Looking Backward and Losing

President Trump is attempting to tilt trade in our favor at the expense of our trading partners.  His focus, using national security as the justification as well as the assertion that our trading partners are taking advantage of us, is based on discredited economics and policy.

Other nations are focusing on the fast growing sectors that reflect advances in technology, which is what his predecessors did because new industries contribute to being the world’s leader.   The President is looking backward and focusing on  once iconic industries that are shrinking as a share of our economy.

The President wants to increase exports at the expense of imports.  What he ignores is that increased exports come from increased production.  In a global economy we get those increases by being a more efficient producer than our competitors.  As economists have repeatedly pointed out, we need the market and not government to generate winners.  The president thinks that because we are the world’s largest economy, we can bully our way to achieving his export objective.

He’s wrong, just as nation states of prior centuries were wrong in pursuing mercantilism which is based on the belief that maximizing net exports is the best approach to national prosperity.  To make mercantilism work, nations engaged in protectionism which is what the President’s tariff policy is trying to do. Mercantilism was a flawed and failed policy in the 18thcentury and it just as flawed today. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations demonstrated that trade could be mutually beneficial and that exports should be driven by a nation’s comparative advantage, which is based on productivity.

In 1978, Milton Friedman pointed out that if the Japanese flood us with steel, it will reduce employment in the steel industry but increase employment in industries that use that steel.  The dollars that the Japanese got from selling us subsidized steel eventually found their way back here as demand for US goods and services.  In his concluding remarks, he asked, “ why should we object to their giving us foreign aid.”

In an interconnected global economy, it is a fool’s errand to attempt to protect declining industries.  Attempting to shield them from global competition simply makes them more dependent of government and stimulates crony capitalism.

President Trump and his economic Svengali, Peter Navarro, claim that the tariff policy is being pursued for national security reasons. But that has been widely shown to be totally bogus.  Further, A review of industrial policy initiatives decades ago in the journal Science, ended this way. “Here the historical record seems, for a change, unequivocal. Unequivocally negative.”  Nothing has changed since then.  The President’s policy is producing bads; not goods and the bads will just get worse.

 

 

A Different War of Attrition

Steve Hayward’s recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece provides an important reminder of the life cycle of advocacy driven environmental issues and the importance of persistent, fact-based resistance to counter campaigns based on ideology and visions of impending catastrophes.

Going back to the 1960s, we have witnessed an unending series of apocalyptic threats created by ideologues who have tried to use them promote increased political control by entitled elites. In all cases running from the population bomb to the limits of growth, to the war on pesticides, and climate change over the last 30 years, the problem has always been activities promoting economic growth and the solution has always been a reduction in personal freedom, serious constraints on market-based progress, and increased control from the center. Federalism and the Constitutional based limited government are treated as quaint ideals that have long outlived their relevance.

Steve Hayward takes us through the five stages that climate change has passed through to go from the “center of public concern …into a prolonged limbo.” He baes his narrative on a1972 article by Anthony Downs, Up and Down With Ecology.

The stated objectives of climate advocates have been to eliminate fossil fuels from the globe’s energy budget, to bring atmospheric CO2 levels down to pre-industrial levels, to promote wind and solar as substitutes for fossil fuels and reduce the carbon foot print of all. All of these objectives are championed as necessary to save the planet. The real objective has been increased political control of the economy by self-ordained elites. We should not forget that in the early 2000s, French President Jacque Chirac called for a world government. And, Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, prior to the 2015 meeting in Paris bluntly stated “This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution. “

While some ideologues may have entertained the notion that decarbonization objectives could be achieved in a matter of a few decades, no one who understood how the world works could seriously believe that. Instead, advocate leaders championed lofty and unattainable goals recognizing that incremental progress was the real objective. And since the time of Kyoto, they have promoted actions that incrementally would reduce the role of carbon in the global economy. But over time the costs of forced decarbonization have become more apparent and as they have counter pressures has increased. Germany, the leading advocate for alternative energy, is rolling back its Energiewende in the face of growing emissions and costs and the US is undoing much of the Obama initiatives. Other nations, as evidenced by the Paris Accord, have moved from supporting binding targets and timetables to accepting a voluntary agreement that will be honored in the breach while they pursue economic growth and higher standards of living..

