash grant program pulled in $4.50 of private capital for every public dollar it invested.
The cash grant program expires at the end of the year. Extending it for a single year could support 37,000 additional jobs over and above the industry's baseline. And here's the capper: Since the cash grant program is simply repurposing money that's already devoted to a tax credit program, it requires no new federal revenue.
So you'd think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician's mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn't increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?
Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives' endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession's rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company -- Solyndra -- as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry. Odds are they're going to succeed and the cash grant program (Sec. 1603) won't be renewed next year.
Do you see the basic assumption -- if we don't take money from taxpayers and give it to businesses in a certain industry, that means we don't like that business. Really? That means that there is not a single industry in this country that I like, since I don't support subsidies for any of them. Unless you believe the state is mother and father to us all, the fact that I don't support state subsidies does not mean that I don't like the industry somehow. Kevin Drum even goes so far as to say that opposition to solar power subsidies is an aspect of the culture wars. Huh? Oh and by the way, the politicization of this loan process is just amazing to me. More and more people at Solyndra seem to be fund raisers for Obama, and here is a story of how a cleaning products company turned donations to Democratic candidates into taxpayers subsidies for themselves.
It is interesting that he would mention tractor parts. Guess what, folks who don't like the solar subsidies probably don't support subsidies for tractor parts either. I was going to say something like, "guess what, we don't subsidize tractor parts" but in our screwed up corporate state, we probably do at some level, like with some special export program snagged by a John Deere lobbyist. But I can pretty much guarantee that we don't subsidize anywhere near the total value of the tractor parts industry like we do the solar industry.
In one silly passage, he says
"In addition to being successful, this industry is wildly popular with the American public, across regions, demographics, and political parties. It has been embraced by mainstream institutions from Walmart to the U.S. military"
I could say the same thing for iPods too, but no one is rushing to provide grant programs for their manufacture. If it is so wildly popular, why does its use require so many government incentives and subsidies. Because the author pulls the trick of looking at one narrow solar program, and attributing the entire solar industry growth to that one program. And then he says, see, look how much benefit we get from this tiny sensible expenditure.
But solar's growth (I don't have the data, but I am willing to be real money that his "fastest growing industry" claim is BS) is due not to just this tiny programs but to a plethora of federal, state, and local subsidies and mandates. The government gives money to capitalize companies, and then then provides tax credits for up to 30-50% of their customer's purchase, and then through public utility commissions enforce above-market feed-in tariff rates for solar power. One reason we export so much (the export market for US solar is nearly entirely to Europe) is that European governments have feed-in tariffs for solar power more than 5 times higher than the market rate for electricity. They are paying something like 70 cents a kilowatt for solar electricity.
So of course solar is growing. If the government were to buy small cars for $150,000 each, there would be big growth in car manufacturing. This does not mean the product makes sense -- in fact, the necessity for so many government supports at every step of the process means almost by definition that it does not make sense economically. Look at corn ethanol. Corn ethanol is the stupidest product ever, but it has grown like crazy due to the same combination of government subsidies, price floors, and mandates.
By the way, I am a huge fan of solar, in theory. I honestly think that solar will some day be the power system of choice in this country, as companies figure out how to roll solar sheets out of the factory as cheaply and quickly as carpet comes out of Dalton, Georgia. We are not there yet, and I am not at all convinced that the current approaches are anything but dead end technologies. Beyond wasting a lot of money, there is a real risk the government actually slow ultimate implementation of sensible and economic solar, just as I would argue they did by forcing manned space flight and the transcontinental railroad ahead of their time.
From: The Consumers and Small Businesses of China
To: The United States Senate
Thanks! For years, our government has pursued a currency and trade policy that has subsidized your American consumers at the expense of our own here in China, and while we are unsure exactly why you would want to end this arrangement (we presume due to powerful lobby by your large manufacturers), we are happy that you are doing so....
A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese. So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts. And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields and creating inflationary pressures.
Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a transfer of wealth from Chinese citizens to Americans, and we are tired of it.
Read it all.
From the Hill, the ghost of Hawley-Smoot returns
The Senate voted Monday to advance legislation pressuring the Chinese government to stop undervaluing its currency, a practice most economists agree is giving the country an unfair trade advantage and is costing the U.S. jobs.
