Trade war and sagging prices push U.S. family farmers to leave the field

Recently, I wrote of the significant increase in farmer bankruptcies in several states. Already in a fragile state, the trade wars have pushed an increasing number of family farmers into bankruptcy.

In a Reuters article entitled “Trade war and sagging prices push U.S. family farmers to leave the field,” bankruptcy is not the only path forward for these farmers.

The article begins “Shuffing across his frozen fields, farmer Jim Taphorn hunched his shoulders against the wind and squinted at the auctioneer standing next to his tractors. After a fifth harvest with low grain prices, made worse last fall by the U.S.-China trade war, the 68-year-old and his family were calling it quits. Farming also was taking a physical toll on him, he said; he’d suffered a heart attack 15 months before.

Across the Midwest, growing numbers of grain farmers are choosing to shed their machinery and find renters for their land, all to stem the financial strain on their families, a dozen leading farm-equipment auction houses told Reuters. As these older grain farmers are retiring, fewer younger people are lining up to replace them.”

This a key reason tariffs and trade wars need to be well thought out and avoided whenever possible. Tariffs usually cast a wider net on the lives of people and business, harming far more than those intended for them to help. These farmers are one audience that is harmed.

The additional troubling aspect is the slow and lengthy impact tariffs and trade wars have on sales and supply chains. These chains are built on relationships. I often quote a CFO who echoes what I observed in 30 plus years of business that CFOs like predictable costs maybe even more than lower costs. Tariffs and trade wars upset that paradigm.

We must help our farmers, especially the family farmers. We also must make more thoughtful decisions with input from people in the know. Why? People are impacted, so we need to make sure we understand the scatter-fire of pulling the trigger on a change.

Our next President may want to give more attention to the larger economies

It seems our President-elect is more consumed with Russia than he should be. Why the undue dalliance is something that the analysts should evaluate. Yet, Russia is not even in the top ten economies in the world.

Of course, we should endeavor to have commerce with countries as bilateral trade breaks down barriers. But, I would be more concerned with our larger partners – China, Japan, Germany, UK, France, India, Brazil Canada, and Italy. These and other trading partners like Mexico have a major impact on the US economy and job markets.

I would be more concerned with impacting trade with China than anything else. That could have a huge bearing on US jobs. Like the mistake with Brexit, we must not forget the jobs created here by foreign companies. Companies wanting to tap the US market have figured out it is more cost effective to build big things here rather than ship them from abroad – think Nissan,  Honda, Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Hyundai, Husqvarna, Doosan, etc.

An economist said in 2015, China’s slowing growth has a bigger impact on the economy than similar percentage declines elsewhere. Yet, we should seek trade with other partners as well, to diversify and tap other markets. More commerce with Russia is a good thing, just as more commerce with Cuba and Iran is. Conducting trade creates relationships and builds more unity. Countries will be less inclined to upset applecarts. And, in Iran  the median age is 35, so the opportunity to change the future relationship in a positive way exists.

I recognize fully that there are leaders and countries we need to be highly skeptical of such as Russia, Iran, The Philippines right now, Syria and North Korea, e.g. Duterte is a thug, Putin is conniving and Little Kim is bat shit crazy, so we need to be leery of these folks

So, before our President-elect accepts Putin’s offer as a prom date, he may want to consider dancing better with our other successful partners.

 

Retrenching into silos is the exact opposite of what is needed

With the advent of more terrorists’ activities around the globe and the significant refugee crisis, nationalistic and jingoistic behaviors have taken more solid footing. With the backlash in some European countries, the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump as an unlikely candidate for US President, show that protectionism is selling these days as a concept. These folks want to build actual and proverbial walls, rather than bridges.

Yet, that is precisely the wrong behavior needed. These so-called leaders feel if we segregate and retrench into our own little worlds, this cocooning will make everything better. What these so-called leaders fail to tell you is the significant benefits with being aligned, working together and doing commerce with each other. Economic trade breaks down barriers, as countries do not want to upset the financing of their economy and will work past governing differences.

