03 September 2017

Why Even the Experts Vastly Underestimate the Impact of Trade Wars with Developed Countries

I harp on the prospect of a trade war for a host of reasons. For one thing, like the invasion of Iraq or the deregulation of financial markets that helped to set us up for the Great Recession, few people appreciate just how devastating this can be. A trade war has the potential to be as devastating as the Great Recession.

Expert economists worry about the magnitude of this. As someone who regularly works with product development teams in this and other countries, I think even they underestimate it.

A chip maker I worked with this year at a facility in Scotland represents the sort of trade reality that  a simple number like "China represents 4.4% of our trade" does not capture.

This chip company makes chips for cars - everything from the chips that help to control your air conditioner to chips used in self-driving cars. Chips in cars have become ubiquitous and every new car uses more than 100 chips. So what I'm about to describe could be multiplied by 100.

First, a single chip is designed with inputs from design and marketing people from Austin, TX, Germany, Scotland, China, India and Malaysia. Perhaps other sites I was not aware of.

Second, when the chip is physically made it literally travels around the globe in its production process. Value is added in Singapore, Austin, Tianjin, and then Kuala Lumpur.

Third, once the chip is made it still isn't a final product. For that it has to be integrated into a car. The cars it will be incorporated into are assembled in places like Bavaria, Detroit, Seoul, and Puebla.

Fourth, the cars these chips are incorporated into are not made at just one place. A tiny chip that is put into a car comes from half a dozen places. The same is true of the fuel injector, the axle, the pistons, the seat belts, etc. Final assembly just represents a final step in a series of complicated assembly steps for raw materials, intermediate products and final units that are then assembled into a car. Some variation of what I described for the single chip has occurred with most every discrete component in that car.

If you say that 4% of our trade is with China, that may naively refer to the fact that 4% of our products come from there. And that might accurately capture it but I suspect that reality is more like 8% of the value in 60% of our products have some input from China. What I believe the average person wildly underestimates and even expert economists probably somewhat underestimate is the massive complexity in product development and manufacturing and the extent to which any one finished product sitting in your garage, hand or kitchen has design inputs or parts that come from dozens of countries. One of the simplest examples of surprising complexity often used in introductory economics classes is the No. 2 pencil: at one point the lead for the graphite, the rubber for the erasure, and the wood for the pencil came from three different continents.

A trade war would disrupt millions or billions of complex product and design flows that result in the thousands or millions of products that we can buy here in the US. Even disrupting 4% of our GDP would be devastating but a ban on trade from China is likely to impact more than 4% of our GDP. (And of course China is not the only country that trades with North Korea.) If we ban trade with, say, a less developed nation like Cuba an estimate of our trade with them would probably be roughly accurate. Cuba is exporting cigars rather than complex technology made with inputs from knowledge workers scattered all around the globe. But if we ban trade with a country like China that has a complex trading pattern, the ripple effect is incredibly difficult to calculate and could quickly grow beyond casual, initial estimates.

We can only hope that Trump will be less effectual at implementing trade disruption than he was with the Repeal and Replace of Trumpcare. And given that most of Congress is less deluded about how independent we can be of other countries than Trump is, it is unlikely that a trade war will break out. That said, the probability is not zero and the probability is higher than it should be simply because so few people realize how complex are the trading patterns that define even some of our simplest products. It's good that people were outraged at Trump's comments after Charlottesville, but his ignorance there isn't going to cost millions of jobs. A trade war easily could.

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