The Senate voted 79-19 to end debate on a motion to proceed to the bill, the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011. While the vote does not mean the bill has passed, the strong show of support suggests it could well be approved in the upper chamber by the week’s end. Passage through the House is less clear, however, and GOP leaders have given no indication they will move forward with it.
Senate Democratic leadership, responsible for bringing the legislation to the Senate floor, heralded it as a way to create jobs and right a long-standing trade imbalance with China.
“China is by far the biggest exploiter of predatory currency practices,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday. “[T]hese currency policies artificially raise the price of U.S. exports and suppress the price of imports into the United States, undermining the economic health of American manufacturers and their ability to compete at home and around the globe.”
This is a great example of how a group, in this case the Democratic Party, can say they are against corporate welfare, but in fact be 100% behind it simply by changing the terms used.
Look at the sentence in bold. Another way to write this would be "we want a law to help a few visible and influential manufacturers who most compete with China, but hurts consumers (ie every single American) and every business that uses imported raw materials.
Protectionism like this is corporate welfare for a few large manufacturers. I find it amazing the reporter can say that "most economists agree" an undervalued Chinese currency is costing us jobs. My sense is that most economists don't agree with this statement. All this law will do is unilaterally increase consumer prices and raw material costs, and I know few economists who think this is stimulative.
A cheap yuan is a direct subsidy of American consumers by the Chinese, and I am not sure why we shouldn't let it continue as long as they are dumb enough to keep doing it.
Kevin Drum makes a pleas for liberals to, in effect, rally around Solyndra and be proud of the investment. I am sure Republicans would give the same advice to liberals. I want to look at a few of his arguments.
First, for libertarians like myself, the argument that Republicans did it too, or the Republicans started it, are a non-starter. In particular, I actually thought the Obama Administration's attempt to blame Bush for Solyndra was an Onion article, since its almost a caricature of this administrations refusal to take responsibility for anything. Unlike Republicans, I don't see this so much as an Obama failure as a government failure, and I don't really care if it is of the red or blue flavor.
Second, the fact that private investors put their own money into it is irrelevant. Private investors poured money into Pets.com too. Obama was pouring my money into Solyndra, and yes the fact that it is my money makes a difference.
Further, private investors put their money into Solyndra years before the taxpayer did. It may well have been that they had a reasonable expectation at that time of investment returns. That is their problem. Our problem is that by the time Obama put our money into the company, it was pretty clear to everyone in the industry that Solyndra was going nowhere.
Drum and his source, Dave Roberts, attempt to argue that the drop in silicon prices and addition of low-cost solar capacity in China didn't occur until months after Obama's decision to fund Solyndra. But that is a tortured argument. In point of fact, everyone in the industry saw this coming - after all, the capacity Roberts describes as coming online in June was under construction months and years before that, and was known to be coming by everyone in the industry. When I was in a global manufacturing business, we kept up with everyone's plans for capacity additions -- I can't even imagine waking up one day and saying, "huh, a bunch of capacity just opened in China." (by the way, it is pretty typical of liberals to see prices as a given, rather than as a part of a feedback system where high prices lead to actions that might well lower prices over time).
March 2009: The same credit committee approves the strengthened loan application. The deal passes on to DOE’s credit review board. Career staff (not political appointees) within the DOE issue a conditional commitment setting out terms for a guarantee.
June 2009: As more silicon production facilities come online while demand for PV wavers due to the economic slowdown, silicon prices start to drop. Meanwhile, the Chinese begin rapidly scaling domestic manufacturing and set a path toward dramatic, unforeseen cost reductions in PV. Between June of 2009 and August of 2011, PV prices drop more than 50%.
I am sure that this is wildly logical to a journalism major, but someone in business would laugh off the implication that what happened in June was wholly unforeseeable in March. Want more proof? The loan guarantee itself is proof. Years earlier, the company attracted a billion dollars of private capital. Now it takes a government guarantee to get capital? And you think nothing had changed with the insider's perception of the opportunity?
A good analogy might be if I invested in Greek bonds today. And then in 3 months the Greek government defaults and I lose all my money. I suppose I could craft a timeline that said the default did not happen until months after my investment, but could anyone living right now say that I really had no reason on September 16, 2011 to expect a Greek default?
