Brexit’s Advance Opens a New Trade Era

The decisive Conservative victory in Britain leaves no doubt that in today’s global equation, national interests are supreme and globalization is suspect.

The notion that global economic integration amounts to human progress had a good run, dominating the thinking of the powers that be for more than seven decades. But a new era is underway in which national interests take primacy over collective concerns, with trading arrangements negotiated among individual countries.

Britain’s voters made that clear on Thursday in handing an emphatic majority to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party, all but ensuring that the world’s fifth-largest economy — and a charter member of the international trading system — will proceed with its abandonment of the European Union.

preliminary deal hailed on Friday by the two largest economies, the United States and China, raised the prospect of easing their high-stakes trade animosities. But the nature of their engagement — country to country, not mediated by the World Trade Organization or some other international authority — underscored the principles of the new age.

Britain now faces another complex phase in its tangled European divorce proceedings — negotiations over the terms of its future economic relationship with the Continent. But in one form or another, “getting Brexit done,” the mantra that Mr. Johnson promised and can now deliver, marks a profound change in the world trading system.

In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies built an international order on the understanding that when countries swap goods they become less inclined to trade artillery volleys.

Britain’s departure from the European Union is the clearest manifestation that this idea no longer holds decisive sway. It is not the only one.

The traditional arbiter of international trade disputes, the World Trade Organization, is listing toward irrelevance as countries bypass its channels to impose tariffs. Its appellate body, which adjudicates disputes, has been rendered inoperative by the Trump administration’s blocking of new judges. The panel needs at least three judges to render verdicts, but now has only one.

“The sense that policy moves in one direction, toward more liberalization and more integration, has been replaced by recognition that policy can go backward as well as forward,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The United States and China together account for more than a third of the global economy, making their wave of escalating tariffs a cause for alarm about diminishing fortunes in nearly every country exposed to international trade — from Germany to South Korea to Mexico.

President Trump has put stock in the unrivaled scale of the American economy in seeking favorable trading arrangements. In his calculus, the United States boasts the advantage in any bilateral trade negotiations and can tilt the rules toward American interests.

This was the logic that prompted Mr. Trump to renounce American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc spanning a dozen countries. It was a project pursued by his immediate predecessor, President Barack Obama, in part to press China to address longstanding complaints that it subsidized key industries, doled out credit to favored companies and manipulated the value of its currency to gain advantage in world markets.

In taking on China, the Obama administration employed the multilateralist mind-set that had guided American policy since the end of World War II. The Pacific trading bloc would set rules on investment, labor and environmental standards. Its members would profit through growing trade, and China would want in. To gain access, China would be forced to adopt the bloc’s rules.

But in Trumpian thinking, multilateralism is for suckers. Shortly after he was sworn in, declaring as his credo “America First,” Mr. Trump ditched the Pacific bloc and weaponized the American market: If China wanted access to the 327 million consumers in the richest country on earth, it would have to buy more American goods and play fair.

On Friday, Mr. Trump cited the preliminary agreement as evidence that his strategy was working. The United States would sharply reduce the tariffs it had affixed to Chinese goods, while China promised to buy more American farm products and respect intellectual property. Mr. Trump called it “an amazing deal for all.”

But economists said the announcement of new farm purchases reflected goods that China was already buying. Even as the scrapping of the next wave of tariffs weighed as positive for the global economy, few were proclaiming the advent of enduring peace. The United States and China have descended into such an adversarial state that they are likely to continue seeking alternatives to exchanging goods and investment. Companies that make goods in China will face pressure to explore other countries, posing disruption to the global supply chain.

China’s leaders have come to construe trade hostilities as part of an American bullying campaign engineered to suppress their national aspirations and deny the country its rightful place as a superpower. Nationalist sentiments and security concerns have become intertwined with trade policy, complicating the pursuit of a final deal.

Now Britain, in leaving the European bloc, embarks on a strategy aimed at securing bilateral trading arrangements with major economies, from the United States and China to Australia and India.

