Comparative Advantage and Free Trade

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 21st, 2012

Economics 101

Mercantilism benefited only Protected Industries which Profited Handsomely from Higher Consumer Prices  

The Age of Discovery ushered in the era of mercantilism.  An era of trade.  But protected trade.  Tariffs, quotas, protectionism, restrictions, subsidies, etc.  You name it they used it.  To favor their trade position and their domestic industries.  And to restrict that of everyone else.  For mercantilism was a zero-sum game.  You only did well if others did not.  A thought that still has traction today.  Especially in older, inefficient industries.  That cannot compete with international competition that provides better quality at lower prices.  Such as textiles.  Steel.  Automobiles.  The Americans protected these industries in the face of better foreign competition.  Which only hastened their decline.

A protected industry has no incentive to improve.  When protective tariffs raise prices of lower-priced and higher-quality imports consumers buy the inferior domestic goods.  Because the tariffs make the better goods more costly.  So when a business has a captive audience their only focus is in maintaining that protectionism giving them that advantage.  Not improving their quality.  Or improving their productivity to lower their prices.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  So prices continue to rise to pay for inefficient labor and management.  And quality continues to decline due to the lack of real competition forcing them to continually provide a better product.  By improving designs.  Production methods.  And making capital investments in new machinery and equipment.

This is the cost of protectionism.  Poorer quality and higher prices.  Because of the misguided belief in the zero-sum game of mercantilism.  There was a reason why mercantilism was abandoned for free trade.  Because free trade was better.  For consumers.  Giving them lower prices and higher quality.  Whereas mercantilism benefited only those protected industries which profited handsomely from those higher consumer prices.  And the government officials who granted those favorable protectionist policies.

The Consumer gets Lower Prices AND Higher Quality thanks to the Division of Labor, Specialization and Comparative Advantage

As civilization advanced so did the division of labor.  People began to specialize.  Instead of growing our own food, making our own tools, spinning our own pottery, etc., we did only one thing.  And did it well.  Then we traded the things we made for the things we didn’t make.  This division of labor created a middle class.  And this middle class would take their goods to market to trade with other middle class artisans.  At first bartering with each other.  Trading good for good.  Then they introduced a temporary storage of value into the economy.  Money.  Making those trades easier by reducing search times.  Trading your goods for money.  And your money for goods.  Making life a lot simpler at the market.

Let’s take a closer look at the division of labor.  Let’s consider two artisans.  A toolmaker.   And a potter.  Both are skilled craftspeople.  And can make an assortment of goods.  But each excels at one particular skill.  The toolmaker can make 10 plows a day.  But if he makes 2 pottery bowls he can only make 4 plows in that same day.  The potter can make 12 pottery bowls in a day.  But if he makes 3 plows he can only make 5 pottery bowls in that same day.  Each can make more of their specialty.  But when they try to make other things in addition to their specialty they can’t make as much of their specialty as before.  So there is a cost to the toolmaker to make pottery.  To make 2 bowls cost the toolmaker 6 plows.  And there is a cost to the potter to make tools.  To make 3 plows cost the potter 7 bowls.  So the economy as a whole is better off when the toolmaker and the potter focus all of their energies in their own specialty.  When they do we get 10 plows and 12 bowls in one day.  When they don’t we only get 7 plows and 7 bowls.

We call this economic principle comparative advantage.  Where we look at economic output.  Which is what matters.  The more we bring to market the better it is for consumers.  Because greater quantities mean lower prices.  And when these skilled craftspeople focus on their specialty they improve the overall quality of the goods they bring to market.  So the consumer gets lower prices AND higher quality.  Thanks to the division of labor.  Specialization.  And comparative advantage.

We will always Have Jobs regardless the Size of our Imports for Having a Job is the Only Way to Buy those Imported Goods

If you multiply this over and over again to represent all the individual economic exchanges throughout the world you see why free trade is better than the protectionist policies of mercantilism.  Because it provides consumers with greater economic output at lower prices and higher quality.  This is why nations practicing free trade have the highest standards of living.  Because their people can walk into large department stores and fill their carts with inexpensive, high quality goods on a moderate paycheck.  Which could never happen if the mercantilists had their way.

The old inefficient industries want tariffs to increase the costs of those goods we fill our shopping carts with.  Including the food we eat.  And the cars we drive.  They use lofty arguments about protecting American jobs.  But those protectionist policies destroy jobs by increasing costs for businesses throughout the supply chain.  Raising consumer prices everywhere.  Reducing the amount of things we can buy.  Meaning businesses can’t grow and create new jobs.  Or they have to cut back production and eliminate existing jobs.