The real howler in the article is this one:
There was no scandal in the loan process, and there's nothing unusual about having a certain fraction of speculative programs like this fail. It's all part of the way the free market works.
First, I agree there is no scandal here if one defines scandal as something out of the norm. Republicans want to count political coup on Democrats so they want to say this is fraudulent. But fraudulent implies that we could find honorable technocrats who could have avoided this problem. We can't. This kind of failure is fundamental and inseparable from the act of government trying to pick winners, and would exist no matter what people were in place.
Second, calling this "the way free markets work" is obscene. Free markets don't use force on investors to make them put money into certain investments.
But more importantly, government loan guarantees go only to those companies who the free market has chosen NOT to fund. If the free market was willing to toss another half billion into Solyndra, its owners would not have been burning a path back and forth to Washington. So by definition, every single government loan guarantee in this program is to a company or a technology that the free market, knowledgeable investors, and industry insiders have rejected as a bad investment. For the program to work, one has to believe that Obama, Chu, and some career energy department bureaucrats have a better understanding of commercializing technologies than do private investors (who are investing with their own money) and industry experts.
Postscript: I have to also comment on this from the timeline:
February 2011: Due to a liquidity crisis, investors provide $75 million to help restructure the loan guarantee. The DOE rightly assumed it was better to give Solyndra a fighting chance rather than liquidate the company – which was a going concern – for market value, which would have guaranteed significant losses.
The author glosses over it, but this is the $75 million I discussed the other day that dropped the US out of the senior position and guaranteed that the taxpayer would lose everything rather than only a portion of the investment
The notion of giving it more time was absurd. Even closed with everyone laid off the company is burning a million a week in cash. How much was it burning when open? And if it was totally clear at this point that the market had fundamentally shifted and the company could not compete, what the hell was the time going to help? Maybe they were hoping to win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes? I suppose it could have been to give them time to try to sell the company, but there is no evidence any such discussions were taking place.
In fact, it is pretty clear that the US Government got played with that $75 million investment. Any private lender who had allowed someone else to grab the senior position for a trivial investment in a company on the express train to chapter 7 would be fired immediately.
And if you want fraud, you might look at Solyndra's summer asset sales. All the company's assets of any liquidity and value were sold over the summer to Argonaut, who also happens to be the owner of the majority state AND the company who invested $75 million in return for the senior position. Depending on the sale price for this self-dealing, one could argue that the time the $75 million bought was merely the time needed to loot the company of any valuable assets before it went bankrupt.
Postscript #2: I have written before about how much expertise about business tends to be claimed by liberal journalists and places like Think Progress. I had a funny thought trying to imagine the Think Progress business school and what it would teach. Might be a parody I need to write sometime.
It does not appear that Rick Perry is the guy to dismantle our growing corporate state.
The LA Times investigates the big-money culture of Texas politics, which has gotten even bigger and money-er since Rick Perry became governor:
Perry has received a total of $37 million over the last decade from just 150 individuals and couples, who are likely to form the backbone of his new effort to win the Republican presidential nomination....Nearly half of those mega-donors received hefty business contracts, tax breaks or appointments under Perry, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.
Perry, campaigning Monday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, declined to comment when asked how he separated the interests of his donors from the needs of his state. His aides vigorously dispute that his contributors received any perks. "They get the same thing that all Texans get," said spokesman Mark Miner.
Nearly half! And this doesn't even include anything about David Nance and the largesse Perry distributes via his $200 million state-managed venture capital slush fund. Doling out political favors in industrial quantities is obviously something that isn't frowned upon by Texas political culture, and Perry has taken it to whole new levels.
Kudos to the LA Times and folks like Kevin Drum for digging this up, but everyone involved should be embarrassed by just how partisan outrage on this kind of thing can be. The same folks who are rightly upset at Perry actively cheered on Obama as he took ownership of GM away from the secured creditors and handed it to his major campaign supporters in the UAW. His stimulus program has been a trillion dollar slush fund to pay off nearly every liberal constituency, and while I find the idea of a state-run venture capital fund horrifying, I see no difference here with Obama's green job investments, many of which have gone triends, campaign supporters, and even spouses of prominent administration officials.
