Tone Deaf

posted by
on July 19, 2016

 If war is too important to be left to the generals, as Georges Clemenceau famously said, it is unwise to leave important international economic decisions to technicians who fail to connect them to broader U.S. national security priorities. This story concerns one such decision that was announced by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on June 30. It immediately became the subject of heated controversy in Washington’s international trade circles.

It’s not difficult to see why.

Froman — characteristically — crafted his decision in excessive secrecy. An exhaustive research of the available public record turns up no economic evidence to support it. Pressed hard to defend it, Froman has been unable to point to any serious economic rationale. The intended beneficiaries, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, are not positioned to take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, important U.S. trading partners across Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent that could benefit — from the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India —instead will be hurt. Diplomats from 14 of the affected countries just yesterday sent a strong letter to Froman bluntly expressing their “disappointment” concerning U.S. economic discrimination against them. The signatories included Brazil, Tunisia, Moldova, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and Paraguay. Privately, diplomats I’ve spoken with express their frustrations with the inequities of U.S. trade policies in, well, much stronger language.

The unusually strong criticisms would surprise a casual reader of Froman’s June 30 press release. On the surface, at least, it appeared to be a shining example of American generosity aimed at helping the world’s least-developed countries. The Obama White House, declared Froman, wanted to make “a powerful contribution to lifting people out of poverty and supporting growth in some of the poorest countries in the world, while also reducing costs to American consumers and businesses.”

But will it? More than two weeks of weeks of intensive independent research — including repeated efforts to obtain Froman’s side of the story — suggests otherwise.

Let’s take it from the top:

The intended beneficiaries are African countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Lesotho and Kenya, and also impoverished Cambodia and Haiti. They will be given preferential access to the $5 billion U.S. market for travel goods: think suitcases, handbags, wallets, and backpacks. No longer will their exports of 28 lines of handbags and such face U.S. tariffs that range from 4.5 percent to a stiff 20 percent. (Last year, Congress authorized adding travel goods to developing countries eligible to participate in the Generalized System of Preferences program, and for the 40 member countries of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.)

The entire American travel goods industry was blindsided. To understate the matter, the executives who actually make the investment decisions were not thrilled that federal officials with scant business experience would think that they knew more than the CEOs about where their future travel-goods investments should be directed. Outraged, the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Outdoor Industry Association, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, and the Travel Goods Association, have been demanding that Froman explain his decision, so far without success.

Comparing the June 30 Froman press release with the realities of the $5 billion U.S. travel-goods market sheds light on the emotions the U.S. trade negotiator has unleashed.

First, Froman’s determination does not appear to make anything close to a truly “powerful contribution to lifting people out of poverty,” and does not seem to be supported. Most of the intended beneficiaries, alas, have precious few travel goods to export, so the US preferences won’t help them much.

At least Cambodia, with 0.4 percent of the US market, does have a small-but-vibrant travel-goods industry, apparently mainly involving backpacks, that stands to benefit. So the Cambodians are poised to be winners. Still, Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States, Chum Bunrong, signed the July 18 letter from 14 countries expressing concerns about the discriminatory treatment. Cambodia had sought the GSP preferences, but had not lobbied to exclude other deserving countries.

Meanwhile, the Africans, the major intended beneficiaries, simply aren’t important players in the travel-goods industry. They aren’t positioned to become such anytime in the foreseeable future. All of Africa’s travel-goods exports to the United States amount to a roughly one hundredth of one percent market share.

There is (happily) some foreign investor interest in developing the African travel-goods industry, involving as much Chinese as U.S. and European multinationals. But (unhappily) not much. Stiff U.S. tariffs aren’t the main problems — clogged ports, bad roads, red tape, and too many other economic inefficiencies to list in one line are far more important obstacles to viable African trade expansion.

The Africans also have been slow to take advantage of the generous trade-facilitation financial assistance pursuant to the World Trade Organization’s so-called Bali Package aimed at smoothing the flow of goods across presently difficult borders. The WTO inked its trade-facilitation deal when ministers met on the famous Indonesian resort island in December 2013. To date, only eleven African WTO members have ratified it. One struggles to find a sense of economic urgency.

Moreover, making backpacks, for instance, with all their zippers and complex components, is far more difficult than making T-shirts. Yet even with 15 years of duty-free access to the U.S. clothing market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, all of Africa’s apparel exports to the U.S. still only amount to about $1 billion annually. That’s less than one percent of the U.S. clothing market.

The Philippines, one of the smaller exporters of garments to the United States, exports about $1.1 billion worth of clothing to the U.S. annually. That’s roughly $100 million more than the yearly garment exports from all of the Africa countries combined. And Bangladesh’s US clothing exports are more than five times Africa’s total.

The Africans get duty-free treatment for their garment exports pursuant to the African Growth and Opportunity Act. But the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the rest of the world’s rag trade face stiff U.S. clothing tariffs. Those tariffs mainly hover in the 12- 16 percent range, but can shoot sharply higher. The unavoidable economic bottom line: African countries that struggle just to make shirts and trousers, even with the existing AGOA duty-free preferences, are not poised to attract major investments in travel goods.

Consider further the June 30 Froman press release’s boast of “reducing costs” for American consumers and businesses by slashing tariffs on travel goods for Africa. Driving up costs by upending multi-million dollar investment plans of major players in the industry — like Coach, Michael Kors, Under Armour, Columbia Sportswear, and Kate Spade — is more like it.