Trade deals are complex and difficult. They entail prying open new markets for exports in exchange for exposing domestic companies to new competitors. Powerful interest groups complain. Deals take years.

Arithmetic reveals that no combination of trade deals is likely to compensate Britain fully for what it stands to lose in walking away from the European single marketplace, a territory stretching from Greece to Ireland.

Britain sends nearly half of its exports to the European Union, a flow of goods imperiled by Brexit. Britain’s appeal as a headquarters for multinational companies will be undermined as it finds itself separated from the Continent by a revived border.

The fraying of international trading arrangements and the rise of nationalist imperatives have been driven by intensifying public anger in many countries over widening economic inequality, and the perception that trade has been bountiful for the executive class while leaving ordinary people behind.

In Britain, struggling communities used the June 2016 referendum that unleashed Brexit as a protest vote against the bankers in London who had engineered a catastrophic financial crisis, and who then forced regular people to absorb the costs through wrenching fiscal austerity.

In the United States, Mr. Trump’s political base has rallied to his trade war. In ItalyFrance and Germany, furious popular movements have fixed on trade as a threat to workers’ livelihoods, while embracing nationalist and nativist responses that promise to halt globalization.

“The era of freewheeling markets and liberalism is ending,” said Meredith Crowley, an international trade expert at the University of Cambridge in England. “People are dissatisfied with the complexity of policy and this feeling that those who have the levers of policy are somehow out of their reach.”

Economists see perils in this unfolding era, especially as governments champion national industries at the expense of competition. They point to history, notably the Great Depression, which was deepened by a wave of tit-for-tat trade protectionism kicked off by the United States through the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.

ImageProducts in transit at Felixstowe, a container port in southeast England. 
Credit…Ben Quinton for The New York Times

The law sharply raised tariffs on a vast range of agricultural and factory goods, prompting American trading partners to respond. As world trade disintegrated, nationalist rage spread, culminating in the brutalities of World War II.

The British election, and the splintering of the European trading bloc, amounts to the most consequential upsurge of economic nationalism in generations.

“Since Smoot-Hawley, I don’t think we have seen something as dramatic as this,” said Swati Dhingra, an economist at the London School of Economics.

One major variable has gained clarity: Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration this week hailed an accord that clears passage of the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the deal that has allowed some $1.2 trillion worth of goods a year to be exchanged freely across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Yet on another front, Mr. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on imported automobiles, a step that would be especially disruptive in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. Germany sells far more goods to the United States than it imports, drawing the ire of the American president.

Mr. Trump has openly warned that he could cite a national security threat as justification for auto tariffs. Trade experts have derided that strategy as an affront to the norms of the international trading system.

Last month, Mr. Trump allowed a self-imposed deadline to lapse without imposing auto tariffs. But he has left a major international industry guessing about what happens next.

Image

A cattle ranch near Lifford, Ireland. Economic integration has allowed goods to flow seamlessly from one end of Europe to another.
Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Since Britain shocked the world with its vote to abandon the European Union, its political institutions have tangled themselves in knots trying to decide what to do with their nebulous mandate to leave. Businesses have deferred hiring and investments, awaiting clarity on future trading terms.

The uncertainty has already exacted significant costs, and far beyond Europe, according to a new paper by Tarek Hassan, an economist at Boston University, and three European accounting experts, Stephan Hollander, Laurence van Lent and Ahmed Tahoun.

Every year since the referendum, the average company in Ireland — which trades heavily with Britain — has seen its growth in investment reduced by 4.2 percent, and hiring is 15 percent less than it otherwise would have been because of uncertainty, the paper concludes. Yet even across the Atlantic, the average American company has seen investment growth limited by 0.5 percent a year and hiring slowed by 1.7 percent.

“There is already a significant drop in employment as a result of the risks of Brexit,” Mr. Hassan said.