As I asked the other day, if the President is really supposed to be our VC in chief (an absurd thought) who in the hell would pick Obama for the job? As one random example out of my feed reader:
Last year, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced the city had won a coveted $20 million federal grant to invest in weatherization. The unglamorous work of insulating crawl spaces and attics had emerged as a silver bullet in a bleak economy – able to create jobs and shrink carbon footprint – and the announcement came with great fanfare.
McGinn had joined Vice President Joe Biden in the White House to make it. It came on the eve of Earth Day. It had heady goals: creating 2,000 living-wage jobs in Seattle and retrofitting 2,000 homes in poorer neighborhoods.
But more than a year later, Seattle's numbers are lackluster. As of last week, only three homes had been retrofitted and just 14 new jobs have emerged from the program. Many of the jobs are administrative, and not the entry-level pathways once dreamed of for low-income workers. Some people wonder if the original goals are now achievable.
"The jobs haven't surfaced yet," said Michael Woo, director of Got Green, a Seattle community organizing group focused on the environment and social justice.
"It's been a very slow and tedious process. It's almost painful, the number of meetings people have gone to. Those are the people who got jobs. There's been no real investment for the broader public."
Bloomberg News reports that the firm Evergreen Solar will file for bankruptcy and close its operation in Midland, Mich. The maker of solar cells cites over-capacity in the industry, competition from China and fewer government subsidies as contributing factors. According to Bloomberg, the firm has 133 employees worldwide.
Given a Michigan location and participation in a politically faddish industry, readers won't be surprised that Evergreen was the beneficiary of special state subsidies and a local tax break. Specifically, three years ago Evergreen Solar was offered a $1.8 million "refundable" tax credit by the Michigan Economic Growth Authority. For firms with little or no tax liability, this amounts to an outright cash subsidy, contingent on attaining certain employment and investment milestones. Evergreen Solar's specific tax liability is not public information.
The deal was based on crystal-ball projections from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation using a software program known as REMI, which predicted that an Evergreen deal would create exactly 596 direct and "spin-off" jobs by 2018, producing $18.5 million in new state tax revenue.
The city of Midland also granted property tax abatements worth $3.9 million over 12 years, according to Mlive.com. It's not known how much, if any, of these subsidies and tax breaks were ever collected by the company.
This actually understates the total subsidies, as it ignores subsidies to its customers, incoluding above market geed-in tariffs, to buy the solar panels.
Closer to home, a Tucson solar panel manufacturer that was opened to great fanfare with the help of Janet Napolitano and Gabby Giffords just closed after being open barely 2 years. They scored some subsidies, got some large government and utility contracts on the promise of local employment, and then packed up shop for China. Apparently they were attempting to compete in the commodity solar panel market on a strategy of having a higher fit and finish on their product, a product that sits on the roof and no one ever looks at. Good plan.
PS- Yes, private investments fail all the time, but they are 1) not using my money, unless I voluntarily offer it and 2) there are real consequences for those who make bad investments
When it comes to high speed rail, the Left tends to have a Santa Clause mentality. They want the rail, but refuse to even discuss its costs vs. benefits, as if it is going to be dropped in place by Santa Clause.
I have actually had pro-high-speed rail writers call me a dinosaur for taking a cost-benefit approach. After a reasoned article on why our rail system, with its focus on freight, makes more sense than China and Europe's focus on high speed passenger rail, Joel Epstein wrote me that I should get out of the country more, as if I am some backwoods rube that would just swoon if I saw a nifty bullet train. For the record, my actual experience on a high-speed rail train in Europe confirmed that it was a nice experience (I knew it would be) and that it was a financial mess, as my son and I were the only passengers in my car. I would be all for HSR if Santa Clause dropped in down from the North Pole, but it costs a lot of real money.
The rail ministry that builds and operates the trains has an incredible 2.1 million employees, more than the number of civilians employed by the entire U.S. government. Moreover, the ministry is in debt to the tune of 2.1 trillion yuan ($326 billion), about 5 percent of the country’s GDP.
I am not one for China-bashing (or Japan-bashing 20 years ago). But it is interesting to consider just how sane and peaceful a country will be if it is dominated by 100 million men who can't get laid.