There’s also a lot of talk about the balance of payments.  Which actually meant something during the days of the gold standard.  For any trade deficits had to be paid for with gold.  But we don’t have the gold standard anymore.  Governments everywhere abandoned it in favor of irresponsible government spending.  So we don’t have to pay for trade deficits with gold.  Most money today is just electronic entries in a computer.  International capital flows have never been greater.  There are currency markets where people actively trade the world’s currencies.  So trade deficits don’t mean the same thing they once did in the mercantile world.  Then there’s the argument that if all our manufacturing jobs go overseas there will be no jobs for Americans.  If we import everything and export nothing there will be jobs everywhere but here.  Sounds like a problem.  But can that happen?  Not unless we get those imports for free.  So we will always have jobs regardless the size of our imports.  For having a job is the only way to buy the imported goods in those department stores.

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Financial Crises: The Fed Giveth and the Fed Taketh Away

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 3rd, 2010

Great Depression vs. Great Recession

Ben Bernanke is a genius.  I guess.  That’s what they keep saying at least. 

The chairman of the Federal Reserve is a student of the Great Depression, that great lesson of how NOT to implement monetary policy.  And because of his knowledge of this past great Federal Reserve boondoggle, who better to fix the present great Federal Reserve boondoggle?  What we affectionately call the Great Recession.

There are similarities between the two.  Government caused both.  But there are differences.  Bad fiscal policy brought on a recession in the 1920s.  Then bad monetary policy exasperated the problem into the Great Depression. 

Bad monetary policy played a more prominent role in the present crisis.  It was a combination of cheap money and aggressive government policy to put people into houses they couldn’t afford that set off an international debt bomb.  Thanks to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buying highly risky mortgages and selling them as ‘safe’ yet high-yield investments.  Those rascally things we call derivatives.

The Great Depression suffered massive bank failures because the lender of last resort (the Fed) didn’t lend.  In fact, they made it more difficult to borrow money when banks needed money most.  Why did they do this?  They thought rich people were using cheap money to invest in the stock market.  So they made money more expensive to borrow to prevent this ‘speculation’.

The Great Recession suffered massive bank failures because people took on great debt in ideal times (low interest rates and increasing home values).  When the ‘ideal’ became real (rising interest rates and falling home values), surprise surprise, these people couldn’t pay their mortgages anymore.  And all those derivatives became worthless. 

The Great Depression:  Lessons Learned.  And not Learned.

Warren G. Harding appointed Andrew Mellon as his Secretary of the Treasury.  A brilliant appointment.  The Harding administration cut taxes.  The economy surged.  Lesson learned?  Lower taxes stimulate the economy.  And brings more money into the treasury.

The Progressives in Washington, though, needed to buy votes.  So they tinkered.  They tried to protect American farmers from their own productivity.  And American manufacturers.  Also from their own productivity.  Their protectionist policies led to tariffs and an international trade war.  Lesson not learned?  When government tinkers bad things happen to the economy.

Then the Fed stepped in.  They saw economic activity.  And a weakening dollar (low interest rates were feeding the economic expansion).  So they strengthened the dollar.  To keep people from ‘speculating’ in the stock money with borrowed money.  And to meet international exchange rate requirements.  This led to bank failures and the Great Depression.  Lesson not learned?   When government tinkers bad things happen to the economy.

Easy Money Begets Bad Debt which Begets Financial Crisis

It would appear that Ben Bernanke et al learned only some of the lessons of the Great Depression.  In particular, the one about the Fed’s huge mistake in tightening the money supply.  No.  They would never do that again.  Next time, they would open the flood gates (see Fed aid in financial crisis went beyond U.S. banks to industry, foreign firms by Jia Lynn Yang, Neil Irwin and David S. Hilzenrath posted 12/2/2010 on The Washington Post).

The financial crisis stretched even farther across the economy than many had realized, as new disclosures show the Federal Reserve rushed trillions of dollars in emergency aid not just to Wall Street but also to motorcycle makers, telecom firms and foreign-owned banks in 2008 and 2009.

The Fed’s efforts to prop up the financial sector reached across a broad spectrum of the economy, benefiting stalwarts of American industry including General Electric and Caterpillar and household-name companies such as Verizon, Harley-Davidson and Toyota. The central bank’s aid programs also supported U.S. subsidiaries of banks based in East Asia, Europe and Canada while rescuing money-market mutual funds held by millions of Americans.

The Fed learned its lesson.  Their easy money gave us all that bad debt.  And we all learned just how bad ‘bad debt’ can be.  They wouldn’t make that mistake again.