Some analysts suggested that the election enhanced the possibility that Mr. Johnson would pursue a softer form of Brexit, keeping Britain closer to the European market. His majority is so comfortable that he need not worry about alienating the hard-liners in his party who favor a clean break with Europe.

But some alteration now lies ahead. If Brexit uncertainty has been damaging, what replaces it is the near certainty of weaker economic growth and diminished living standards.

“It’s going to have massive implications,” Mr. Hassan said.

President Trump, Deal Maker? Not So Fast

His 17 months in office have in fact been an exercise in futility for the art-of-the-deal president.

  1. No deal on immigration.
  2. No deal on health care.
  3. No deal on gun control.
  4. No deal on spending cuts.
  5. No deal on Nafta.
  6. No deal on China trade.
  7. No deal on steel and aluminum imports.
  8. No deal on Middle East peace.
  9. No deal on the Qatar blockade.
  10. No deal on Syria.
  11. No deal on Russia.
  12. No deal on Iran.
  13. No deal on climate change.
  14. No deal on Pacific trade.

.. Even routine deals sometimes elude Mr. Trump, or he chooses to blow them up.

.. “Trump is an anarchist,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, who became a sharp critic. “It was his approach in business, it is his approach as president. It does not take good negotiating skills to cause chaos. Will this ever lead to concessions? Maybe, but concessions to what? Not anything that resembles a deal. I just do not see him getting much done.”

.. I don’t think it’s that counterintuitive to say that playing hardball will lead to better trade deals eventually,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former aide to Mr. Trump.

.. We’ll see what the final outcome is, but it’s already a success just to get them to the table.”

.. the major tax-cutting package that passed late last year. But even that was negotiated mainly by Republican lawmakers, who said Mr. Trump did not seem engaged in the details.

.. And as legislative challenges go, handing out tax cuts without paying for them is not exactly the hardest thing that politicians do.

.. In effect, the agreement with Mr. Kim is like a deal to sell parts of Trump Tower without settling on a price, date, inspection or financing. It is not nearly as advanced as agreements that President Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush made with North Korea, both of which ultimately collapsed.

.. But no modern president has sold himself on the promise of negotiating skills more than Mr. Trump has. He regularly boasts that deals will be “easy” and “quick” and the best ever.

.. He has pulled out of Mr. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, but promises to negotiate better versions of those deal have gone nowhere.

.. Mr. Trump set his sights on what he called “the ultimate deal,” meaning peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He said it was “frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought.” A year later, his team is only now preparing to release a plan.

.. “What the president seemingly fails to understand is that in foreign policy and in trade policy — unlike in real estate transactions — the parties are all repeat players,” 

.. “The country you insult or seek undue advantage over today you will have to work with again tomorrow.”

.. Mr. Trump’s approach so far has been to make expansive demands and apply as much pressure as he can. He argues that crushing sanctions he imposed on North Korea forced Mr. Kim to meet. He now hopes to extract concessions from China, Canada and Europe after slapping punishing tariffs on them.

.. “Trump is a bilateral player, in part because that’s what he is used to from his building days, but also because he keeps himself the king, the decider, the strongman,” said Wendy Sherman, who was Mr. Obama’s lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. “In the case of North Korea, however, he wouldn’t have gotten this far — which isn’t all that far — without the South Koreans or the Chinese.”

..  When he gave up on immigration on Friday, he blamed it on Senate Democrats, even though the immediate impasse was among House Republicans who do not need the other party to pass a bill.

.. “Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,”

.. It was in effect an acknowledgment by Mr. Trump that he cannot reach across the aisle and can only govern with Republicans.

.. the challenge on immigration is that the president has to grapple not just with Democrats but also with Republicans who do not share his philosophy on the issue.

.. Mr. O’Donnell, the former casino president, said Mr. Trump has always oversold his deal-making skills. The casino he managed, Mr. O’Donnell noted, brought in $100 million a year yet still went bankrupt.

