Monday, June 11, 2007
An article, The Real Cost Of Offshoring
U.S. data show that moving jobs overseas hasn't hurt the economy. Here's why those stats are wrong
[Supporters of globalization] point to the powerful performance of the U.S. economy. And with good reason. Despite the latest slow quarter, official statistics show that America's economic output has grown at a solid 3.3% annual rate since 2003, a period when imports from low-cost countries have soared.
But new evidence suggests that shifting production overseas has inflicted worse damage on the U.S. economy than the numbers show. BusinessWeek has learned of a gaping flaw in the way statistics treat offshoring, with serious economic and political implications.
The short explanation is that the growth of domestic manufacturing has been substantially overstated in recent years. That means productivity gains and overall economic growth have been overstated as well. And that ... "helps explain why wage growth for most American workers has been weak"
The underlying problem is located in an obscure statistic: the import price data published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Because of it, many of the cost cuts and product innovations being made overseas by global companies and foreign suppliers aren't being counted properly. And that spells trouble because, surprisingly, the government uses the erroneous import price data directly and indirectly as part of its calculation for many other major economic statistics, including productivity, the output of the manufacturing sector, and real gross domestic product (GDP), which is supposed to be the inflation-adjusted value of all the goods and services produced inside the U.S.
... analysis of the import price data reveals offshoring to low-cost countries is in fact creating "phantom GDP"--reported gains in GDP that don't correspond to any actual domestic production.
... offshoring may have created about $66 billion in phantom GDP gains since 2003. That would lower real GDP today by about half of 1%, which is substantial but not huge. But put another way, $66 billion would wipe out as much as 40% of the gains in manufacturing output over the same period.
It's important to emphasize the tenuousness of this calculation. In particular, it required BusinessWeek to make assumptions about the size of the cost savings from offshoring, information the government doesn't even collect.
Depending on your attitude toward offshoring, the existence of phantom GDP is either testimony to the power of globalization or confirmation of long-held fears. The U.S. economy no longer stops at the water's edge. Global corporations often provide their foreign suppliers and overseas subsidiaries with business knowledge, management practices, training, and all sorts of other intangible exports not picked up in the government data. In return, they get back cheap products.
But the new numbers also require a reassessment of productivity and wages that could add fire to the national debate over the true performance of the economy in President Bush's second term. The official statistics show that productivity, or output per hour, grew at a 1.8% rate over the past three years. But taking the phantom GDP effect into account, the actual rate of productivity growth might be closer to 1.6%--about what it was in the 1980s.
Phantom GDP helps explain why U.S. workers aren't benefiting more as their companies grow ever more efficient. The cost savings that companies are reaping "don't represent increased productivity of American workers producing goods and services in the U.S."
Phantom GDP helps explain why U.S. workers aren't benefiting more as their companies grow ever more efficient. The cost savings that companies are reaping "don't represent increased productivity of American workers producing goods and services in the U.S.," says Houseman. In contrast, compensation of senior executives is typically tied to profits, which have soared alongside offshoring.
But where are those vigorous corporate profits coming from? The strong earnings growth of U.S.-based corporations is still real, but it may be that fewer of the gains are coming from improvements in domestic productivity. In fact, holding down costs by moving key tasks overseas could be having a greater impact on corporate earnings than anyone guessed--or measured.
There's more in the 2,200 word report, but those are the key points.
But here's another tidbit from the report:
Yet no matter how hard you look, you can't find any trace of the cost savings from offshoring in the import price statistics. The furniture industry's experience is particularly telling. Despite the surge of low-priced chairs, tables, and similar products from China, the BLS is reporting that the import price of furniture has actually risen 6.7% since 2003.
Is the BLS under reporting inflation and over reporting GDP growth?
Also driving growth was unsustainable budget deficits and the open lending spigots. I think the latter was actually more significant. Home values doubled since 9/11, pushing trillions of borrowed money into the economy.