In my opinion, many exporters would view this as a reduction in cost, one that would let them cut the prices of their products in international markets. Commodity-type products would particularly encourage this kind of behavior. If aluminum, for example, was selling for 66 cents per pound domestically and ICs were worth 10%, domestic aluminum producers could sell for about 60 cents per pound (plus transportation costs) in foreign markets and still earn normal margins. In this scenario, the output of the U.S. would become significantly more competitive and exports would expand. Along the way, the number of jobs would grow.
Foreigners selling to us, of course, would face tougher economics. But that’s a problem they’re up against no matter what trade “solution” is adopted and make no mistake, a solution must come. (As Herb Stein said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”) In one way the IC approach would give countries selling to us great flexibility,
since the plan does not penalize any specific industry or product. In the end, the free market would determine what would be sold in the U.S. and who would sell it. The ICs would determine only the aggregate dollar volume of what was sold.
To see what would happen to imports, let’s look at a car now entering the U.S. at a cost to the importer of $20,000.
Under the new plan and the assumption that ICs sell for 10%, the importer’s cost would rise to $22,000. If demand for the car was exceptionally strong, the importer might manage to pass all of this on to the American consumer. In the usual case, however, competitive forces would take hold, requiring the foreign manufacturer to absorb some, if
not all, of the $2,000 IC cost.
There is no free lunch in the IC plan: It would have certain serious negative consequences for U.S. citizens. Prices of most imported products would increase, and so would the prices of certain competitive products manufactured domestically. The cost of the ICs, either in whole or in part, would therefore typically act as a tax on consumers.
That is a serious drawback. But there would be drawbacks also to the dollar continuing to lose value or to our increasing tariffs on specific products or instituting quotas on them courses of action that in my opinion offer a smaller chance of success. Above all, the pain of higher prices on goods imported today dims beside the pain we will eventually suffer if we drift along and trade away ever larger portions of our country’s net worth.
I believe that ICs would produce, rather promptly, a U.S. trade equilibrium well above present export levels but below present import levels. The certificates would moderately aid all our industries in world competition, even as the free market determined which of them ultimately met the test of “comparative advantage.”
This plan would not be copied by nations that are net exporters, because their ICs would be valueless. Would major exporting countries retaliate in other ways? Would this start another Smoot-Hawley tariff war? Hardly. At the time of Smoot-Hawley we ran an unreasonable trade surplus that we wished to maintain. We now run a damaging deficit
that the whole world knows we must correct.
For decades the world has struggled with a shifting maze of punitive tariffs, export subsidies, quotas, dollar-locked currencies, and the like. Many of these import-inhibiting and export encouraging devices have long been employed by major exporting countries trying to amass ever larger surpluses yet significant trade wars have not erupted.
Surely one will not be precipitated by a proposal that simply aims at balancing the books of the world’s largest trade debtor. Major exporting countries have behaved quite rationally in the past and they will continue to do so though, as always, it may be in their interest to attempt to convince us that they will behave otherwise.
The likely outcome of an IC plan is that the exporting nations after some initial posturing will turn their ingenuity to encouraging imports from us. Take the position of China, which today sells us about $140 billion of goods and services annually while purchasing only $25 billion. Were ICs to exist, one course for China would be simply to fill the gap by buying 115 billion certificates annually. But it could alternatively reduce its need for ICs by
cutting its exports to the U.S. or by increasing its purchases from us. This last choice would probably be the most palatable for China, and we should wish it to be so.
If our exports were to increase and the supply of ICs were therefore to be enlarged, their market price would be driven down. Indeed, if our exports expanded sufficiently, ICs would be rendered valueless and the entire plan made moot. Presented with the power to make this happen, important exporting countries might quickly eliminate the mechanisms they now use to inhibit exports from us.
Were we to install an IC plan, we might opt for some transition years in which we deliberately ran a relatively small deficit, a step that would enable the world to adjust as we gradually got where we need to be. Carrying this plan out, our government could either auction “bonus” ICs every month or simply give them, say, to less developed countries needing to increase their exports. The latter course would deliver a form of foreign aid likely to be particularly effective and appreciated.
I will close by reminding you again that I cried wolf once before. In general, the batting average of doomsayers in the U.S. is terrible. Our country has consistently made fools of those who were skeptical about either our economic potential or our resiliency. Many pessimistic seers simply underestimated the dynamism that has allowed us to overcome problems that once seemed ominous. We still have a truly remarkable country and economy.
But I believe that in the trade deficit we also have a problem that is going to test all of our abilities to find a solution. A gently declining dollar will not provide the answer. True, it would reduce our trade deficit to a degree, but not by enough to halt the outflow of our country’s net worth and the resulting growth in our investment income deficit.
Perhaps there are other solutions that make more sense than mine. However, wishful thinking and its usual companion, thumb sucking is not among them. From what I now see, action to halt the rapid outflow of our national wealth is called for, and ICs seem the least painful and most certain way to get the job done. Just keep remembering that this is not a small problem: For example, at the rate at which the rest of the world is now making net investments in the U.S., it could annually buy and sock away nearly 4% of our publicly traded stocks.
In evaluating business options at Berkshire, my partner, Charles Munger, suggests that we pay close attention to his jocular wish: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” Framers of our trade policy should heed this caution and steer clear of Squanderville.
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