.. “The fact is, Trump casinos should have been one of the greatest success stories in the history of casino gambling, but bad deal making caused him to lose all three properties,” he said.

Trump’s Trade Disaster

In the second year of his presidency, Donald Trump has doubled down on his “America First” brand of economic nationalism, by making impossible demands of US allies and escalating a multi-front trade war of his own making. In doing so, however, he has all but guaranteed that Americans themselves will bear the costs.

President Donald Trump may fancy himself a builder, but when it comes to international treaties and norms, he has proved to be a one-man wrecking crew. And now, the chaos appears to be spreading and deepening.

.. THE TRUTH ABOUT NAFTA

For decades after World War II, Mexico pursued many of the same disastrous economic policies as other developing countries. It maintained high protectionist barriers for manufactured goods, and relied heavily on commodity exports, particularly oil. As a result, it experienced recurrent stop-go cycles, whereby accelerating inflation and ballooning balance-of-payments deficits would force a round of austerity, only for the process to repeat itself after increases in commodity prices, but at a slower rate of growth each time. Not surprisingly, the growth rate during these years waxed and waned dramatically, and by the start of 1989, Mexico’s per capita income was around $2,393 – about 11% that of the US.

.. at the time, the average US tariff on manufactured imports was around 2%, while Mexico’s average tariff on US exports was around 10%. It was clear from the start that the US would gain more from improved access to the Mexican market than vice versa.

.. Ross Perot famously warned that an FTA with Mexico would result in “a giant sucking sound going south.” Of course, nothing of the sort happened.

NAFTA entered into force on January 1, 1994, and between 1993 and 2000, US unemployment fell from 6.9% to 4%. Today, it stands at 3.8% – its lowest point in almost two decades.

.. Some of the demands directed at Mexico, in particular, are so outrageous that no country could ever accept them. Others, such as the US proposal for more stringent rules of origin (which require that a certain percentage of an imported article be fabricated within the NAFTA trade bloc), are very problematic, but a compromise can probably be reached.

.. One of the US’s most disruptive tactics has been to demand that Mexico bring its auto workers’ pay up to the level of their US counterparts. The minimum wage in Mexico is currently around $4 per day, and around $6 per day in manufacturing industries. But the wage floor US negotiators have reportedly demanded is $16 per hour – 21 times the average wage in Mexican manufacturing.

..  it is inconceivable that the Mexican electorate would stand for one segment of workers earning $128 per day while everyone else still earned an average of $4-6 per day.

.. the Trump administration’s demand is so absurd that even the US auto industry opposes it , not least for what it would do to US producers’ value chain.

.. Another impossible US demand, which would affect Canada as much as Mexico, is a sunset clause that would force each government to renew the renegotiated NAFTA every five years. The fact that the entire deal could potentially expire every five years would create a permanent state of uncertainty

.. The Trump administration has justified the tariffs on national-security grounds, which makes absolutely no sense when one considers that US allies are bearing the brunt of the costs.

.. The Trump administration’s approach to both allies and adversaries represents the worst kind of “managed trade,” which the US and other countries with market-based economies have long condemned.

South Korea did not achieve strong, sustained growth until it liberalized its trade and other economic policies, starting around 1960, with the encouragement of the US.

.. South Korea must now create an administrative apparatus to limit its steel producers’ exports to the US. That means tracking 52 different categories of steel to ensure that exports remain at or below 70% of their 2014-2017 levels.

.. there is a need to monitor and regulate the inflow of steel and aluminum, whether by the US, South Korea, or both. For the US, expanding its own customs service to perform this task would carry enormous administrative costs

.. the new dispensation will likely lead to all manner of influence peddling as firms try to win scarce licenses from customs officials

.. There are around 80,000 jobs in the US steel industry, more than 900,000 jobs in the US auto industry, and millions more in other industries that use steel or aluminum.

.. by protecting domestic producers, the Trump administration is raising steel and aluminum prices within the US, while reducing them in the rest of the world. In essence, Trump is conceding even more cost advantages to non-US producers, for no good reason.

