Is it possible that factory work is back after a decade of sustained and steep decline?
Don't hold you breath just yet.
Here are three reasons to be skeptical.
First, the administration is triumphantly hailing new "agreements" with the Chinese to follow the rules they agreed to more than a decade ago. The carefully choreographed visit of president-in-waiting Xi Jinping to Washington yesterday couldn't have gone better for China and the outsourcers, and couldn't have gone worse for American workers. For those of us who monitor U.S.-China summitry, it's akin to dining at a freshly painted restaurant with the same lousy food. Yes, Vice President Biden gently chided China's practices over a champagne toast to Xi. But we need to establish deadlines, objective criteria for progress and consequences in the form of trade sanctions, tariffs and a loss of market access if China doesn't honor its commitments. Friendship is a lovely thing, but not if one guy continues to bully and get away with it.
Second, the companies touting themselves as champions of the factory worker (General Electric(*Note GE and Comcast are the parent companies of CNBC and NBCUniversal) or being touted by the president (Master Lock) are dubious poster children for an American manufacturing renaissance. GE has brought back a little work from overseas, and they have hired back a small percentage of the workers they laid off over the past decade at their American factories. But GE has also recently closed more than 20 factories, shifted avionics and radiology businesses to China, and pushed for public policies that will allow them to continue that course. As Josh Boak smartly noted today, some of the CEOs on the President's Jobs and Competitiveness Council are making the job of growing manufacturing in America more difficult.
Third, the data are unconvincing. Yes, we've gained 370,000 manufacturing jobs since 2010 and 50,000 last month, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the 5.5 million we lost last decade. There are reasons why manufacturing is growing again, but there is no guarantee that we will be so lucky in the future. Consumer demand is up, meaning depleted inventories are being restocked. The Japanese yen is so highly valued that it makes American production look more appealing. And, the Big Three automakers are doing reasonably well thanks to restructuring, federal loans and major problems in the Japanese auto sector. But we can't count on any of those trends to continue.
The $295 billion trade deficit we posted with China last year shattered the previous record and revealed the ugly underbelly of our bilateral trade. China's high-tech exports to America are growing rapidly. Our commodity exports to China are growing rapidly as well: coal, scrap metal, scrap paper, unprocessed oilseeds. That's not the foundation of a "built to last" economy. On the other hand, we sold a little more than 100,000 of the 18 million vehicles bought in China last year.