There are two major reasons why the march to global government and rapid decarbonization have stalled. First, the public has never ranked climate change as one of its top priorities. Nor has there been any indication that the public at large is willing to sacrifice the benefits that come from continued economic progress. Second, while those opposed to draconian climate change actions are relatively small in number and underfunded, they have been well focused and persistent in pointing out the flaws in the climate orthodoxy and the folly of mandated decarbonization. Climate advocates have imposed significant cost from their actions and policies but those costs are far less than they could have been. And, as Steve Hayward insightfully observed, “Treating climate change as planet scale problem that could be solved by an international regulatory scheme transformed the issue into a political creed for committed believers. Causes that live by politics, die by politics.”

OPEC Channels Adam Smith

Reports that OPEC and Russia are going to end their two-year agreement to limit oil production is an act of necessity and a simple manifestation of an Adam Smith economic truism. In Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations, he wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.  The decisions to terminate the agreement reflects the reality that OPEC is not really a cartel.  OPEC isn’t what it used to be and never was.  The media and policy makers called it a cartel but in reality it has mostly been a price taker; not a price maker.

The 2016 Agreement to limit production was an implicit admission that Saudi Arabia’s attempt to maintain market share in the face of growing US production was a flop that sowed the seeds of its own demise.  The fact that it appears to have worked for two years may be a reflection of technical constraints on cheating by other members as well as the collapse of Venezuela’s oil production.

OPEC leaders know that rising oil prices zre a strong incentive for US producers, especially shale producers to step up drilling to increase revenue by taking advantage of higher prices.  They also know that when prices get past $70 per barrel, there are incentives to invest in new technology if it appears that prices will not soon retreat.  In addition to Adam Smith’s economic principle is the economic reality that the cure for high prices is high prices. High prices bring about more supply and when supply exceeds demand, prices drop.

Perhaps more important, as prices recovered from the lows of $40 per barrel, the incentive for members to cheat grew stronger.  Cheating on quotas has been a characteristic of OPEC members for decades. Although today, the number of members who can cheat is fewer than when OPEC represented over 50% of world output, the incentive remains strong for those that can.

Cheating aside, the real reason was put into clear perspective by a recent piece by the Wall Street Journal.  “The fact that U.S. production call fill the gap left by OPEC’s sick men … means that continuing to curtain output will benefit American producers.

Oil Price Forecasting: It’s a Mug’s Game

To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, foolish precision in the face of uncertainty is the hobgoblin of energy forecasters.  Much has been made recently about how energy forecasters—private and government—seriously underestimated the large increase in crude oil prices that has taken place in recent months.

What is surprising is that so many have been surprised and that so many so-called analysts continue to make point estimates. Crude oil prices have never been easy to forecast very far in the future, except under very stable conditions. And, that difficulty in forecasting also applies to oil companies who have a very strong economic incentive for greater accuracy.  The problem is that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the political, economic, and technical factors that can drive price.

In spite of sophisticated models, forecasters too often assume that the near term will be like the present at that influences how they treat economic and political factors.  Most important, point estimates for uncertain variables guarantees that an estimate will only be correct by luck.  How much the dollar will strengthen or weaken, how companies will respond to rising oil prices, whether shale producers will start drilling or maintain fiscal discipline, how much global growth will occur, whether OPEC producers begin to cheat and how much, how much Iranian and Venezuelan production will fall, and the impact of political risk are all factors that work against point estimates.

Bill Gilmer, Director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting, in a recent Forbes article made the obvious point that the world is dynamic; forecasts are static in that they are based on information available at the time they are made.  It is one thing to use available data to look ahead; it is something else to pretend to divine the future with relative precision.  Gilmer points out that “it doesn’t take big headlines to upset the forecast. The global crude oil market depends on the politics of dozens of producing countries, economic cycles in consumer countries and a vast infrastructure of pipes, ships and refineries. Even if we account for the known issues correctly, we could list 1,000 or more low-probability events that could push our forecast off course. … if these events are independent of each other, the chance that at least one will significantly and unexpectedly affect the oil market within a year is 1-(.999)1000 or 63.2%.”

Oil price forecasts would be more credible if they provided ranges reflecting uncertainty.  Otherwise, forecasting is a “Mugs Game,” an exercise in futility.

