Trade Wars: Lessons from History

 

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

 

“Give us a protective tariff and we will have the greatest nation on earth” – Abraham Lincoln

 

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson

 

At the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last week, France defeated Croatia in the final of 2018 FIFA World Cup. As the French toasted their second FIFA World Cup triumph, pundit upon pundit and football fan after football fan debated the manner of France’s victory and the controversial decisions that went France’s way. Our small group of friends and colleagues also got caught up in a debate on whether the referee rightly or wrongly rewarded the penalty that led to France’s second goal. Our debate was not limited to those of us that watched the match together but rather extended to our WhatsApp groups and roped in friends from all over the world.

It is often said that it is human nature to see what we want to see and ignore that which goes against our expectations.

As our arguments for and against the penalty went round and round in circles, we decided to watch replays of the incident from the match to try and settle which side of the debate had more merit. The funny thing is as we watched the replays the conviction levels on either side of the debate became even stronger. By some means what each of us saw, or at least thought we saw, reaffirmed our predisposition.

Of course, whether it was a penalty or not (it wasn’t) does not really matter. The record books will show that the French defeated the Croats by four goals to two. There will be no asterisk next to the record to note that arm chair fan Joe Schmoe disputed the validity of France’s victory due to the award of a dubious penalty.

Reflecting upon the harmless nature of our argument, we think of the oft quoted words of Winston Churchill:

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Powerful statements can often hide as much as they reveal.

Can we learn what actually happened from studying history? Unlike the final score of a football match, the record of any past event that cannot be definitively quantified is likely to be clouded by the prejudices of historians and distorted by our individual partisanship.  And if we do not truly know what happened, can we really be doomed to repeat it?

Reality or not, below we examine the recorded history of American protectionism, reflect upon the successful adoption of the ‘American System’ by China and consider the possible outcomes of the rising trade-related tensions between the US and China.

 

American Independence and British Retaliation

On 18 April 1775, a clash between the British redcoats and the local militia at Lexington, Massachusetts, led to the fighting that began the American War of Independence.

Fifteen months after fighting began the American colonists claimed independence from the British and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The British did not take the colonists’ declaration lying down and made attempts to forcibly regain control over America. Economic warfare was one of the tools used by the British to inflict pain upon the Americans.

Britain closed off its markets to American trade by raising tariffs on American manufactured goods. US exports to England and its colonies fell from an estimated 75 per cent of total exports prior to the Declaration of Independence to around 10 per cent after it. The sharp fall in trade brought on an economic depression in the US.

Britain did not stop at just tariffs. It wanted to halt the US’s transformation from its agrarian roots to an industrialised nation and in this pursuit it went as far as outlawing skilled craftsmen from overseas travel and banning the export of patented machinery.

 

The American System

The American System, also known as the American School of Economics, is an economic plan based on the ideas of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, which guided the US national economic policy from first half of the 19th century till the early 1970s. The system is widely credited as having underpinned the US’s transformation from an agrarian frontier society to global economic powerhouse.

The American System is rooted in the mercantilist principles presented by Alexander Hamilton to Congress in December 1791 in the Report on the Subject of Manufactures. The three basic guiding economic principles of the system demanded the US Government to:

  1. Promote and protect American industries by selectively imposing high import tariffs and / or subsidising American manufacturers;
  2. Create a national bank to oversee monetary policy, stabilise the currency and regulate the issuance of credit by state and local banks; and
  3. Make internal improvements by investing in public infrastructure – including but not limited to roads, canals, public schools, scientific research, and sea ports – to facilitate domestic commerce and economic development.

These guiding principles are based on Alexander Hamilton’s insight that long-term American prosperity could not be achieved with an economy dependent purely on the financial and resource extraction sectors. And that economic self-sufficiency hinged upon the US Government intervening to protect and to support the development of captive manufacturing capabilities.

Alexander Hamilton’s ideas were not immediately accepted by Congress – Congress was dominated by Southern planters, many of whom favoured free trade. One Thomas Jefferson, in particular, vehemently opposed Hamilton’s protectionist proposals.

Congress and Jefferson became much more receptive to Hamilton’s ideas in the aftermath of the Anglo-American War of 1812, during which the British burnt down the White House. The government’s need for revenue and a surge in anti-British fervour, in no small part, made favouring Hamilton’s proposals politically expedient for Congress.

In 1816 Congress passed an import tariff, known as the Dallas Tariff, with the explicit objective of protecting American manufacturers and making European imported goods more expensive. The legislation placed import duties of 25 per cent on cotton and wool textiles and manufactured iron; 30 per cent on paper and leather goods and hats; and 15 per cent on most other imported products. Two years later, and in response to predatory dumping of goods by the British, Congress further increased import duties.

American industry blossomed after the imposition of tariffs and vested interests lobbied to keep or even increase import duties. With the public strongly in support, Congress continued raising tariffs and American import duties rose to around 40 per cent on average by 1820.

Also in 1816, Congress created the “The President, Directors, and Company, of the Bank of the United States”, commonly referred to as the Second Bank of the United States, and President James Madison gave it a 20-year charter to handle all fiscal transactions for the US Government, regulate the public credit issued by private banking institutions, and to establish a sound and stable national currency.

The third and final tenet of the American System, federally funded internal improvements, was never fully adopted. Nonetheless, the US Government did end up using a part of the revenues generated from the import duties and the sale of public lands in the west to subsidise the construction of roads, canals and other public infrastructure.

Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and many of the other great leaders from American history supported the American System. That is, they were all protectionists. Republican protectionist instincts used to be so ingrained that even if there was the slightest liberalisation of trade made by the Democrats, it would be reversed as soon as the Republican regained power. For instance the Revenue Act of 1913, passed during the early days of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, which lowered basic tariff rates from 40 to 25 per cent, was almost entirely reversed after Republicans regained power following World War I.

It is only as recently as 1952, upon the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, do we find a notable Republican leader that favoured free trade over protectionism.

Coincidentally, or not, President Eisenhower’s willingness to betray the Republican protectionist heritage in favour of free trade policies just so happened to be around the same time funding of the Marshall Plan ended. By 1952, the economy of every participant state in the Marshall Plan had surpassed pre-war levels; economic output in 1951 of each and every participant exceeded their respective output in 1938 by at least 35 per cent.

Happenstance or not, the economic recovery of Western Europe and its growing alliance with the US, created powerful inducements to free trade and overall wealth creation.

 

China’s Adoption of The American System

In 1978, China initiated the transformation of its economy towards a more liberal and market-based regime. The reforms, as it would become glaringly apparent over the following decades, were predicated on promoting exports over imports by adopting a combination of mercantilist and protectionist policies. The government supported exporters by waiving duties on materials imported for export purposes, creating dedicated export-processing zones, and granting favourably priced loans for capital investment. At the same time, the government supported the creation of national champions and industry leaders by limiting (or altogether prohibiting) foreign participation in strategic industries. These steps were in adherence with the first tenet of the American System.

The Chinese government also tightly managed monetary policy and kept its currency artificially undervalued through the combination of capital controls and intervention, driving capital exports and the build-up of trade surpluses – the second tenet.

A significant portion of government directed investment in China, especially since the early 1990s, has been in increasing the amount and improving the quality of public infrastructure. Investment was directed into all forms of public infrastructure including but not limited to developing power and telecommunications networks, public buildings, dams, rural road networks, manufacturing facilities, and academic institutions – the third tenet.

Much as the US economy flourished under the mercantilist tenets of the American System, China too has flourished over the last four decades by adopting the very same system.

Just as the Republicans in America were willing to make a turn toward free trade as the global economic environment became conducive to a US led global order, the Chinese leadership is beginning to espouse the virtues of free trade as its version of the Marshall Plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, gathers steam.

The Chinese leadership has guided its economy to such great heights based on, we suspect, their acute understanding of American economic history. It is China’s demonstrated adherence to the American System, which leads us to believe that just as Alexander Hamilton understood that America’s long-term stability hinged upon its transition from an agrarian to industrial society, the Chinese leadership deeply appreciates the need to transition its economy from being the toll manufacturer of global industry to playing a leading role in the high-tech industries of tomorrow.

 

Investment Perspective

 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his cabinet unveiled the “Made in China 2025” strategic plan in May 2015. The plan lays out a roadmap for China take leadership role in 12 strategic high-tech industries and to move up the manufacturing value chain. The Council on Foreign Relations believes Made in China 2025 is a “real existential threat to US technological leadership”.

Just as the British insisted upon the US remaining an agrarian society in the 18th century, President Trump and his band of trade warriors are hell-bent on stopping the Chinese from moving up the manufacturing value chain. Short of going to war, the Trump Administration is even following the same playbook by imposing tariffs, blocking technology transfer and withholding intellectual property.

President Trump, however, appears ready to go further and even upend the global trade system and call into question the US dollar’s global reserve currency status. Mr Trump’s stated objective is to revive the US’s industrial base. This objective, however, is unachievable in a global trade system in which the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. The privilege of having the world’s reserve currency comes with the responsibility of consistently running current account deficits and providing liquidity to the rest of the world.

 

Imposition of Tariffs

Unlike any other currency, the global reserve currency cannot be easily devalued. As we discussed in Don’t wait for the US Dollar Rally, its Already Happened, as the US dollar weakens international demand for the greenback increases. For this reason, it is probably easier for the US to pursue alternative means that have the same effect as a devaluation of its currency.

The imposition of tariffs, from foreign manufacturers’ perspective, is the equivalent of a devaluation of the US dollar. For US based buyers and consumers, tariffs lower the relative prices of US manufactured goods with respect to foreign manufactured goods. Tariffs, however, are only effective if their imposition does not result in an equivalent relative increase in the price of the US dollar. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the Chinese yuan started to tumble as soon as the US moved to impose tariffs on Chinese goods. And in response Mr Trump is turning on the Fed and its tightening of monetary policy.

 

The Nuclear Option

Mr Trump always has the nuclear option in his bid to revive industry in the US. He can attempt to overturn the global trade system and the status of US dollar as the world’s reserve currency by limiting the amount of US dollar available to the rest of the world – pseudo-capital controls. If this were to happen, any and every foreign entity or nation that is short US dollars (has borrowed in US dollars) will suffer from an almighty short squeeze. In response, China specifically would have to take one of two paths:

  1. Open up its economy to foreign investment and sell assets to US corporations to raise US dollars.
  2. Loosen capital controls to allow the settlement of trade in yuan.

 

A G2 Compromise

The final, and in our minds the most painless, alternative to the above scenarios is that of a G2 compromise i.e. China and the US come to an agreement of sorts that results in China making significant concessions in return for the US maintaining the current global trade system.

What such a compromise will look like we do not know but it most definitely involves a weakening of the US dollar.

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

 

 

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