The data also demonstrate how the Fed, in its scramble to keep the financial system afloat, eventually lowered its standards for the kind of collateral it allowed participating banks to post. From Citigroup, for instance, it accepted $156 million in triple-C collateral or lower – grades that indicate that the assets carried the greatest risk of default.

Well, maybe next time.

You Don’t Stop a Run by Starting a Run

With the cat out of the bag, people want to know who got these loans.  And how much each got.  But the Fed is not telling (see Fed ID’s companies that used crisis aid programs by Jeannine Aversa, AP Economics Writer, posted 12/1/2010 on Yahoo! News).

The Fed didn’t take part in that appeal. What the court case could require — but the Fed isn’t providing Wednesday — are the names of commercial banks that got low-cost emergency loans from the Fed’s “discount window” during the crisis.

The Fed has long acted as a lender of last resort, offering commercial banks loans through its discount window when they couldn’t obtain financing elsewhere. The Fed has kept secret the identities of such borrowers. It’s expressed fear that naming such a bank could cause a run on it, defeating the purpose of the program.

I can’t argue with that.  For this was an important lesson of the Great Depression.  When you’re trying to stop bank runs, you don’t advertise which banks are having financial problems.  A bank can survive a run.  If everyone doesn’t try to withdraw their money at the same time.  Which they may if the Fed advertises that a bank is going through difficult times.

When Fiscal Responsibility Fails, Try Extortion

Why does government always tinker and get themselves into trouble?  Because they like to spend money.  And control things.  No matter what the lessons of history have taught us.

Cutting taxes stimulate the economy.  But it doesn’t buy votes.  You need people to be dependent on government for that.  So no matter what mess government makes, they NEVER fix their mess by shrinking government or cutting taxes.  Even at the city level. 

When over budget what does a city do?  Why, they go to a favored tactic.  Threaten our personal safety (see Camden City Council Approves Massive Police And Fire Layoffs Reported by David Madden, KYW Newsradio 1060, posted 12/2/2010 on philadelphia.cbslocal.com).

Camden City Council, as expected, voted Thursday to lay off almost 400 workers, half of them police officers and firefighters, to bridge a $26.5 million deficit.

There’s a word for this.  And it’s not fiscal responsibility.  Some would call it extortion.

It’s never the pay and benefits of the other city workers.  It’s always the cops and firefighters.  Why?  Because cutting the pay and benefits of a bloated bureaucracy doesn’t put the fear of God into anyone.

Here we go Again

We never learn.  And you know what George Santayana said.  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And here we are.  Living in the past.  Again.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2010

LOW PRICES.  GOD help me, I do hate them so.  I hate them with every fiber of my body.

Who says this?  Do you?  I don’t.  Of all the times I’ve spent shopping, I have never heard anyone bitch about low prices.  I’ve heard people bitch about high prices.  But never about low prices.  When gas approached $3/gallon, people bitched about that being too high and drove 10 miles to find ‘cheap’ gas to save a few pennies per gallon.  Let it approach $4/gallon and they’ll want Congress to take action.  To attack Big Oil.  To seize their oil and their profits and give us cheap gasoline in return.  But when gas was cheap, no one ever bitched about it being ‘too’ cheap.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  People bitch about high prices.  Not low prices.

So who bitches about low prices?  Competitors.  There’s a saying that competition makes everything better.  And it does.  It lowers prices.  And raises quality.  And who is looking for lower prices and higher quality?  Consumers.  Who isn’t?  Competitors.  Especially competitors with political connections.

WHEN THE BIG 3 were putting out crap in the 1970s, they did so because they could.  I mean, who else were you going to buy a car from?  So what if your car breaks down and the fenders and quarter panels rust away?  That just means you gotta buy another car sooner rather than later.  A pretty sweet deal.  Especially when there are only three places to go to buy a car.  And each of the Big 3 is selling the same crap.

Then the Japanese had to go and ruin a good thing.  They started selling cars in America.  These cars were smaller than your typical American car.  But there were other differences.  They didn’t rust like the American cars.  They didn’t break down as much.  And the imports were cheaper than the American cars.  Lower price and higher quality.  More bang for the buck.  Exactly what consumers were demanding.

So what was the response of the Big 3?  Did they rise to the level of their new competitors and deliver what the consumer wanted?  No.  They ran to government for help.  For protection.  And they got it.  Voluntary Export Restraints (VER).  The government negotiated with the Japanese to ‘voluntarily’ limit the number of cars they exported to the United States.  Or else.  So they did.  To avoid worse protectionist policies.  Problem solved.  Competition was limited.  And the Big 3 were very profitable in the short run.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the Japanese refused to play nice.

