“What Are You Optimizing For?”, The International Macro Edition

It is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever students come to me with doubts about “what to do next” in terms of either further education or a job.

(Side note: asking me what to do next probably isn’t a good idea, because my career has been gloriously unplanned. But that’s a whole separate story)

But one should be clear about what one is optimizing for: is it income, or free time, or job satisfaction, or rapid career growth – or something else altogether? And whatever it may be, optimizing for one will quite probably mean having to give up on some or all of the others.

And this applies to many more things than just the What To Do Next question, of course. In fact, relentlessly asking this question in many different contexts can take you a very long way in terms of understanding what seem like really difficult and complex topics.

Such as, for example, what China has been up to in terms of international trade, and what went so gloriously wrong.

The simple story of international trade (or trade in general for that matter) isn’t difficult to grasp. Bear in mind that reality is a little more complex, but it really boils down to comparative advantage.

As Michael Pettis points out at the start of this excellent Twitter thread, the so-called “China shock” *is* a shock, but it is not an indictment of the basic concept of international trade. China, as we’re about to find out, was playing a zero-sum game.

One of the most glorious things about economics is the fact that trade is a non-zero sum game. Both parties that have voluntarily entered into a trade with one another benefit for the trade having gone through, and so nobody loses. This is as true at your local chai tapri (you give ten bucks for a cup of chai, and both you and the chaiwala are happy with the trade) as it is in the context of international trade between the United States of America and China.

But beware overly simplistic stories, for they can trip up many a happy ending:

Isabella Kaminska, in an old but excellent article on FT Alphaville made a very similar point. I’ll get to that point in a bit, but may I also use this opportunity to urge the good folks at FT to make FT Alphaville free again?

Here’s the point from that old article:

What those who accused China of using its exchange rate to gain advantage probably misunderstood was that it wasn’t the currency which was being undervalued, it was the people. Stephen Roach, then chief economist of Morgan Stanley, explained this point in the Financial Times in 2003 (our emphasis):
“The Chinese phenomenon hardly amounts to grabbing market share from the rest of the world. It is more a by-product of the struggle for competitive survival by high-cost producers in the industrial world. Last year, a record $53bn of foreign direct investment flowed into China, making the country the largest recipient of such funds in the world.
These investments did not occur under coercion. A high-cost industrial world has made a decision that it needs China-based outsourcing to ensure competitive survival. Dismantling China’s currency peg would destabilise the very supply chain that has become so integral to new globalised production models in Japan, the US and Europe.
There are several other reasons why China should leave its currency unchanged. Contrary to widespread perception, China does not compete on the basis of an undervalued currency. It competes mainly in terms of labour costs, technology, quality control, infrastructure and an unwavering commitment to reform.

https://www.ft.com/content/d11a4c5e-d5fb-32f4-a606-e64d1483cea1 (Emphasis added)

This article was written in 2015, but it holds up very well. In fact, it is instructive to see how, in addition to labour costs and infrastructure, China has now centralized under government authority technology as well. It is also instructive to think about how (and in what direction) the “unwavering commitment to reform” has evolved, but that is a separate story.

To come back to the common thread between the old FT Alphaville article and the Twitter thread by Michael Pettis:

Stephen Roach, in 2003, spoke about how China was undervaluing its people. Isabella Kaminska in 2015 spoke about China competes (at least in part) on labor. And Michael Pettis in 2021 is talking about China competing by suppressing its wages (relative to productivity levels). But they’re all making the same point, and it is a point that merits greater emphasis:

The China shock needn’t have been a shock, in the sense that it is not as if economic theory stopped working once China started trading more with the rest of the world.

China, as it turns out, wasn’t optimizing for international trade. China was – and is – optimizing for an increase in her exports, and that over time.

That problem manifests itself in many different ways: The USA’s persistent trade deficit with China is just one glaring example. The Belt and Road Initiative is another (what the hell do you do with all those forex reserves, dammit?). And there’s many, many more.

But as Michael Pettis reminds us in this thread, the “China Shock” phenomenon becomes way more comprehensible when you ask a deceptively simple question: what is China optimizing for?

What is India optimizing for when it comes to international trade? What should India be optimizing for? In both cases, whatever your answer, why?

Critique this blogpost, and write your responses to the questions above. It is a great way to test yourself if you think you’re good to go in open macroeconomics or international trade.

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