The Myth of OPEC Power

OPEC’s “production” cuts which in fact are an illusion. Prior to the agreement in 2016 to cut production 2%, most OPEC producers increased their production with Saudi Arabia leading as a way to maintain market share.
As oil prices have risen above $60 a barrel, more attention has been given to
As some have observed, the cuts were really just a pull back from the production surge. Since then according to EIA data, OPEC production has not decreased. In 2016, it produced 39.2 million barrels a day, last year it produced 39.2 million, and that is the forecast level for this year. So, while it appears that OPEC production has remained constant, production has actually been increasing to offset the decline in production by Venezuela. Venezuela’s oil production has been declining for two decades as a result of nationalization. In the past two years, its decline has increased, dropping from from 2.3 million barrels a day in January 2016 to 1.6 million in January of this year.

Since other member countries have increased their production to maintain OPEC’s overall level of production it is easy to see why its production agreement has not been breached. A look at OPEC’s 50-year history shows that for most of that history, it has been a price taker and not a price maker. That history also shows that most of the member countries cheat to gain or maintain revenue. Price volatility is clear evidence that OPEC’s alleged market control has always been an illusion.

There are several reasons why oil prices have been increasing. The $30-$40 dollar levels were below what many believe to be the long term equilibrium level. Over the past year, the inventory glut has been reduced as a result of a strong global economy, especially Chinese demand. Add to that increased political turbulence in the Middle East where the Trump Administration has introduced a higher level of uncertainty. Increased tensions with Russia, North Korea, and the potential re-imposition of sanctions on Iran. All of those factors put upward pressure on crude oil prices.

Oil prices are cyclical. They never stay low and they never stay high. Today’s prices are leading to increased production and based on history will lead some members of the OPEC-Russia production agreement to cheat. The likelihood of a return to $100 a barrel oil is remote unless there is some external event that spooks the market.

Quit Digging

There is an old adage that when you are in a ditch, quit digging.  EPA with the help of corn state representatives dug a ditch when they created the ethanol mandate, the  renewable fuel standard and then created renewable identification numbers-RINs—as a mechanism to track compliance with  blending requirements.

RINs worked to the advantage of companies with blending capabilities but created a big disadvantage for independent refiners that had to buy RINs—blending credits.  In addition, traders found a way, as they always do, to turn RINs into a commodity that they could buy and sell and hence turn a profit.

Recently, the largest independent refiner on the east coast declared bankruptcy because of  the high cost of RINs.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Energy Solutions, has spent over $800 million purchasing RIN credits since 2012. That is more than the pay and benefits for its 692 workers.  Spending money to purchase credits certifying that a company has blended ethanol with its gasoline is shear insanity.  Ethanol has no environmental benefits, it can be corrosive to engine parts, lower gas mileage, it can’t be shipped by pipeline, and it raises food prices.  There is only one reason for the renewable fuel standard, to transfer wealth from motorists to corn growers and ethanol manufacturers.

Having distorted the gasoline market with a requirement that has no benefits, EPA now plans to make the situation worse by either setting a cap on the price of RINs or allowing independent refiners to purchase credits directly from the federal government.  We experienced price controls in the 1970s and they proved to be an economic disaster.  Markets set prices through the interactions of a large number of buyers and sellers.  This process conveys information on supply and demand.  To think that the federal government can duplicate that discovery process to determine the price of RINs is wooden headed folly.  There are only two things that are certain with the approach being considered.  A system that has no value beyond enriching the favored will become ever more complicated and traders will figure out how to game the system to continue making money from it.

EPA has made the ethanol hole bigger over time and should simply stop digging by beginning the process of withdrawing the useless renewable fuel standard.  In the meantime, EPA can simply give away RINs. Refiners report production to DOE, so gallons of gasoline produced would have to match assigned RIN credits.  A similar process could be used for imported gasoline.

The Three Stooges of Trade

Groucho Marx once observed that politicians look for problems, find them everywhere, misdiagnose them, and apply the wrong solutions.  That insight perfectly fits the wrongheaded trade policy developed by Wilbur Ross, Peter Navarro, and President Trump.  On reflection, equating this three to the three stooges does Moe, Larry, and Curly a disservice.   The level of economic ignorance being shown by the President’s action is breathtaking, especially since Peter Navarro was trained in economics.  He must be like. Paul Krugman who has locked his training away is favor of ideology.

Economists disagree about many things but on the subject of tariffs they are virtually unanimous.  They are bad.  In 2002, President George W. Bush imposed steel tariffs and it cost the economy 200,000 jobs and $30 billion.  Navarro-Ross could become the Smoot-Hawley of 2018 if a trade war follows. The EU has already developed a list of US products that will be hit with retaliatory tariffs.

Someone should tell the President that every dollar that goes overseas as a result of the purchase of a foreign good works its way back here through investments or purchases of US products.  The trade relationships that develop in our interconnected world work towards stronger relations among nations which helps preserve peace.