My Forbes column this week focuses on the US rail system, and argues that despite all the angst that we are somehow missing the boat in emulating Europe, Japan and China in building expensive bullet trains, we actually have the best rail system in the world.
These writers worry that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds more stuff. We are “asleep.” Well, here is my retort: Most of the great progress in this country occured when the government was asleep. The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry - all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.
In particular, both Friedman and Epstein think we need to build more high speed passenger trains. This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that these folks do not have the dictatorial powers they long for. High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution. But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.
Which is this: The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital. It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies. And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world. It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s). But here is the real key: it is almost all freight.
As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world. Europe and Japan are not even close. Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan. As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States. For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.
You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible. You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains. This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.
Hayekians would argue that both the Japanese lost decade and the recent US housing crash were both caused by massive mis-allocations of capital driven by a variety of government interventions and corrupted price signals (particularly on interest rates). This may be an early signal of a lulu of a bust coming to China, in an story on the high speed rail system in China
With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization looks more like an example of many of the country’s interlinking problems: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.
Questions have also arisen about whether costs and public needs are too often overlooked as the leadership pursues grandiose projects, which some critics say are for vanity or to engender national pride but which are also seen as an effort to pump up growth through massive public works spending.
The Finance Ministry said last week that the Railways Ministry continued to lose money in the first quarter of this year. The ministry’s debt stands at $276 billion, almost all borrowed from Chinese banks.
“They’ve taken on a massive amount of debt to build it,” said Patrick Chovanec, who teaches at Tsinghua University. He said China accelerated construction of the high-speed rail network — including 295 sleek glass-and-marble train stations — as part of the country’s stimulus spending in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.
Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a longtime critic of high-speed rail, said he worries that the cost of the project might have created a hidden debt bomb that threatens China’s banking system.
“In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,” he said. “I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.”
It should be noted that this is the system that has been lauded by folks from Thomas Friedman to Barack Obama as something we should emulate in the US. By the way, this problem identified in China is in fact endemic to the US -- the cost overruns in every rail system. In the US, this probably has less to do with outright individual corruption (i.e. the stealing of money for personal gain) but more common political corruption, in the form of purposefully underestimating costs to get public approval, knowing that when inevitable overruns appear, it will be too late to stop the project.
Part of the cost problem has been that each segment of the system has been far more expensive to build than initially estimated, which many trace directly to the alleged corruption being uncovered, including a flawed bidding process.
I wrote earlier on high speed rail as triumphalism rather than real investment here. Why the US actually has the best rail network in the world is here (hint: from an energy, pollution, and congestion standpoint, the best thing to put on rails is freight rather than passengers, and the US does that better than China or Europe, by far)
Fred Pearce has a nice article (in Grist of all places) about how the Population Bomb essentially defused itself.
For a start, the population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast. Back then, most women round the world had five or six children. Today's women have just half as many as their mothers -- an average of 2.6. Not just in the rich world, but almost everywhere.
This is getting close to the long-term replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don't make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. Women are cutting their family sizes not because governments tell them to, but for their own good and the good of their families -- and if it helps the planet too, then so much the better....
And China. There, the communist government decides how many children couples can have. The one-child policy is brutal and repulsive. But the odd thing is that it may not make much difference any more. Chinese women round the world have gone the same way without compulsion. When Britain finally handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it had the lowest fertility in the world -- below one child per woman. Britain wasn't running a covert one-child policy. That was as many children as the women in Hong Kong wanted.
This is almost certainly one of those multiple-cause things, and we have always had the hypothesis that wealth and education reduced population growth.
But the author makes an interesting point, that urbanization, even in poorer countries, may a big driver as well. After all, in the city, food and living space for children are expensive, and there are fewer ways children can support the family (I hadn't thought of this before, but I wonder if industrial child-labor restrictions, which mainly affected cities, had an impact on birth rates by making urban children less lucrative?) In fact, urban jobs require educations which are expensive (even if they are free, non-productive family members must be fed and housed for years).
I am really just amazed by these remarks by NCAR's Dr. Ken Trenberth to be given, apparently planned for the American Meteorological Society gathering this month. The pdf is here and Anthony Watt has reprinted it on his blog.
