Tag Archive for 'Trade'


Gray markets, PPP and the iPhone in China

Via Felix Salmon, I found this fantastic piece by “Bento” on the take-up of the iPhone in China.

Some background:  When Apple launched the iPhone in China, early sales numbers were disappointing.

Some background to the background:  Under Chinese law, WIFI-enabled phones are illegal, so Apple has to cripple the iPhones they sell in China.

From Bento:

The Chinese have long had access to iPhones. They are for sale at stalls in every cybermall and market in every Chinese city, and come in two varieties: The most expensive ones (at around 6000 RMB in Shanghai for a 16GB 3GS, or 880 USD, depending on your haggling skills) come directly from Hong Kong, where the factory-unlocked model is available from the Apple store for around 4800 RMB. That’s a nice arbitrage play by the stall owner, and everyone is happy. The cheaper model, at around 5000 RMB for a 16GB 3GS, was originally bought locked in the US or Europe, and has been unlocked by the stall owner’s hacker-genius cousin using 3rd-party software. This kind of iPhone is cheaper, because you are on your own when it comes to upgrades and iTunes compatibility.

The distribution model is extensive and robust, and in fact most Chinese buy their mobile phones from stalls like this. There are no iPhone shortages, as prices fluctuate to meet demand. The received wisdom is that around 2 million iPhones are in the Chinese wild; I’ve personally seen a good many of them here in Shanghai, where they are much in evidence among the eliterati. Still, this is a minuscule portion of the 700 million odd phones in use in China, of which a small but growing portion is smartphones.

What can Apple do to grow the number of iPhones on mainland China? Short of lowering prices in Hong Kong (not going to happen) it can do two things: Increase awareness of the iPhone via advertising, and bring the benefits of a Chinese-language App Store to Chinese iPhone owners.

To do either of these, you sort of need to sell the product locally first, though. Apple can’t really go round putting up banners in Chinese tier-3 cities urging consumers to head for the local iPhone aftermarket.
[…]
Apple … is not revenue-sharing with China Unicom, the local vendor, but selling the iPhones outright to them. It is up to China Unicom to flog them in China.

And that’s what China Unicom is trying to do. China Unicom stores all have iPhone banners up; I’ve passed several China Unicom road shows stopping by Shanghai extolling the iPhone. The iPhone is being talked about widely. But so is the fact that the China Unicom iPhone is crippled — the Chinese are sophisticated consumers; forget this at your own peril.

The upshot: anecdotal reports tell of aftermarket prices increasing for Hong Kong iPhones these past few weeks, as demand increased. Clearly, the advertising is working, even if China Unicom’s sales of wifiless iPhones are anaemic.

Arbitrage is clearly still happening — buy for 4800 RMB in Hong Kong, sell for 6000 RMB in Shanghai; that’s a 25% markup and well above any reasonable estimate of transportation costs — so Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) doesn’t even hold within the “one” country, but this is a great example of gray market imports.


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary (part 2)

In my last post, I highlighted the apparent contradictions between the USA having both a “strong dollar” policy and a desire to correct their trade deficit (“re-balancing”).  Tim Geithner, speaking recently in Tokyo, declared that there was no contradiction:

Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

I then said:

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate. But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Which, together with Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor], provides for a delicious (but probably untrue) sort-of-conspiracy theory:

Suppose that Tim Geithner firmly believes in the need for re-balancing.  He’d ideally like US exports to rise while imports stayed flat (since that would imply strong global growth and new jobs for his boss’s constituents), but he’d settle for US imports falling.  Either way, he needs the US real exchange rate to fall, but he doesn’t care how.  Well, not quite.  His friend Ben Bernanke tells him that he doesn’t want deflation in America, but he doesn’t really care between the nominal exchange rate falling and foreign prices rising (foreign inflation).

The recession-induced interest rates of (effectively) zero in America are now his friend, because he’s going to get what he wants no matter what, thanks to the carry trade.  Private investors are borrowing money at 0% interest in America and then going to foreign countries to invest it at interest rates that are significantly higher than zero.  If the foreign central banks did nothing, that would push the US dollar lower and their own currencies higher and Tim gets what he wants.

But the foreign central banks want a strong dollar because (a) they’re holding gazzilions of dollars worth of US treasuries and they don’t want their value to fall; and (b) they’re not fully independent of their political masters who want to want to keep exporting.   So Tim regularly stands up in public and says that he supports a strong dollar.  That makes him look innocent and excuses the foreign central banks for doing what they were all doing anyway:  printing local money to give to the US-funded investors so as to keep their currencies down (and the US dollar up).

But that means that the money supply in foreign countries is climbing, fast, and while prices may be sticky in the short term, they will start rising soon enough.  Foreign inflation will lower the US real exchange rate and Tim still gets what he wants.