.. After World War II, the US led the way in establishing a rules-based trading system, first with the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, and then with its successor, the World Trade Organization. The past 73 years have shown that when there are legitimate grievances between trading partners on issues such as high-tech secrets, bilateral efforts to resolve them often prove ineffective, whereas action taken through the WTO has a strong track record. Unless and until the Trump administration recognizes this fact, Americans themselves will bear the costs of its disastrous trade policies.

A Bilateral Foil for America’s Multilateral Dilemma

The May 19 deal between the US and China seems to have reduced tensions between the two countries. But, given the global nature of America’s trade deficit, any effort to impose a solution focusing on one country will likely backfire.

The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
.. In May 1930, some 1,028 of America’s leading academic economists wrote a public letter to US President Herbert Hoover urging him to veto the pending Smoot-Hawley tariff bill. Hoover ignored the advice, and the global trade war that followed made a garden-variety depression “great.”
President Donald Trump has put a comparable spin on what it takes to “make America great again.”
.. Tracing outsize current-account and trade deficits to an extraordinary shortfall of US domestic saving – just 1.3% of national income in the fourth quarter of 2017 – counts for little in the arena of popular opinion.
.. Nor does it matter when we point out that correcting for supply-chain distortions – caused by inputs from other countries that enter into Chinese assembly platforms – would reduce the bilateral US-China trade imbalance by 35-40%.
.. Indeed, with budget deficits likely to widen, America’s saving shortfall will only deepen in the years ahead. That points to rising balance-of-payments and multilateral trade deficits, which are impossible to resolve through targeted bilateral actions against a single country.
.. China’s vague promise to purchase more American-made agricultural and energy products borrows a page from the “shopping list” approach of its earlier trade missions to the US. Unfortunately, the big-wallet mindset of a deal-hungry China reinforces the US narrative that China is guilty as charged.
.. Since 2000, the largest annual reduction in the US-China merchandise trade imbalance amounted to $41 billion, and that occurred in 2009, during the depths of the Great Recession. The goal of achieving back-to-back annual reductions totaling more than double that magnitude is sheer fantasy.
.. Without addressing the shortfall in domestic saving, the bilateral fix simply moves the deficit from one economy to others.
.. Therein lies the cruelest twist of all. China is America’s low-cost provider of imported consumer goods. The Trump deal would shift the Chinese piece of America’s multilateral imbalance to higher-cost imports from elsewhere – the functional equivalent of a tax hike on American families. As Hoover’s ghost might ask, what’s so great about that?

Trump is so obsessed with winning that he might make America lose

In his zero-sum universe, you’re either victorious or you’re defeated.

 “I win against China. You can win against China if you’re smart,” he said at a campaign event in July 2015.
.. “Vast numbers of manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania have moved to Mexico and other countries. That will end when I win!”
.. “China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, these countries are all taking our jobs, like we’re a bunch of babies. That will stop,”
.. In Trump’s view of the world, there is a finite amount of everything — money, security, jobs, victories — and nothing can be shared.
.. It’s a universe where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides said.
.. The problem is that the triumphs that Trump craves — strength, safety, prosperity — cannot be achieved alone.
.. They require friends and allies, and they require the president to see those people as partners, not competitors.
.. other governments don’t like to be punching bags, the only role he appears to envision for them.
.. In real estate, relationships often take the form of one-off transactions: You can cheat people you’ll never do business with again.
.. Winners have trade surpluses, and losers have trade deficits.
.. The United States is the biggest economy with the biggest military, and therefore the United States has leverage to get the best deals. If we don’t emerge from negotiation with a clear advantage, that’s because our negotiator was a soft-headed, do-gooder globalist who didn’t put America first.
.. Washington has the most leverage when it deals with countries one on one, which is why, he says, “we need bilateral trade deals,” not “another international agreement that ties us up and binds us down.”
To abide by the same rules as less-powerful countries would be to sublimate American interests to those of lesser nations.
..  Trump seeks to begin negotiations with a threat that forces the other side to defend its smaller piece. He pledges to tear up NAFTA, rip up the Iran nuclear deal and revisit America’s relationship with NATO — unless he gets concessions.
.. he gains advantage not by telling the truth but by saying things he believes will boost his bargaining power and sell his vision: China has been allowed to “rape our country.”
.. He’s just an alliance-hating unilateralist.
..  he sees three kinds of immigrants:
  1. smart guys from smart countries, like Norway,
  2. undeserving charity cases from “shithole” countries and
  3. terrorists/gang members who threaten ordinary Americans.