It is hard to know where to start, but the following excerpt is an outstanding example of climate science process where 1. Conclusions are assumed; 2. Conclusions are deemed unequivocal by reference to authority; 3. Debate rules are proposed wherin it is impossible to refute the conclusion; 4. All weather events that make the news are assumed to be caused or made worse by man-made warming, and thereby, in circular fashion, further prove the theory.
Normally, when I cite the above as the process, I get grief from folks who say I am mis-interpreting things, as usually I am boiling a complex argument down to this summary. The great thing about alarmist Trenberth's piece is that no interpretation is necessary. He outlines this process right in a single paragraph. I will label the four steps above
Given that global warming is “unequivocal” , to quote the 2007 IPCC report , the null hypothesis should now be reversed, thereby placing the burden of proof on showing that there is no human influence . Such a null hypothesis is trickier because one has to hypothesize something specific, such as “precipitation has increased by 5%” and then prove that it hasn’t. Because of large natural variability, the first approach results in an outcome suggesting that it is appropriate to conclude that there is no increase in precipitation by human influences, although the correct interpretation is that there is simply not enough evidence (not a long enough time series). However, the second approach also concludes that one cannot say there is not a 5% increase in precipitation. Given that global warming is happening and is pervasive, the first approach should no longer be used. As a whole the community is making too many type II errors .
Are you kidding me -- if already every damn event in the tails of the normal distribution is taken by the core climate community as a proof of their hypothesis, how is there even room for type II errors? Next up -- "Our beautiful, seasonal weather -- proof of global warming?"
Remember that the IPCC's conclusion of human-caused warming was based mainly on computer modelling. The IPCC defenders will not admit this immediately, but press them hard enough on side arguments and it comes down to the models.
The summary of their argument is this: for the period after 1950, they claim their computer models cannot explain warming patterns without including a large effect from anthropogenic CO2. Since almost all the warming in the latter half of the century really occurred between 1978 and 1998, the IPCC core argument boils down to "we are unable to attribute the global temperature increase in these 20 years to natural factors, so it must have been caused by man-made CO2." See my video here for a deeper discussion.
This seems to be a fairly thin reed. After all, it may just be that after only a decade or two of serious study, we still do not understand climate variability very well, natural or not. It is a particularly odd conclusion when one discovers that the models ignore a number of factors (like the PDO, ENSO, etc) that affect temperatures on a decadal scale.
We therefore have a hypothesis that is not based on observational data, and where those who hold the hypothesis claim that observational data should no longer be used to test their hypothesis. He is hilarious when he says that reversing the null hypothesis would make it trickier for his critics. It would make it freaking impossible, as he very well knows. This is an unbelievingly disingenuous suggestion. There are invisible aliens in my closet Dr. Trenberth -- prove me wrong. It is always hard to prove a negative, and impossible in the complex climate system. There are simply too many variables in flux to nail down cause and effect in any kind of definitive way, at least at our level of understanding (we have studied economics much longer and we still have wild disagreements about cause and effect in macroeconomics).
So we frequently hear that “while this event is consistent with what we expect from climate change, no single event can be attributed to human induced global warming”. Such murky statements should be abolished. On the contrary, the odds have changed to make certain kinds of events more likely. For precipitation, the pervasive increase in water vapor changes precipitation events with no doubt whatsoever. Yes, all events! Even if temperatures or sea surface temperatures are below normal, they are still higher than they would have been, and so too is the atmospheric water vapor amount and thus the moisture available for storms. Granted, the climate deals with averages. However, those averages are made up of specific events of all shapes and sizes now operating in a different environment. It is not a well posed question to ask “Is it caused by global warming?” Or “Is it caused by natural variability?” Because it is always both.
At some level, this is useless. The climate system is horrendously complex. I am sure everything affects everything. So to say that it affects the probability is a true but unhelpful statement. The concern is that warming will affect the rate of these events, or the severity of these events, in a substantial and noticeable way.
It is worth considering whether the odds of the particular event have changed sufficiently that one can make the alternative statement “It is unlikely that this event would have occurred without global warming.” For instance, this probably applies to the extremes that occurred in the summer of 2010: the floods in Pakistan, India, and China and the drought, heat waves and wild fires in Russia.
