Tag Archives: manufacturing

Reality Is So Inconvenient

Time Magazine  recently ran a story illustrating the problem with electing stupid, uninformed people.

Numerous media outlets have explained–patiently, and in detail– why Trump’s evident belief that China is paying his tariffs is wrong; they’ve laid out–in painful detail–the way tariffs really work, and why those tariffs are more properly labeled tax increases on the American public.

The Time article addresses a subsequent demonstration of Trump’s utter economic cluelessness.

Tariffs on foreign goods are supposed to help companies that make things in the United States by increasing the costs of products sold by foreign competitors. Indeed, when rationalizing his administration’s increased tariffs on Chinese goods, President Donald Trump on Monday encouraged consumers and businesses to buy goods from countries other than China, or, in what he called the “best idea,” to buy American-made goods.

That would have been good advice, back when American companies were busy manufacturing  horse whips and corsets. These days, however, advice to “buy American” simply displays an embarrassing ignorance about the current realities of  the world of business.

But that advice is almost impossible to follow, as products made in America can contain parts sourced from all over the world. Even the most quintessentially American of goods has parts from somewhere else, whether that be a Ford F-150 pickup, a can of Budweiser, or tire chains from Worcester, Mass. “In the last 20 years, businesses have become much more strategic,” says Kara Reynolds, an economics professor at American University. “More and more often, they are looking at where they can find highest quality and lowest-cost parts so that they can be competitive.” More often than not, that’s China — and that means many U.S. businesses are feeling the pain thanks to Trump’s tariffs.

Trump, as usual, has ignored the warnings of more knowledgable people (a category that includes most sentient humans), and has doubled down on his tariff policy. Farmers have been the most notably hurt, but manufacturers and retailers aren’t far behind. Automobile companies are already feeling the pinch.

The most recent round of tariffs is expected to affect a broad swathe of industries that make products in the United States. “This is playing havoc with the supply chains of Americans producers — increasing their cost and reducing their worldwide competitiveness,” says Robert T. Kudrle, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. St. Pierre, for example, makes chains and wire rope in its Worcester facility, as it began doing in 1920 when Henry St. Pierre started the company. But as it started facing foreign competition, St. Pierre began buying chain slings and other parts from producers overseas, then cutting them and adding hooks and fittings in the United States.

The cost of those imported chain slings have gone up as tariffs have risen. Even St. Pierre’s horseshoes, which are made completely from U.S. steel, have been affected by the tariffs on foreign goods. As the cost of foreign steel went up, the cost of U.S.-made steel rose too, says Peter St. Pierre, vice president of finance at St. Pierre Manufacturing — and Henry St. Pierre’s grandson. “Everything we do here is steel-related, and over the last year or so, the price of steel has been going up and up,” he said. Increased demand for domestic steel has allowed U.S. producers to raise their prices; one estimatefound that U.S. steel prices have more than doubled since 2015.

Companies affected by the tariffs include a number that make goods in the U.S., thanks to rising duties on imported parts.

A South Carolina plant that assembled televisions using Chinese parts said last yearit was shutting down because of the tariffs. The Beer Institute, which represents 6,000 brewers and 2.2 million American jobs, said thatabout six percent of the cost of beer is the aluminum used in cans, and predicted that higher aluminum tariffs could cost 20,000 American jobs.

Are we tired yet of all that “winning”?

Will his brainwashed base ever decide that it may be time to elect someone with less ego and more functioning brain cells?

Changing Perverse Incentives

The Brookings Institution has released a report that I can only describe as “compelling.” Titled “More Builders and Fewer Traders,” it focuses like a laser on the perverse policy incentives that have contributed to dramatic levels of inequality.

In our new paper “More builders and fewer traders: a growth strategy for the American economy” we identify a handful of obscure but important shifts—in laws, regulations, and standard practices—which, taken together, have changed the incentive structure of leaders in American corporations. This set of incentives has led to short term behavior on the part of corporate leadership. These incentives are so powerful that once they became pervasive in the private sector, they began to have broad effects. No one set out to create this myopic system, which arose piecemeal over a period of decades. But taken together, these perverse new micro-incentives have created a macroeconomic problem.

The report zeros in on four trends that have contributed to what the authors call “short-termism.”  One consequence of these trends is that–while cash distributed to shareholders as a share of cash flow has surged– the share devoted to capital investment has fallen to a record low.

I don’t disagree with the authors’ focus on these trends, the problems they pose for the economy, or their contribution to inequality.  I do wonder, however, how much of the lack of investment in the future of American industry can be traced back to the way we  finance corporations and the separation of ownership from management.

“Ownership” can mean many things, but it is difficult to square our common-sense understanding of ownership with the purchase of a few hundred shares of stock in a major corporation. Such “ownership” carries with it no meaningful control, no right to make decisions, and “risk” only to the extent that there may be a decrease in the value of one’s stock.

The reality is that American corporations borrow money two ways–through the sale of bonds, which are more secure but which carry only a stated rate of return, and the sale of stock, the proceeds of which represent a gamble on the future of the enterprise: more risk, but the chance of a superior “reward.” Let’s be honest: Neither the bondholder nor the small or medium-sized shareholder is an owner in any meaningful sense of the word.

Meanwhile, the people managing these companies are frequently not “owners,” either. They’re hired hands, often with little investment in the business. Their compensation and continued employment depend significantly upon their ability to keep short-term stock prices high, thus they have every incentive to keep workers’ wages down and their own paychecks as high as possible.

None of this fosters the capitalist virtue of pride in the product, or good corporate citizenship (except as a marketing tool), or decision-making that is in the long-term best interests of the enterprise.

When a company is truly owned by an individual or small group, when those owners see their own prospects intimately bound up with the long-term success of the venture, corporate behavior changes. Such owners are certainly focused upon earnings and the bottom line–but they understand what innovations and behaviors will be needed to protect that bottom line into the future. Concern for long-term fiscal health provides incentives to care about their reputation, their workforce, the quality of their products and the health of the communities in which they operate.

When public policies incentivize short-term gains over long-term decision-making, the focus turns from producing goods and services to playing financial games–with broad negative consequences for job creation, wages, economic stability–and ultimately, American competitiveness.