TRADE SCENE BY RICHARD LAWRENCE: THE $360 BILLION QUESTION

TRADE SCENE BY RICHARD LAWRENCE: THE $360 BILLION QUESTION

Two years ago, Congress, concerned over the rising U.S. international trade deficit, established a Trade Deficit Review Commission, to sort out the deficit's 'nature, causes and consequences' and to recommend possible action. To try to assure a balanced commission, half of its 12 members were chosen by Republican congressional leaders, the other half by Congress' top Democrats.

Named to the panel was a distinguished group of private economists and lawyers, among them former Federal Reserve Board Governor Wayne Angell, one-time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former World Bank Vice President Anne Krueger, ex-U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills and Murray Weidenbaum, who has served as commission chairman.For well over a year, the group toured the country, hearing from business, labor, environmentalists, academics, state and federal officials. And to help forge its report, it commissioned various studies. Now the report is out. The result: more philosophical strife than consensus.

Worse, the commission split along party lines. Democrat- named commissioners (let's call them Demcoms) offered one set of views, the Republican-designated commissioners (the GOPcoms) another, though agreement was reached on some points.

Consider, for instance, how the two blocs differ on the very nature of the trade deficit. The deficit, say the GOPcoms, is actually part of a 'virtuous circle,' a by-product of relatively strong U.S. economic growth. And, they say, it's not so much rising U.S. import demand that is behind the deficit as accelerating foreign investment in the United States.

Imports, they argue, help the economy, checking inflation while offering U.S. consumers - and producers - a wider choice of goods and often cheaper prices.

Foreign trade barriers, they insist, are not 'a major cause' of the U.S. trade deficit. Those barriers may affect U.S. trade balances with individual nations but not the U.S. balance worldwide, according to the GOPcoms.

The Demcoms see something quite different. They equate U.S. trade deficits with American job losses. The deficits, they argue, are largely the result of foreign trade barriers, subsidies, 'predatory' pricing and currency manipulation.

And they lambaste .S. multinational firms for adding to the deficit by transferring production and technology abroad where labor is cheap and environmental policies lax. The 'stateless entities, almost a law unto themselves' are 'world leaders in eliminating jobs at home,' the Demcons fume.

All the commission members do agree, however, that huge U.S. trade deficits together with growing net outflows of investment-related income payments to foreigners can't be sustained indefinitely.

But, again, they differ over whether the United States can avert a financial crash if and when foreign investors en masse turn away from the United States to other markets.

GOPcoms feel the U.S. trade and current account deficits, which include investment income flows, will eventually decline in 'an orderly way,' without 'significantly' disrupting the U.S. economy.

But the Demcoms, calling the current account deficit a 'ticking time bomb,' warn that an orderly adjustment hinges on 'important' U.S. policy reforms and 'extremely good luck.'

Which brings us to Commission proposals on how to address the trade and current account deficits. They actually include recommendations endorsed by the full commission, to wit: the government should do more to promote U.S. savings; expand help for dislocated U.S. workers; improve its trade and investment data; more forcefully monitor and enforce trade agreements, and make a vigorous effort to bring down foreign trade barriers.

Still, commissioners diverged. While the GOPcoms strongly urged a new multilateral trade liberalizing negotiation, the Demcoms said no - not until the participants agree to 'enforceable labor rights and environmental standards' as part of the negotiation. Meanwhile, they said, all existing 'significant' U.S. trade agreements should be renegotiated to include labor standards.

Other Demcom recommendations conspicuously lacking GOPcom support range from the macro to the micro, among them that the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve Board develop a contingency strategy, perhaps including short-term capital controls, to avert a possible financial crash.

To deal with the multinational corporation 'problem,' the Demcoms suggest both a 'severance' tax on businesses relocating their facilities outside the United States and a review of existing multinational corporation tax breaks.

To stoke the trade debate yet further, the Demcoms urge creating an independent government agency to file and litigate antidumping and other cases against unfairly traded imports on behalf of U.S. industries 'unable to protect their own interests.'

How seriously the new Congress and administration will take the report remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the trade deficit almost surely will hit $360 billion this year, more than doubling in two years. Next year, say some official estimates, it will rise further, with even bigger increases in the current account deficit.

Like the commission report or not, it seems time for a new trade policy debate.