Now he has gone totally off the scientific reservation into astrology or the occult or something. He is saying that there is a high probability that if CO2 levels were 120ppm lower that, for example, the floods in Pakistan would not have occurred. This is pure conjecture, absolutely without facts, and probably bad conjecture at that. After all, similar events of similar magnitude have occurred through all of recorded history in exactly these locations.
1. For those unfamiliar with the issues, few skeptics deny that man's CO2 has no effect on warming, but believe the effect is being enormously exaggerated. There is a bait and switch here, where the alarmist claims that "man is causing some warming" is the key conclusion, and once accepted, they can head off and start controlling the world's economy (and population, as seems to be desired by Trenberth). But the fact that CO2 causes some greenhouse warming is a trivial conclusion. The hard part is, in the complex climate system, how much does it cause. There is a an argument to be made, as I have, that this warming is less than 1C over the next century. This number actually has observational data on its side, as actual warming over the last century, given past CO2 increases, is much more consistent with my lower number than various alarmist forecasts of doom. Again, this is discussed in much more depth here.
2. One interesting fact is that alarmists have to deal with the lack of warming or increase in ocean heat content over the last 12 years or so. They will argue that this is just a temporary aberration, and a much shorter time frame than they are working on. But in effect, the core IPCC conclusions were really based on the warming over the 20 years from 1978-1998. So while 12 years is admittedly short compared to many natural cycles in climate, and might be considered a dangerously short period to draw conclusions from, it is fairly large compared to the 20 year period that drove the IPCC conclusions.
Update: More thoughts from the Reference Frame.
Chinese exceptionalism, or do we just notice it because it is so large. I clicked through to this chart from a link on Instapundit that said to note how Chinese fertility fell off the map. When I watched the video though, what I saw was ALL the fertility rates falling at roughly the same pace, at roughly the same point. The lesson seems to be that fertility tends to drop with increasing mortality, wealth, and technology -- which is what many of us have been saying in response to Paul Ehrlich for years.
I am probably over-reading this, but I am sensitive that there is a sort of storyline of Chinese exceptionalism -- due to their taking some sort of totalitarian third way -- that seems to be admired among certain US socialists and environmentalists and Thomas Friedman. This hearkens back to all the admiration for the Japanese MITI-managed economy, right before their economy crashed for two decades or so.
China flourishes because it has a culture, never fully suppressed by Mao, whose people take well and quickly to capitalism -- much of the development around Southeast Asia in previous decades was led by expat Chinese. The totalitarianism that is, depressingly, so admired by the US intelligentsia is just going to lead China into the abyss. Already we can see bubbles emerging due to the state's forced mispricing of key economic inputs, from capital to oil. The burden of spending on triumphalist projects like super-bridges and mega-buildings and Olympics and high speed trains is going to start appearing over the next few years.
Here is my prediction: The Chinese are going to have a bubble burst that will rival any such economic explosion that we have seen in the last century. I have been looking at the situation and by a number of metrics, the bubble is already huge. I would bet against China, but the problem (as with all shorts) is timing. Government officials, if they really dedicate themselves to the task, can extend bubbles for a long time. Even in the US, which is less authritarian and more transparent, it can be argued that Fannie and Freddie and Barnie Frank and Alan Greenspan helped push off the reckoning by at least 5 years. Of course, the longer you push it off, the worse it gets. Which means the Chinese bubble is going to be a doozy.
Postscript: Here is a nice example -- admiration from US environmentalists for China gutting their economy to make arbitrary goals
It's interesting to note the dedication China has displaying in achieving its [energy efficency] target -- shutting down entire operations and even executing rolling blackouts. Surely there would have been some amount of embarrassment for the nation on the world's stage if it had missed its target, but that likely would have been minor. It's worth noting the difference in political culture: What do you think would have happened if the US had such an energy-reduction target to hit, but a sagging economy got in the way?
I can tell you with some certainty: We would have missed that mark.
Will there never be an end to Americans who take advantage of our uniquely strong speech protections to laud totalitarians?
I find it hard to be surprised nowadays by how low trade policy can sink. So I was depressed rather than surprised when I read this update on Magnesium trade.
