Martin Hutchinson
Contributing Editor
Money Morning


When U.S. President Barack Obama late Friday (Sept. 11) signed an order that imposed an additional duty of 35% on tires imported from China, it set up the potential for an old-fashioned trade war.

Currently, global trade is down only 20%. During normal times, worldwide commerce would recover on its own. But as most investors understand all too well, these aren’t normal times.

Global trade fell by 35% after last September’s financial crash. And it plunged 65% between 1929 and 1932 as a result of the Great Depression. With the worldwide economy already in a weakened state, a bare-fisted trade war between the world’s two most important trading partners – the United States and China – would be devastating.

Call it “Great Depression II: The Sequel.”

Courting Trouble

When it comes to trade wars, there are two factors that are important to understand. First, once a trade war starts, everyone tends to join in. And second, once this happens, there’s no percentage in being the only free-trading country left in a totally protectionist world.

That’s what President Obama is risking. The 35% tariff he imposed is in addition to an existing 4% import duty. His action should be met with loud protests – not just from China, but from here in the United States and from Europe, too. We must stop the dreadful downward momentum from building.

The Chinese government has replied by accusing the United States of blatant protectionism as part of a World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint. And China is also threatening to retaliate against imports of U.S. poultry and vehicles. This all sounds arcane, but it isn’t. This escalating tiff over tire tariffs has the potential to damage the global economy much more than the banking crisis ever did.

President Obama’s action comes as a result of an “anti-dumping” investigation by the International Trade Commission (ITC) of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Competitors tip off the ITC about foreign imports that are allegedly being “dumped” – that is, sold below their full costs of production. Why U.S. voters should care about dumping is an interesting question. Dumped products are effectively being subsidized by China.

However, even if dumping mattered, the ITC is an inadequate body to investigate the alleged trade infraction. The commission has no subpoena powers in China. And it is subject to intense lobbying from advocates on only one side of the controversy.

Not surprisingly, the World Trade Organization (the proper judge of such claims) does not regard unilateral anti-dumping claims as an acceptable excuse for randomly imposing extra tariffs on imports. The whole purpose of trade agreements – several of which the United States promoted and signed – is to prevent that kind of thing.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, there was considerable debate about whether then-U.S. Sen. Obama was a protectionist.

Candidate Obama cheered union audiences by announcing that he wanted to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But then his economic spokesman, Austan D. Goolsbee, was accused of holding a meeting with the Canadian embassy, and saying Obama wasn’t serious. The tough talk about NAFTA was only campaign rhetoric, Goolsbee allegedly confided to his Canadian audience. Then Obama’s campaign people said that no such meeting occurred.

Now that he’s in the White House, the fog obscuring President Obama’s views on trade is beginning to clear. In Group of 20 (G20) meetings, he’s paid lip service to free trade. But his actions contradict his statements.

President Obama has done nothing to advance the South Korea and Colombia free trade agreements, stuck in Congress since 2007. He has also done nothing to revive the stalled Doha round of trade talks, though his global prestige is so high he could easily have done so. That would be no small achievement. The World Bank estimates that a deal would add $100 billion a year to global trade.

Worst of all, however, is that President Obama now appears to be doing nothing to enhance trade with China, the country that will be our most important trading partner for generations to come. In the past two weeks alone, he’s twice imposed anti-dumping duties on China. On Sept. 9, the administration said it imposed a 23% duty on $2.6 billion worth of steel pipe from China.

President Obama owes a lot to union support, and it’s pretty clear that he is prepared to go along with Big Labor’s protectionist agenda. But the two cases are very different and one has to question whether the gains will be worth the very real costs.

In terms of the actual dollar value – as well as indirect economic costs – experts say the steel-dumping case may be the biggest case in years to be brought before the nation’s trade-dispute system. It demonstrates that there’s a deep-and-growing concern that Beijing’s industrial subsidies are translating into lost U.S. jobs.

The tire case may be a different story, however. It involves the “low-grade” tire market. The profit margins in that slice of the tire market are virtually non-existent. In fact, U.S. tire manufacturers did not join in the complaint. The reason: They actually lose money in the low-end market. Most had already abandoned it to China-based rivals, reports Irwin M. Stelzer, a columnist and director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute.

The One Sequel That Shouldn’t Be Made

None of this would matter much if the global economy were sailing serenely along, as it did before the financial crisis struck. For the 20-year stretch that ended in 2007, world trade advanced at a pace that was slightly faster than global economic growth in general. Against such a relatively healthy backdrop, minor disputes on tires or metal pipes would be of interest only to the tire and metal-pipe industries. And perhaps to the poultry or other industries against which China chose to retaliate.

But the global financial crisis changed the game. For a couple of months immediately following last September’s near-meltdown of the world’s financial system, global trade plunged by an astonishing 35% from its normal levels. That wasn’t really a surprise. U.S. consumption was way down. And the near-freeze-up in the banking system made trade financing very difficult to get.

That 35% drop was not as bad as the 65% plunge in world trade that came during the first four years we during the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933. But let’s face it, a stretch that’s half as bad as the Great Depression – even a relatively short one – is still pretty serious.

Global trade has since recovered somewhat, as trade finance has once again become available. As of July, it appears to be down about 20% on the previous year. However, that’s still a lot: Economic activity on a worldwide basis is down about 5%.

Even U.S. retail sales are down only around 8%. The U.S. consumer is being more careful than before, but still is spending at a pretty rapid clip.

By comparing all these numbers, we can come to only one conclusion: Global trade is still ailing as a result of the financial crisis.

Lower global trade affects all of us. Thanks to a concept called “comparative advantage,” the whole point of trade is that it allows each item to be manufactured in the place that’s most efficient. So if trade is blocked, as it was in the 1930s, the whole world economy becomes less efficient, output declines, and we enter a Great Depression (in which U.S. GDP nose-dived 25%).

There’s no reason a Great Depression has to follow a banking crisis. After all, the world has had lots of banking crises, both before and after 1930. And virtually every one has been followed by only a medium-sized recession.

The one banking crisis that set off a really serious downturn was that of 1837, after U.S. President Andrew Jackson abolished the Second Bank of the United States. The Second Bank’s notes were the main mechanism for financing trade between different parts of this still-young country. So President Jackson’s action effectively wiped out about 25% of the U.S. money supply. Not surprisingly, things got very tough for several years.

As tough as that period was, a 67% freefall in world trade would clearly plunge us into a much more dire period. In fact, were world trade to decline by two thirds, there would be no way of avoiding “Great Depression II – the Sequel.”

And this is one sequel everyone is certain to hate.

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