President Abraham Lincoln did not coin this phrase, but he capitalized on it – keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.  Lincoln added several adversaries to his cabinet when elected. His view was if he could keep tabs on his opposition and argue with them, he could keep a lid on dissent at a time when dissent was in vogue. President Teddy Roosevelt was very open with reporters, in part because of his ego, but in large part to have the reporters be his eyes and ears. He would have them go speak with his department heads to learn what was going on.

Commerce breaks down barriers. Not only will we make more money by co-existing, we will be safer in turn. That is a concern of the Brexit vote, as the UK being a part of the EU makes the world safer and aids the economy of both entities. Like the UK, there is much to be gained in the US with the global economy, especially with companies who employ people here. Just here in Carolinas, there are multiple hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign companies who have US presences here, be it a North American headquarters or a major plant. BMW, Mitsubishi, Michelin, Doosan and Husqvarna come to mind.

We should not lose sight of breaking down barriers abroad. I have been a staunch supporter of doing trade with Cuba and Iran. The countries want to do business with us and we are well positioned to leverage that travel and trade. Just with Cuba and its 11 million people, it will be like adding a 51st state to our US economy. With Iran, of course, we need to keep our eyes open, but the median age of Iranis is age 35. We have a chance to create new economic paradigm with Iran which will live beyond the older regime. Plus, being closer to Iran will allow us to keep more tabs. This is the  best example of what Lincoln did.

The candidates who have touted building walls and retrenching are not being very open with the whole picture. They are using fear and an incomplete picture of reality. Companies have always chased cheap labor and as one CFO said in the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” if companies could get by with hiring no employees, they would. The greater threat is technology improvements as a new plant is not going to have 3,000 employees, it will have 300. On the flip side, Nissan in Tennessee and Mercedes in Alabama employ a great many American workers, which is not talked about enough as a benefit of globalization.

If we retrench, we will be reducing markets for goods and services. A venture capitalist once said what creates jobs is not owners, but customers. The fewer the customers, the fewer the jobs. But, with that said, there are elements of truth that workers need to ask more of the employers who have suppressed wages and let people go, to hire younger and cheaper workers. Companies are quick to hire cheaper, but need to be reminded that we employees are important and customers, as well.

I am reminded that two of the top three jobs creation Presidents had two things in common. Bill Clinton, the number one job creator at 22.8 million jobs, and Ronald Reagan, the number three job creator at 16.1 million, were both collaborators and advocated global trade, as reported in “The World is Curved” by David Smick, who was an economic advisor to both. Creating markets for trade and opening up our markets to others, in my view, is one of the best things a President can do.

Globalization is extremely important, but we need to manage it better. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is something we must guard against. So-called leaders who are advocating this very thing need to be asked more questions. As they are not telling you the whole story.

 

China, Cuba and Iran

Former President Richard Nixon became the first president who almost was impeached and would have been if he did not resign. Yet, in spite of his troubles at home where he ran a disinformation and burglary ring from the White House, he did make a huge difference in opening up dialogue with China. His efforts and those of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, paved the way for changes in the economic relationship with that country which led to growth there and abroad.

I bring this up as when we look back in forty years at these moments, we may be able to say the same things about Cuba and Iran. Both have very young countries, with the youth crying out for better ties with the west and the products and services they bring. Yes, both countries are not being led the way we would want, but I believe having commerce with people is the best way to break down barriers. At some point, the commerce is so important, that it will be preserved and more dialogue will occur.

Of course, we need to move forward with our eyes open, but it is far better to find common ground than to beat on your chest and refuse to enter the sandbox. So, from where I sit, I applaud the President for opening up these countries to more dialogue, just as I thought as a teen that dealing with China was exciting.

We will see the positives with Cuba much sooner, as tourism will be ramped up this year. The president’s visit was a huge step forward. But, I think having a better relationship with Iran will pay dividends as well, yet I am not foolish enough to say trust them completely. So, let’s be cautiously optimistic and guarded as well.