Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Time for tariffs?

Calls from some quarters for tariffs on Chinese imports to the U.S. are nothing new, but this one in yesterday's Financial Times, from a former University of Chicago professor named Robert Aliber, caught my attention, "Tariffs can persuade Beijing to free the renminbi". Excerpt:

Americans have been patient - too patient - in accepting the loss of several million US manufacturing jobs because of China's determined pursuit of mindless mercantilist policies. The absurdity of the current situation is that China's currency protectionism has more of an impact on American manufacturing employment than US fiscal policy.

The US can help China make the necessary adjustments toward a reduction in imbalances by adopting a uniform tariff of 10 per cent on all Chinese imports, based on their values when they enter the US. Six months after the establishment of this tariff, the rate would increase by one percentage point a month until the Chinese trade surplus with the US declines to $5bn a month.

The precedent is clear. In August 1971 the US adopted a 10 per cent tariff on dutiable imports to induce Japan and several European countries to allow their currencies to float. The measure quickly accomplished its goal - the European countries stopped pegging their currencies immediately and the Japanese allowed the yen to float a week later. The tariff was eliminated after a few months.


It should not take long for the Chinese to learn that they are much more dependent on access to the US market than Americans are dependent on Chinese goods. Virtually all of the goods that the US imports from China could be sourced at home or in Indonesia, the Philippines or South Korea. China would find it difficult to find other foreign markets for the goods that it no longer sold in the US.

The Chinese might huff and puff about US protectionism and threaten that they will no longer finance the US trade deficit - but that chatter would be hollow because the single most important cause of that deficit is Chinese purchases of US securities. Such an initiative by the Obama administration would be much more significant as a jobs-creation measure than anything else it could adopt.

The Chinese authorities can hide behind the smokescreen of American protectionism to undertake the adjustments that some in the People's Bank of China must already recognise is inevitable. The experience of the early 1970s suggests that once the logjam has been broken and imbalances reduced, the Americans and the Chinese can focus on North Korea, Iran and other contentious issues.

1 comment:

ecco said...

I agree with the idea for tariffs, but the Chinese are far from the only offenders, just the most successful. Most of the asian tigers follow some degree of mercantilist policies. We've been pretty successful in the anglo sphere in deluding ourselves that they aren't. I recommend as a good blog that mentions these issues.