Posts tagged ‘MITI’

Trade and World Peace -- Economic Nationalism Leads to War

President Trump is a strong economic nationalist.  He believes that this country should source everything domestically - its products and its labor - and any labor or resources that are coming from other countries should either be stopped by a wall or heavily taxed.

Economists and I will spend a lot of time over the next four years trying to explain to our economically-ignorant administration why global trade and the global division of labor increase domestic incomes and production rather than decreasing them.  But I do not want to lose sight of another important benefit of open trade in the global economy - peace.

We often miss the fact because our news is dominated by stories of violence and terror, but we live in times of unprecedented peace around the world.  It is no coincidence that this is occurring at the same time that global trade is at a historic peak.  People and governments can obtain just about anything they want, inexpensively, through voluntary trade.  This has seldom been the case through history -- and when people could not get what they wanted through free trade, they tried to take it by force.

Think about the corollary of Trump's economic nationalism, particularly if everyone followed this same approach.  If one skews all the rules and taxes and prohibitions so everything must be sourced domestically, then if a country does not have some particular resource or skill domestically, it is out of luck.  No domestic rare earth metals?  Sorry.

But governments and powerful people seldom calmly accept that something they critically need is not available.  They will be tempted to go and take it.  The worst, most violent empire building of the last 100-150 years has occurred when countries have pursued economic nationalism.  Think of the colonialism of the late 19th century.  Today we happily trade with South Africa and other countries for valuable resources, but in that time of economic nationalism, if a country wanted access to these resources, it felt it had to control the land and the people.  Hitler in the 1930's wanted to make Germany self-sufficient in agricultural goods and certain other resources, and the only way to do that was to go and grab other people's land and resources.

The best example of all of this phenomenon is, I think, Japan in the 1930's.  Japan felt that it was resource poor and under Trump's theory of economic nationalism, it felt it had to control oil and other resources it did not have domestically.  So it plotted to go take it.  When the US instituted a trade embargo in these very goods to punish Japan's aggressiveness in China, it just accelerated Japan's thinking in this area, convincing it for good it had to control these resources, and it was soon invading the oil-rich islands of what is now Indonesia.  This example is all the more telling because Japan actually found true prosperity after the war when it traded peacefully for these resources.  Unfortunately, it adopted economic nationalism, via MITI, of another form and helped manage themselves into a 20-year recession, but that is another trade-related story for another day.

Postscript:  I have more to say on this when I get my thoughts better organized.  Right now I am hurrying to a plane, for Regina, Canada, where I am speaking on global warming tomorrow.  There is a related issue of what happens when strong protectionism on our part pushes China over into the crash they have been putting off for years -- suddenly a crash largely of their making becomes the fault of the US, with implications for a formation of a new cold war, but that again is another topic for another day.

Thoughts on the Japanese Economy

I would characterize long-term Japanese economic policy this way:

  • Technocratically planned economy where the government chose winners and losers and directed capital to industries favored for development (e.g. MITI with steel, autos, electronics).
  • Strong government favoritism for exports and exporters over the domestic economy -- export industries are heavily protected at the cost of raising costs for internal consumers and limiting competition in domestic markets.
  • Enormous, near Herculean commitment to deficit spending as stimulus.  With deficits consistently running in the 8% of GP range and total government debt a stratospheric levels, Japan is the poster child for Krugman's anti-austerity

To these three I would add something that is seldom mentioned, that Japan has a near Scandinavian GINI index, with income inequality well under that of the US.  Oh yes, and they were an enthusiastic adopter of CO2 limits.

And the result of all this has been... 25 years of stagnation.

I remember when every one of these three planks was enthusiastically lauded by the US elite.  I was at Harvard Business School in the late 1980's and much of the discussion was about the US needing to adopt MITI-like government industrial planning and management.  If pressed at the time, people might kind of sort of acknowledge that life wasn't so good for Japanese consumers, but we were in a Michael Porter big picture competitiveness-of-nations phase, and no one seemed to care that their definition of national success did not turn out so well for the people actually living there.

To me, Japan is a giant case study in Austrian economics.  It's like they set out to run a quarter-century test: "let's see if mispricing of credit and forced misallocation of capital is really the cause of recessions."  So it is amazing that no one seems to want to acknowledge the results of this experiment.  Paul Krugman appears weekly in the New York Times to frequently advocate for exactly this same economic plan.

Trade is Cooperation, Not War

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.


Government Mal-Investment

A reader sends me this editorial from Jerry Jordan at IBD.  It discusses a topic that is one of my favorites - government mal-investment.  By a thousand different mechanisms, from direct investment (Solyndra) to artificial interest rates to monkeying with price signals to economic rule-making (e.g. community banking, ethanol mandates) the government is shifting capital and resources from the allocations a well-funcitoning market would make to optimize returns and productivity to allocations based on political calculation.  We rightly worry about deficits and taxes, but in the long run this redistribution of investment from the productive to the sexy or politically expedient may have the largest long-term negative implications -- just look at what the management of the Japanese economy by MITI (touted at the time as fabulous by statists everywhere) did to that country, with the lost decade becoming the the lost two decades.

It is hard to excerpt but here is how it begins

It usually surfaces with an entrepreneurial adolescent deciding it would be a good idea to sell lemonade at the curbside to passersby

Parents, wanting to encourage the idea that working and making money is a good idea, drive around to buy the lemon, sugar, designer bottled water, cups, spoons, napkins, a sign or two, and probably a paper table cloth.

Aside from time and gas, the outing adds up to something north of $10. At the opening of business the next day, the kids find business is slow to nonexistent at $1 per cup. So, they start to learn about market demand and find that business becomes so brisk at only 10 cents per cup that they are sold out by noon, having served 70 cups of lemonade and hauled in $7.

The excited lunch-time conversation is about expanding the business. A stand across the street to catch traffic going the opposite direction; maybe one around the corner for the cross-street traffic. The kids see growing revenue; the "investors" see mounting losses.

There is a strand of economics, we'll call it the K-brand, that sees all this as worthwhile. They add together the $10 spent by the parents to back the venture and the $7 spent by the customers and conclude that an additional $17 of spending is clearly a good thing. Surely, the neighborhood economy has been stimulated.

To the family it is a loss, chalked up as a form of consumption. If this were a business enterprise it would be a write-off. In classical economics it is a "mal-investment."


Final Indicator, if You Needed One, of a Looming China Crash

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.

China Bubble Bursting

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.

Bursting the Chinese Bubble

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

Speaking of Technocrats...

Apparently leading technocrat and Mussolini-style-economic-dictator Robert Reich is at it again, arguing the path to freedom requires more government coercion.  Ronald Bailey reminds us that Reich was the one who advocated the US adopt Japanese MITI-style economic management, just before the American economy took off for 25 years and Japan's spiraled into stagnation.  Now, he is arguing that capitalism is the enemy of democracy:

As Freedom House points out the number of countries that qualify as free rose from just 44 in 1972 to 89 in 2005,
even as capitalism expanded around the globe. It has been hypothesized
that as incomes increase in a country (rise of a middle class), the
demand for democratic governance becomes irresistible. This seems to
have been the pattern in South Korea, Chile, and Taiwan. Will the same
thing happen in China? As a negative leading indicator---whatever Reich
predicts, the opposite occurs-don't be surprised if China becomes a
democracy in the next decade.