April 5, 2005
by Irwin Stelzer
When Peter Mandelson slammed the telephone down on Bob Zoellick during a conversation over subsidies received by Airbus, he was applying to the former U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and current State Department number-two the intimidating tactics honed in dealing with Britain's editors and reporters in his previous life as Tony Blair's hit man. If, indeed, that is what happened. Staff at the EC trade commissioner's office say it didn't, and that the conversation ended with the simultaneous slamming down of receivers.
Both sides say negotiations will continue. But success is far from assured. America's negotiators are determined to end the EU's subsidized financing of Boeing's leading competitor, by bringing suit at the World Trade Organization if need be. The Europeans know that, without state aid, Airbus cannot finance the development costs of new aircraft. Burdened with more than double-digit unemployment, they are determined to preserve uneconomic jobs by continuing the subsidies.
Trade tensions are not confined to the aircraft industry. Rob Portman, the Ohio congressman appointed by President Bush to replace Zoellick as USTR, faces a congress concerned by America's mounting trade deficit, which increased by over 25% last year, to $666 billion, and almost 6% of GDP. Most experts expect the red ink to increase by $100 billion this year.
Because we have to borrow from overseas to finance our appetite for imports, foreigners now hold 45% of all Treasury IOUs, some $2 trillion in Treasury bonds and notes. Which brings us to China.
The increasingly belligerent foreign policy of the Chinese regime, including warnings to Australia about its American alliance, and stepped-up threats to Taiwan, has set nerves jangling in Washington, and focused geopolitical-types on an issue that has until now concerned only trade experts. America's trade deficit with China hit $162 billion last year, the largest ever recorded with a single country. As a result, China has vaults filled with America's IOUs.
Since China is willing to spend about $200 billion annually to prevent its currency from rising against the dollar, there is little prospect that the bilateral U.S.-China trade deficit will decline. "Without substantial real appreciation [in the renminbi] versus the dollar," say Goldman Sachs economists, "Chinese goods will continue to… fuel large U.S. trade deficits." Experts are guessing that Wal-Mart alone will increase imports by $75 billion over the next five years, much of the goods coming from China.
That's what prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to use her recent trip to warn the Chinese authorities to act "within the recognized rules of the international economy." Shortly thereafter Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of China's central bank, announced that China has no intention of revaluing its currency to correct bilateral trade imbalances. A quick lesson for the new Secretary of State on the limits of American power and her charm offensive.
The row over Airbus subsidies, mounting concern over the refusal of China to revalue its currency, and anger over the refusal of the EU to stimulate growth and suck in more imports, are all converging on Portman. Critics of the unreformed EU note that a 50% drop in the dollar relative to the euro has coincided with an increase in the U.S. trade deficit with the EU: a falling dollar cannot offset the sluggish demand growth in Europe. And trade union critics of free trade are saying that the crown jewel of the free traders, NAFTA, has produced an annual increase of over $100 billion in the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico.
Add increased skepticism about the value to America of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), scheduled to be reviewed by Congress this week; the reemergence of the war over EU banana tariffs; the threat by the EU and Canada to impose retaliatory duties on a wide range of American products; and an administration that has chosen to spend its political capital on social security reform and the war on terror, and you have an atmosphere that bodes ill for the Doha round of trade-opening talks.
There is worse. The Europeans and the developing nations profess horror at the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank. They say he doesn't know anything about development, but really worry that he knows too much: that loans to undemocratic kleptocracies might fatten Swiss bank accounts, but do little to fatten starving citizens of so-called developing countries.
But Gerhard Schröder and friends were reluctant to oppose the Wolfowitz appointment, lest they appear to be snubbing President Bush's recent friendly overtures. So they approved the appointment, and will seek a quid pro quo -- the appointment of France's Pascal Lamy to fill the vacancy at the head of the World Trade Organization. Lamy is dedicated to the maintenance of the EU's protectionist agricultural policy, which further enriches well-off French farmers at the expense of poor farmers in developing nations. If he is appointed, and spurns Bush's proposal to end both EU and U.S. export-inducing farm subsidies, the Doha round is doomed.
Meanwhile, some economists are beginning to look at the trade deficit as a non-problem. They argue that the Chinese and other holders of U.S. IOUs and assets will not dare dump their holdings, lest they drive down the dollar and the value of their remaining dollar assets. Others contend that it is not American consumers' preference for foreign products, or the allegedly low U.S. savings rate that is driving the trade deficit to dizzying heights, but a worldwide savings glut.
The reasoning goes like this: The absence of attractive investment opportunities in stagnant Europe and Japan is causing high-saving foreigners to invest in dollar assets. This shores up the dollar, making it unnecessary for interest rates to rise very much in order to attract foreign investment.
That would explain why foreigners poured $91.5 billion into U.S. bonds, stocks and other financial assets in January, a 50% jump over the preceding year. Best of all, private investors did most of the buying, proving that America still attracts not only the world's masses yearning to breathe free and work, but capital yearning for an attractive return. Which makes it likely that any future decline in the dollar will be gradual.
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times (London).
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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