COUNTRY FOCUS Is China a Neo-Mercantilist Nation?
China’s rapid rise in economic power (it is now the world’s second largest economy) has been built on export-led growth. The country takes raw material imports and, using its cheap labor, converts them into products that it sells to developed nations. For years, the country’s exports have been growing faster than its imports, leading some critics to claim that China is pursuing a neo-mercantilist policy, trying to amass record trade surpluses and foreign currency that will give it economic power over developed nations. This rhetoric reached new heights in 2008 when China’s trade surplus hit a record $280 billion and its foreign exchange reserves exceeded $1.95 trillion, some 70 percent of which are held in U.S. dollars. Observers worry that if China ever decides to sell its holdings of U.S. currency, this could depress the value of the dollar against other currencies and increase the price of imports into America.
Throughout 2005–2008, China’s exports grew much faster than its imports, leading some to argue that China was limiting imports by pursuing an import substitution policy, encouraging domestic investment in the production of products such as steel, aluminum, and paper, which it had historically imported from other nations. The trade deficit with America has been a particular cause for concern. In 2011, this reached a record $295 billion. At the same time, China has long resisted attempts to let its currency float freely against the U.S. dollar. Many claim that China’s currency is too cheap, and that this keeps the prices of China’s goods artificially low, which fuels the country’s exports.
So is China a neo-mercantilist nation that is deliberately discouraging imports and encouraging exports in order to grow its trade surplus and accumulate foreign exchange reserves, which might give it economic power? The jury is out on this issue. Skeptics suggest that going forward, the country will have no choice but to increase its imports of commodities that it lacks, such as oil. They also note that China did start allowing the value of the yuan (China’s currency) to appreciate against the dollar in July 2005, albeit at a slow pace. In July 2005 one U.S. dollar purchased 8.11 yuan. By January 2012, the one dollar purchased 6.38 yuan, a decline of 21 percent. As a result, China’s trade surplus has started to contract as export growth has slowed and imports have increased. In 2011, the surplus was $155 billion, down substantially from the $290 billion in 2008. While this suggests that China’s trade surplus may have peaked for now, it is still a cause for concern in many developed nations, and particularly the United States.
Sources: A. Browne, “China’s Wild Swings Can Roil the Global Economy,” The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2005, p. A2; S.H. Hanke, “Stop the Mercantilists,”Forbes, June 20, 2005, p. 164; G. Dyer and A. Balls, “Dollar Threat as China Signals Shift,” Financial Times, January 6, 2006, p. 1; Tim Annett, “Righting the Balance,” The Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2007, p. 15; “China’s Trade Surplus Peaks,” Financial Times, January 12, 2008, p. 1; W. Chong, “China’s Trade Surplus to U.S. to Narrow,” China Daily, December 7, 2009; A. Wang and K. Yao, “China’s Trade Surplus Dips, Taking Heat of Yuan,” Reuters, January 9, 2011; and Aaron Back, “China’s Trade Surplus Shrank in ’11,”The Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2012.
The classical economist David Hume pointed out an inherent inconsistency in the mercantilist doctrine in 1752. According to Hume, if England had a balance-of-trade surplus with France (it exported more than it imported) the resulting inflow of gold and silver would swell the domestic money supply and generate inflation in England. In France, however, the outflow of gold and silver would have the opposite effect. France’s money supply would contract, and its prices would fall. This change in relative prices between France and England would encourage the French to buy fewer English goods (because they were becoming more expensive) and the English to buy more French goods (because they were becoming cheaper). The result would be a deterioration in the English balance of trade and an improvement in France’s trade balance, until the English surplus was eliminated. Hence, according to Hume, in the long run no country could sustain a surplus on the balance of trade and so accumulate gold and silver as the mercantilists had envisaged.
The flaw with mercantilism was that it viewed trade as a zero-sum game. (A zero-sum game is one in which a gain by one country results in a loss by another.) It was left to Adam Smith and David Ricardo to show the shortsightedness of this approach and to demonstrate that trade is a positive-sum game, or a situation in which all countries can benefit. Unfortunately, the mercantilist doctrine is by no means dead. Neo-mercantilists equate political power with economic power and economic power with a balance-of-trade surplus. Critics argue that many nations have adopted a neo-mercantilist strategy that is designed to simultaneously boost exports and limit imports.2 For example, critics charge that China is pursuing a neo-mercantilist policy, deliberately keeping its currency value low against the U.S. dollar in order to sell more goods to the United States and other developed nations, and thus amass a trade surplus and foreign exchange reserves (see the accompanying Country Focus).
A situation in which an economic gain by one country results in an economic loss by another.
LEARNING OBJECTIVE 2
Summarize the different theories explaining trade flows between nations.
In his 1776 landmark book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith attacked the mercantilist assumption that trade is a zero-sum game. Smith argued that countries differ in their ability to produce goods efficiently. In his time, the English, by virtue of their superior manufacturing processes, were the world’s most efficient textile manufacturers. Due to the combination of favorable climate, good soils, and accumulated expertise, the French had the world’s most efficient wine industry. The English had an absolute advantage in the production of textiles, while the French had an absolute advantage in the production of wine. Thus, a country has an absolute advantage in the production of a product when it is more efficient than any other country in producing it.