Those of us who complain about protectionism often complain that its proponents mindlessly cite the seen (ie jobs lost to foreign competition) without taking into account the unseen (numerous consumers and consumer industries benefited by imports). What I did not know is that this is not just bad economics, but is cemented into legislation:
In 2005, U.S. Magnesium Corporation, the sole producer of magnesium in the United States, succeeded in convincing the U.S. International Trade Commission and U.S. Commerce Department to impose duties on imports of magnesium from competitors in Russia and China. Before toasting this outcome with some clichéd or specious utterance about how the antidumping law ensures fair trade and a level playing field for U.S. producers, it is important to understand that downstream, consuming industries (those U.S. producers that require for their own production the raw materials and intermediate goods subject to the antidumping measures) have no legal standing in these cases. Statute forbids the U.S. International Trade Commission from considering their arguments or projections about the likely consequences of prospective duties. Statute requires that the ITC consider only the conditions of the petitioning industry. In other words, the analysis is slanted. The antidumping law codifies these evidentiary asymmetries, which makes it easier for U.S. suppliers to cut-off their U.S. customers’ access to alternative sources of supply.
In other words, in the case of magnesium, on the interests of the US Magnesium Corporation can be considered by the US Government in evaluating trade policy - the interest of the other 300 million of us is illegal even to mention.
This was also funny, from the government as Abbot and Costello files:
But on trade policy formulation, it seems that the right hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing. Last year, while magnesium imports from China were subject to U.S. antidumping duties, the Obama administration launched a WTO case against China for its restraints on exports of raw materials, including magnesium. That’s right. The U.S. government officially opposes China’s tax on exported magnesium because it imposes extra costs of U.S. consuming industries, but it insists on enforcing its own antidumping duties on magnesium imported from China despite those costs.
This is one of the more interesting things I have read this week, and confirms a hypothesis I have developed, which is that whenever the Left in this country begs that we emulate some fast growing government planned economy, we are probably looking at a bubble about to burst (e.g. the Left's desire to emulate Japan's MITI in the late 80's and their envy of China's authoritarian economic interventions today).
The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised clients to take out protection against the risk of a sovereign default by China as one of its top trade trades for 2011. This is a new twist.
It warns that the Communist Party will have to puncture the credit bubble before inflation reaches levels that threaten social stability. This in turn may open a can of worms.
"Many see China's monetary tightening as a pre-emptive tap on the brakes, a warning shot across the proverbial economic bows. We see it as a potentially more malevolent reactive day of reckoning," said Tim Ash, the bank's emerging markets chief.
At some level, the dynamic is not surprising and is one seen in every developing country -- early development is based on export markets taking advantage of low cost labor. But as growth proceeds, demand for labor increases and bids up labor costs. A transition has to occur from exporting low-cost merchandise to making a higher-value products and services for the domestic market. Dislocations are nearly inevitable
On a recent visit to a chemical plant in Suzhou, I was told by the English manager that wage bonuses for staff will average nine months pay this year. This is what it costs to keep skilled workers. His own contract is fixed in sterling, which has crashed against the yuan over the last two years. "It is a sobering experience," he said.
China may have hit the "Lewis turning point", named after the Nobel economist Arthur Lewis from St Lucia. It is the moment for each catch-up economy when the supply of cheap labour from the countryside dries up, leading to a surge in industrial wages. That reserve army of 120m Chinese migrants everybody was so worried about four years ago has already dwindled to 25m.
This tends to be made worse in a heavily planned economy. As any Austrian-schooler will tell you, government intervention in the economy and credit markets tend to distort investments, pushing investment capital from the most productive uses into less productive assets that are favored by the government distortions. Thus the Japanese 80's and American 00's real estate bubbles. And now the Chinese:
The froth is going into property. Experts argue heatedly over whether or not China has managed to outdo America's subprime bubble, or even match the Tokyo frenzy of late 1980s. The IMF straddles the two.
It concluded in a report last week that there was no nationwide bubble but that home prices in Shenzen, Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing seem "increasingly disconnected from fundamentals".
Prices are 22 times disposable income in Beijing, and 18 times in Shenzen, compared to eight in Tokyo. The US bubble peaked at 6.4 and has since dropped 4.7. The price-to-rent ratio in China's eastern cities has risen by over 200pc since 2004