The only hope for the foreign central banks is that the demand for their currencies is a short-lived temporary blip.  In that case, defending their currencies won’t require the creation of too much local currency and they could probably reverse the situation fast enough afterward that they don’t get bad inflation. [This is one of the arguments in favour of central bank involvement in the exchange-rate market.  Since price movements are sluggish, they can sterilise a temporary spike and gradually back out the action before local prices react too much.]

But as foreign central banks have been discovering [1], free money is free money and the carry trade won’t go away until the interest rate gap is sufficiently closed:

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.

South Korea Deputy Finance Minister Shin Je Yoon said yesterday the country will leave the level of its currency to market forces after adding about $63 billion to its foreign exchange reserves this year to slow the appreciation of the won.
[…]
Brazil’s real is up 1.1 percent against the dollar this month, even after imposing a tax in October on foreign stock and bond investments and increasing foreign reserves by $9.5 billion in October in an effort to curb the currency’s appreciation. The real has risen 33 percent this year.
[…]
“I hear a lot of noise reflecting the government’s discomfort with the exchange rate, but it is hard to fight this,” said Rodrigo Azevedo, the monetary policy director of Brazil’s central bank from 2004 to 2007. “There is very little Brazil can do.”

The central banks are stuck.  They can’t lower their own interest rates to zero (which would stop the carry trade) as that would stick a rocket under domestic production and cause inflation anyway.  The only thing they can do is what Brazil did a little bit of:  impose legal limits on capital inflows, either explicitly or by taxing foreign-owned investments.  But doing that isn’t really an option, either, because they want to be able to keep attracting foreign investment after all this is over and there’s not much scarier to an investor than political uncertainty.

So they have to wait until America raises it’s own rates.  But that won’t happen until America sees a turn-around in jobs and the fastest way for that to happen is for US exports to rise.

[1] Personally, I think the central bankers saw the writing on the wall the minute the Fed lowered US interest rates to (effectively) zero but their political masters were always going to take some time to cotton on.


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary

Tim Geithner, speaking at the start of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh:

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he sees a “strong consensus” among Group of 20 nations to reduce reliance on exports for growth and defended the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

“A strong dollar is very important in the United States,” Geithner said in response to a question at a press conference yesterday in Pittsburgh, where G-20 leaders began two days of talks.

Tim Geithner, speaking in Tokyo while joining the US President on a tour of Asian capitals:

Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) — U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said a strong dollar is in the nation’s interest and the government recognizes the importance it plays in the global financial system.

“I believe deeply that it’s very important to the United States, to the economic health of the United States, that we maintain a strong dollar,” Geithner told reporters in Tokyo today.
[…]
Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

Which is hilarious.

There is no objective standard for currency strength [1].  A “strong (US) dollar” is a dollar strong relative to other currencies, so it’s equivalent to saying “weak non-US-dollar currencies”.  But when the US dollar is up and other currencies are down, that means that the US will import more (and export less), while the other countries will export more (and import less), which is the exact opposite of the re-balancing efforts.

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate.  But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Assuming my previous paragraph is true, 10 points to the person who can see the potential conspiracy theory [2] implication of Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor].

Hint:  If you go for the conspiracy theory, this story would make you think it was working.

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.
[…]
Governments are amassing record foreign-exchange reserves as they direct central banks to buy dollars in an attempt to stem the greenback’s slide and keep their currencies from appreciating too fast and making their exports too expensive.
[…]
“It looked for a while like the Bank of Korea was trying to defend 1,200, but it looks like they’ve given up and are just trying to slow the advance,” said Collin Crownover, head of currency management in London at State Street Global Advisors

The answer to follow …

Update: The answer is in my next post.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs in the audience.  Don’t make me come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs on this list.  Don’t make me
come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-
completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.


Australia, you’re not as rich as you think you are

We’re covering this in my EC102 classes this week and I thought it interesting enough to share with a wider audience:

Looking at what goes into GDP is usually a pretty tedious affair, but the simplest way to think of it is like this: GDP is meant to represent the total value added. It is new work done; new stuff produced.

One upshot of this is that new houses are counted in GDP, while sales of existing houses are not. This is because sales of existing houses are just value transferred – an exchange of assets – and so don’t represent new effort. That’s not quite true. The real-estate agent fees and legal fees associated with the sale count, since they are new work done: they add new value by facilitating the trade.

Here’s a trick in looking at value added: we only need to look at the prices of final goods. This is because the price of the final good will represent the total value added along the entire production chain. The typical example of this used in introductory textbooks is bread:

Who Sells Price Value added
Farmer Wheat $0.10 $0.10
Miller Flour $0.20 $0.10
Baker Bread $0.45 $0.15
Supermarket Packaged and convenient bread $1.00 $0.55


The price of the final good – packaged, convenient bread – is $1.00, which exactly equal to the sum of all the value added. So when the statisticians want to calculate a country’s GDP, they can ignore all the intermediate levels and just add up all the final goods that were produced.So what counts as a final good? Anything that gets sold to someone for consumption or investment. That might be to an individual, or to a private firm, or the government, or someone overseas. (Of course, since I buy both bread and flour from my supermarket, flour is sometimes an intermediate good and sometimes a final good; but it’s easy to tell which is which – flour sold by the supermarket is final, while flour sold by the miller is intermediate.)