At the time of Smoot-Hawley, over 1000 economists wrote a letter in opposition.  In part it said, “We are convinced that increased protective duties would be a mistake. They would operate, in general, to increase the prices which domestic consumers would have to pay. By raising prices they would encourage concerns with higher costs to undertake production, thus compelling the consumer to subsidize waste and inefficiency in industry. At the same time they would force him to pay higher rates of profit to established firms which enjoyed lower production costs. A higher level of protection, such as is contemplated by both the House and Senate bills, would therefore raise the cost of living and injure the great majority of our citizens.  … We would urge our Government to consider the bitterness which a policy of higher tariffs would inevitably inject into our international relations. The United States was ably represented at the World Economic Conference which was held under the auspices of the League of Nations in 1927. This conference adopted a resolution announcing that “the time has come to put an end to the increase in tariffs and move in the opposite direction.” The higher duties proposed in our pending legislation violate the spirit of this agreement and plainly invite other nations to compete with us in raising further barriers to trade. A tariff war does not furnish good.  That is just as true today as it was in 1930.

 The national security argument is more of a hobgoblin than a legitimate justification.  If some country wants to sell us products at a discount, why should we refuse?

 Business leaders have spoken out against the tariffs and Congress has made noises about legislative action.  Both should act decisively.  It is said that you get a mule’s attention with a 2X4.  The political analog might get the President’s.

 

 

Thinking About Gun Violence

Every time that there is a mass shooting, there is a short lived debate about what to do.  Unfortunately, it soon dies out, in part because those who want action are not as well organized as gun rights advocates, set unrealistic objectives –prevention versus reducing the incidence, and the debate is too polarized.

Certainly, everyone would like to find a way to prevent mass shootings within the context of the Constitution but the problem is too complex for that objective to be achieved.  But that does not mean that such killings and others cannot be reduced.  So, the focus should be on a combination of policies and actions that will make mass killings and others less likely.  What is needed is a serious discussion about guns and gun violence that is based on fact and desire to find common ground.

Florida has the Baker Act which provides to involuntary confinement for mental evaluation.  Local authorities and the FBI had information that could have led to Cruz being confined under that law but the system failed, especially at the local level.  In the case of the Las Vegas shootings, it is not clear that there was enough prior information that could have led to an intervention.    In addition to states having robust gun violence restraining ordnances, there needs to be better public education on behaviors that justify reporting.  For 20 years, Congress has prohibited the CDC from conducting research on gun violence behaviors.  That prohibition has no justification for not investing in knowledge.

Peer reviewed research—Grant Duwe, Michael Rocaque– has shown that individuals with major mental disorders (those that substantially interfere with life activities) are more likely to commit violent acts, especially if they abuse drugs. When we focus more narrowly on mass public shootings — an extreme and, fortunately, rare form of violence — we see a relatively high rate of mental illness.

 The NRA is a major obstacle.  The national headquarters has brainwashed its members that any restraints are the slippery slope to confiscation.  Some members have been quoted as saying owning AR-15 type assault rifles is their god given right under the Constitution.  Anyone who believes that doesn’t understand the Constitution and is possessed by a dangerous thought process.  In writing for the majority in the Heller v DC case, Justice Scalia wrote, “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited…”. It is “…not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”  Limiting guns to those used for self defense, hunting, and target shooting is a good start but not sufficient to reduce senseless shootings.  A serious discussion would involve asking why anyone really needs a weapons of war?  Most people do not know that it is still legal to buy pre 1986 machine guns, flame throwers, and Miniguns ( similar to Gatling guns?

However, the licensing requirements are very strict. The process under the National Firearms Act is costly, invasive, and time-consuming. Federal law requires extensive background checks of anyone wishing to own a NFA item such as a machine gun. To purchase a machine gun today, it would take close to a year for the more extensive background check, including submitting fingerprints and a photo.  At a minimum, it would make sense to have the same requirements for AR weapons.

Between 1994 and 2004, there was a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines.  Analyses of the ban lead to mixed results because of limited data.  Australia took a series of actions in 1996 that included a ban, new licensing requirements and a buy back program.  In the 18 year period since those actions were taken, mass shootings dropped from 13 to zero.  It is worth analyzing the Australian program to see what aspects apply here.