The problem was what the Big 3 did with those profits.  Or, rather, what they didn’t do with them.  They didn’t reinvest them to raise themselves up to the level of the Japanese.  Protected, they saw no incentive to change.  Not when you have Big Government on your side.  And how did that work for them?  Not good. 

So look, the Japanese said, the Americans like our cars.  If the American manufacturers won’t give them what they want, we will.  While honoring the VER.  We won’t export more cars.  We’ll just build bigger and better cars to export.  And they did.  The Big 3 were no longer up against inexpensive, higher quality subcompacts on the fringe of their market share.  Now their mid-size and large-size cars had competition.  And this wasn’t on the fringe of their market share.  This was their bread and butter.  What to do?  Build better cars and give Americans more bang for their buck?  Or run to government again?  What do you think?

The Big 3 assaulted the Japanese under the guise of ‘fair trade’.  The cry went out that unless the Japanese opened up their markets to American imports (in particular auto parts), we should restrict Japanese imports.  To protect American jobs.  To protect the American worker.  To protect the children.  This was code for please make the Japanese cars more unattractive to purchasers so they will settle for the more costly and lower quality cars we’re making.  (Let’s not forget the reason Americans were buying the Japanese cars in the first place).

The Japanese response?  They took it up a notch.  They entered the luxury markets.  They launched Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.  They competed against Cadillac and Lincoln.  And well.  The quality was so good they even affected the European luxury imports.  More attacks followed.  Americans were losing their jobs.  Soon there would be no more American manufacturing left in the country.  So the Japanese built plants in America.  And Americans were now building the Japanese cars.  The Japanese actually created American jobs.

SON OF A BITCH!  So much for the loss of American jobs.  The Japanese threw a wrench in that argument.  So now the argument became about the loss of ‘high paying’ American jobs.  For the Japanese plants were non-union.  Didn’t matter that their workers were making better pay and benefits than many in their region.  No.  What mattered was that they were building a better product.  And they didn’t want THESE jobs in America.  But if they couldn’t get rid of these new workers, they should at least unionize them so their cars cost more.  To make them a little less appealing to the American consumer.  So far they have been unsuccessful in this endeavor.  The workers are happy as they are.

Well, these cars just weren’t going away.  So the Americans surrendered car manufacturing to the Japanese.  They couldn’t beat them.  (Of course, it’s hard to do that when you don’t even try).  They, instead, focused on the higher profit truck and SUV markets.  Then the Japanese entered those markets.  And at every level they competed with the Americans, the Japanese gave more bang for the buck.  And the consumers responded.  With their hard-earned wages.  It just wasn’t fair.  The Japanese kept giving the American consumer a better product.  No matter what political action the Big 3 took or demanded.

And there’s the problem.  They sought their answers from government.  Instead of making a better car.  They wanted to stop the Japanese from giving the American consumer what they wanted so they could force Americans to pay more for less.  All the while the economy was forcing the majority of consumers to get by on less (the majority of consumers do not have the wage and benefit package the ‘select’ few had in the Big 3). 

Fast forward to 2008 and we see the ultimate consequence of their actions.  Bankruptcy.  GM and Chrysler had to grovel for a federal bailout and in the process become Washington’s bitch.  Ford survived on her own.  As did the Japanese.  You can bitch all you want about costs, but if you have the revenue you can pay your costs.  And the Americans just couldn’t sell enough cars to maintain the revenue they needed for their cost structure.  By refusing to address the core problem (they weren’t making cars Americans wanted to buy), they only made their competition stronger and more entrenched in the U.S. market.

IT’S ALL POLITICS.  Political cronyism.  And crony capitalism.  It all comes down to political spoils and patronage.  That’s what happens when politics enter capitalism.  Big Business partners with Big Government and they enter into relationships.  You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back.  But when government protects a business for political expediency, the industry suffers in the long run.  As the U.S. automobile industry has.  Ditto for the U.S. textile industry.  And the U.S. steel industry.

So what goes wrong?  When you protect an industry you insulate it from market forces.  You can build crap.  The problem is, consumers don’t buy crap.  So, for awhile, politics intervene and makes the crap more favorable.  Whether it’s predatory pricing, monopolistic pricing or collusion, business can’t win.  Big Government is there.  If your prices are too low, government will intervene.  If prices are too high, government will intervene.  If prices are too similar, government will intervene.  To make things ‘fair’.  And by fair they mean to reward those who play the game and to punish those who don’t.  And the spoils go to those large voting blocs they need.  And in return for their votes, they can count on patronage.  Government jobs.  Political positions.  Favorable legislation and regulation.  If you got the vote out, you were rewarded quite nicely. 

And consumers be damned. .

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