.. The zero-sum cosmology touches everything. Obamacare supposedly sticks us with the bill for people who should pay for their own insurance — or a find a job that provides it.

..  he doesn’t exercise, because “the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.”

..  China is more a strategic competitor than a real partner linked by shared values.

.. “after more than four decades of serving as the nation’s economic majority, the American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it.” That’s a real problem, and Trump is right to point it out.

.. He could have demanded that NATO members pay more without signaling that he might abandon the mutual-defense agreement that undergirds a treaty to contain Russia.

.. Relations among nations are not like real estate deals. The president has to negotiate with the same people again the next month, and they’ll remember how they’ve been treated.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu never forgave President Barack Obama for openly criticizing his approach to settlement-building;

imagine how every other leader feels about being constantly humiliated by Trump.

.. Other countries form judgments about whether American promises are credible and whether they can trust the president. Trump says he’s willing to talk with North Korea about its nuclear program, but surely Kim Jong Un is watching as Trump threatens to shred the Iran nuclear agreement.

..  The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s plan to blaze new commercial trails and cement new political ties via infrastructure investment in dozens of countries, is seven times larger than the Marshall Plan when adjusted for inflation.

.. More than 120 nations already trade more with China than with the United States.

.. China is investing in smaller European Union members like Hungary and Greece to alter official E.U. attitudes toward Beijing. That’s why the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump quashed, was more than just a trade deal. By joining, Trump could have expanded U.S. ties with many of China’s neighbors, governments that fear overreliance on China’s goodwill for future growth.

.. Trump’s win-or-lose philosophy is most confused when it comes to immigration. Foreigners who want to become Americans are not charity cases. They participate in the labor force at higher rates (73.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) than native-born Americans.

.. Trump’s tendency to hire foreign guest workers over Americans at his own properties suggests that he understands something about how hard they work.

.. The undocumented contribute $13 billion to the nation’s retirement fund each year and get just $1 billion in return.

.. “More than three out of every four patents at the top 10 patent-producing US universities (76%) had at least one foreign-born inventor,”

..  tourism has fallen 4 percent, with a resulting loss of 40,000 jobs. Foreign applications to U.S. universities are down, too.

.. he doesn’t seem to know that some of our country’s greatest success stories began in failure.

  1. Thomas Edison famously erred 1,000 times on the way to inventing the light bulb — it “was an invention with 1,000 steps,” he said.
  2. Henry Ford went broke repeatedly before he succeeded.
  3. Steve Jobs, a college dropout, was fired from the company he founded. Even
  4. Trump’s own businesses have gone bankrupt.

.. If he wants to track terrorists before they try to enter the United States, he needs support from foreign intelligence services.

.. Today, the United States doesn’t have that kind of leverage, and Trump’s aggressive criticism of other countries, including allies, poisons public attitudes toward the United States and makes it harder for foreign leaders to cooperate with Washington publicly.

.. Trump and his leadership at some of the lowest levels since Pew began tracking the U.S. image abroad in 2002. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they have little to no confidence in Trump.

.. if Trump wants to make the best deals, he’ll need to learn a few words:

  1. respect,
  2. cooperation and
  3. compromise.

These ideas won’t fire up a campaign rally. But they might help build an American strategy that works.