The goal should be to make it harder for bad guys to get guns & ammunition without unreasonably restraining the ability for good people to have access to firearms for protection, hunting, and sport shooting.   In economics if you raise the cost of something, you get less of it.   Using a more robust background check and licensing system would raise the cost but not make it prohibitive.

The best way to have a real national discussion would be to set up a National Commission to examine the full range of issues involving gun violence leading to  a set of recommendations

Raise the Gasoline Tax

President Trump’s infrastructure proposal has resulted in a re-examination of the role of the gasoline tax with the Chamber of Commerce leading the way in call for a 25 cent increase.  Although the President and the American Society of Civil Engineer claim that our infrastructure is crumbling or is close to failing, the Department of Transportation paints a much different picture, reporting that the highway and road system have changed little in the past decade.

The 1956 Highway Revenue Act created the Highway Trust Fund as a mechanism for funding the interstate highway system and aiding in the finance of rural and urban routes. The tax set at that time was 4 cents per gallon.  It took until 1983 to raise it to 9 cents.  In 1990, Congress raised it to 14 cents and in 1993 is was raised to today’s level of 18.4 cents.  Adjusted for inflation, based on BLS data the 1956 tax would be 32 cents in today’s dollars.

The fact that the tax has increased so slowly over past decades is a reflection of political reluctance to impose any tax that makes clear to those who pay it who is responsible for imposing it.  In the last 15 years, 21 states made no changes in their gasoline tax and only 5 increased the tax by more than 5 cents.  Since the tax is a users fee, the failure to increase it, even at the rate of inflation, means that non drivers are subsidizing those who do.

When Congress passed the Interstate Transportation act in 1991 it allowed the Trust fund to be used for more than highways, roads, and bridges—public transportation and bike paths for example.  Today, the Trust fund spends more than it takes in with the shortfall being made up with general revenue. In the decade ahead, the Fund faces a shortfall of over $160 billion.  So, either general revenue must be used, increasing the deficit even more or there needs to be a program to increase in the gasoline tax on a regular basis.

Congress and state officials have to face up to the inevitable and quit procrastinating.  Every penny increase in the tax will raise about $1.5 billion.  An alternative frequently suggested is a fee based on vehicle miles traveled.  That may sound good in theory given the increase in high mileage cars but it would penalize rural drivers and those who live in the mountain states.  That fee fails the equity tax.

Users need to pay; it’s that simple.

 

 

Environmental Illusion and a Public Swindle

According to environmentalists and the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol mandate in the Clean Air Act as modified by the Energy Policy Acts of 2005 and 2007 has resulted in cleaner air and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  In reality, the mandate has produced no real environmental benefits while enriching corn farmers, large retailers, and ethanol manufacturers and imposing unnecessary and unreasonable costs on fuel producers and auto manufacturers.  It has also had a negative effect on food prices.

Just recently, the largest refinery on the east coast—Philadelphia Energy Solutions– filed for bankruptcy protection because of the prohibitive costs of obtaining EPA compliance credits—RINs.  According to a Wall street Journal editorial, Philadelphia Energy Solutions has spent $832 million on purchasing credits since 2012.  This is 1.5 times its average annual capital expenditures and twice its payroll costs.

EPA will claim that imposing the compliance burden at the refinery level ensures a high degree of compliance because of the relatively small number of refineries in the US–137.  The problem is that there is a big difference between independent refineries and those that are integrated or large convenience store chains.  The latter have blending capabilities that provide an economic advantage who are also blenders. Independent refineries must buy RIN credits; the others generate  RIN credits through blending that can be banked or sold.  Think about it.  An independent refiner incurs a cost; large retailers like Circle K and Sheetz create an asset through blending that can be sold.

It is only common sense to provide a level playing field for the point of obligation.  Moving this point from the refinery gate to the point of blending might complicate EPA’s compliance tracking but it would not discriminate among refiners.

A much better solution would be to simply abolish the renewable fuel standard since it accomplishes nothing.  The ethanol—oxygenate mandate—is a creation of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that was designed to secure votes for passage from farm state members.  It was not needed, and Congress knew this at the time, to meet tailpipe emission standards to reduce ozone causing chemicals.  And, it has been shown by analysis after analysis that it does nothing to positively impact global warming or reduce imports.

The renewable fuel standard is simply another example of the Bootlegger and Baptist collusion.  Farmers, commodity traders, and ethanol manufacturers benefit by having money transferred from consumers by embracing environmental benefits that don’t exist and politicians who support the standard are considered good stewards of the environment.  It’s just a sophisticated swindle.