That’s because such stalwarts of the American travel-goods industry have been planning to enhance their investments in the countries which are poised to take advantage of them, mainly the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. The U.S. industry leaders have been aiming to shift production to such developing countries away from China, which holds an estimated 85 percent of the U.S. market. But now, that production will mostly remain in China — ironically making the Chinese the biggest winners of the U.S. trade representative’s decision.

Vietnam holds another 5 percent of the American travel-goods market. As a communist country, the Vietnamese are not eligible to participate in the American GSP preference program. But Froman has agreed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to give Vietnam the same duty-free treatment for the same 28 tariff lines of travel goods. Put another way, U.S. trade policy has been shaped to carve out at least 90 percent of the American travel-goods market to two communist countries: China and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the losers in Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent will just twist in the proverbial wind. Froman’s June 30 announcement did not flat-out deny such developing countries the GSP duty-free preferences. Rather, the U.S. trade chief has said he is merely “deferring” their petitions into an indefinite future before deciding whether they deserve them. The government-induced market uncertainty, of course, is a nightmare scenario for any investor whose plans are thrown into limbo.

Do the math: Froman and President Obama will leave their offices in six months. It takes perhaps 18 months after an investment decision is made to get a travel-goods factory up-and-running. So assuming that such an investment plan were to be made this week, we’re looking at early 2018 before, say, a travel-goods operation would be established in, say, Rwanda. Then it would take another several years before export data would be generated. U.S. trade officials might be able, sometime after the 2020 presidential election, to start a lengthy review process. Imagine how the CEO of a major U.S. multinational would feel about that.

And imagine how poor women in places like the Philippines — a country of 100 million people, some 25 million of whom are suffering in poverty — might feel about the June 30 U.S. trade action that put equally deserving African workers’ interests ahead of theirs, should someone ask their opinions. (To their credit, the Africans did not ask that workers in other poor countries be excluded from the US travel-goods decision.)

Ironically, on June 30, as Froman was releasing his press release in Washington, the Philippines was swearing in a new president. Rodrigo Duterte has not been shy about the fact that over the years he has developed a certain attitude toward perceived American high-handedness.

President Duterte comes from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. He and some of his key economic and security advisors have seen this sort of discriminatory behavior from Washington before. For years, Washington officials have refused to consider slashing high U.S. tariffs that would boost the economic prospects of (mostly Muslim) workers in Mindanao’s canned tuna industry. This is another example of how U.S. economic policies can be disconnected from important diplomatic priorities to win trust in the Islamic world.

And more recently, U.S. trade chief Froman has even turned a deaf ear on Philippine requests that garment workers in typhoon-ravaged areas be given duty-free treatment for their clothing exports to the United States. While this might be a largely symbolic gesture in the grand scheme of things, America would be highly praised for showing such generosity. Instead, on the very day he was sworn into office, President Duterte was greeted by still another example of American ungenerous economic thinking.

The Philippine travel-goods industry had been looking to create an additional $100 million in annual exports to the United States — that’s $500 million in five years, involving some 75,000 new jobs. Now U.S. Trade Representative Froman has put those aspirations on indefinite hold.

The Philippines is also one of America’s closest treaty allies, and sits astride sea lanes in the South China Sea that are of vital importance to global commerce. But the Chinese have an agenda that would put Beijing in charge of Philippine waters.

On July 12, Beijing’s claims to economic domination in the South China Sea were branded illegal by a well-crafted international tribunal’s ruling in The Hague. But while seriously embarrassed, the Chinese have other cards to play. They are infamous for their special brand of economic diplomacy (suitcases full of money).

China’s top leaders have made it no secret that they will try to offer financial inducements to the new Duterte administration. Meanwhile, the US travel-goods announcement has given Filipinos another reason to doubt America’s trustworthiness as an economic partner. Sometimes in international economic diplomacy, as in personal life, it’s the smaller slights that do the most to fray relationships.

Pakistan, although hardly a trusted ally like the Philippines, is nevertheless another country that is important in the U.S. national security equation. Now the Pakistanis must wonder how truthful President Obama was to their prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, when Sharif visited the White House last year.

On October 22, 2015, Sharif and Obama issued a joint statement that took note of the “importance” of increased “market access’ for Pakistan in the GSP preferences program. “President Obama indicated that the United States will help Pakistan create conditions for accelerated trade and investment-driven growth,” the statement noted. Now, Froman’s June 30 decision to defer Pakistani hopes for duty-free treatment regarding travel goods raises more questions about American sincerity.

Not everyone is unhappy with the U.S. trade representative. Stephen Lande, the president of a respected Washington consulting firm, Manchester Trade, has had many years of experience with Africa. “I am happy” that Froman decided to give African countries preferences on travel goods, Lande says. “Because that’s what AGOA is all about.”

Lande says that he hopes that Froman’s decision will encourage CEOs in the travel-goods industry to put more money into Africa. Countries in Southeast Asia like the Philippines could acquire the same GSP benefits by joining an expanded TPP trade pact, Lande adds.

Froman, meanwhile, is hunkered down. He refused to allow the U.S. trade officials who worked on the case to explain an economic rationale for his June 30 announcement. He wouldn’t even say which office handled the paperwork (apparently the economic-policy shop run by Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Edward Gresser). The organization chart at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative — who reports to whom, and on what — is considered classified information.

When I pressed, Froman finally asserted through a spokesman, Trevor Kincaid, that “travel goods are a product particularly well-suited to be produced in least-developed countries.”

Will that be the last word? Stay tuned.