Now consider a country that has a large natural resource sector. Australia is a great example. So are all the oil exporting countries. We’ll pick the mining of iron ore in Australia as an example. Just like with the wheat above, there is a whole range of production possibilities based on the iron ore. However, when it’s exported, the final good that gets counted from the point of view of the Australian economy is the iron ore in the ship as it sails off to another country.The mining companies are definitely adding value. They’ve got to find the stuff in the first place, dig it up, clean it a bit to get rid of the dirt, transport it to the coast and then ship it overseas. They’ve also got to maintain all their equipment and allow for the fact that they wear out over time. All of that is new effort. But the price that India or China pays for the ore is more than cost of doing all of that. A large fraction of the price they pay represents the market value of the underlying asset – the ore – itself. But since the mining company didn’t actually produce the ore, that part of the price shouldn’t really count in GDP, for the same reason that when existing houses are sold, only the agent and legal fees are counted. None of this is really news.

When natural-resource-based industries are only a small part of a country’s economy, there’s not too much distortion, so we tend not to worry about it. But when those industries represent a large share of the national income, then the overestimates can be significant. In Australia, mining represents about 6.7% of the national economy. A fair chunk of that will be “true” value added, but a large share of it is really just the transfer of assets. How much? Well, BHP currently has a Return on Equity of 49%, while the long-run, risk-free return on capital is more like 8-10%. So as a very rough guess, assuming that BHP is representative of the mining industry as a whole and that the mining industry is competitive, we might suggest that Australia’s “true” GDP is at least 39% * 6.7% = 2.6% smaller than we think it is.

Some people might at this point wonder about the farmer back in the bread example. What if the farmer who, like BHP, is taking something from the land, is actually only adding 60% of the value that we think she is? The answer lies in the fact that there is a large production chain that builds up from the farmer’s wheat. Even if we remove a large fraction of the farmer’s value-added, that is only a small share of the total value added that we see in the final good’s price. So we would expect this overestimate to be very small overall. The point about mining is that we are only adding a small amount of value relative to that of the asset we are trading away, so as a percentage of the final good, the asset itself is quite large.


Carbon tariffs

Well, well.  It would appear that Nicolas Sarkozy is threatening China with “carbon tariffs.”  It comes as no surprise that:

His idea already has supporters in the European Commission, particularly among officials charged with defending the interests of European industry.

In other words, the criticism of China is not really based on a perceived risk to the global environment, but that by acting first and China not following, the EU feels that European industry suffers unfairly.  It’s difficult to see how this would be legal under WTO rules.

The stated justification for the threatened action was:

“We cannot have one response from Europe and one from Asia, one from the north and one from the south,” he said. “China can and must play its full part.”

“I will defend the principle of a carbon compensation mechanism at the EU’s borders with regard to countries that don’t put in place rules for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr Sarkozy said.

This might be morally defensible if (and I really have to stress that ‘if’) the EU were to hand the Chinese government every cent they took in tariffs from Chinese exporters, thus allowing Europe to claim that they really were acting on behalf of the planet and not just their domestic industry.

However, we still have the very large problem of sovereignty.  Why should the EU get to dictate policy to China and to impose it arbitrarily if China doesn’t comply?  Even if China were to agree that (a) climate change is real and (b) humankind can and ought to do something about it, it does not follow that China and the EU would agree on an acceptable cost to impose on polluters, not least because China is still a developing country.

The point is that for every tonne of CO2-equivalent emitted in the EU, Europe gets more goods for consumption, but for every tonne emitted in China, we get more goods for consumption and another couple of people lifted out of poverty.

This message was driven home Tuesday by an article in a Communist party newspaper that said 95 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions from the era of the Industrial Revolution through the 1950s came from today’s developed countries.  Rich nations’ per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are also far above those in the developing world, the overseas edition of the People’s Daily newspaper said.

Now, if the world can agree on some sort of framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that also includes some restrictions on China and India, it seems sensible enough to me to allow carbon tariffs as punitive action against non-compliant states, but that’s pretty much the only way I’d support it.

I suppose that you might argue that if one country refused to ratify some treaty and other countries judged that by failing to do so, that country was placing other countries in peril, then taking action against them – in this case, imposing carbon tariffs – might be justified under “self defence.”  It’d be a tough sell, since the danger would not be imminent, but you might try it.  The problem then would be that if the stand-alone country were one of the UN security council’s permanent members, they could veto any attempt at multilateral action.