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Massive Pacific Trade Agreement Ignores One Huge Tariff: Currency Manipulation


Members of Congress - or at least some of their staff are busy reading the 6,000 pages of one of the largest international trade deals ever - the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP. Lawmakers will vote on it early next year. Our Planet Money team has been going through the document as well, and David Kestenbaum has the story of one thing that was hard to find.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: The TPP goes into all kinds of detail on various tariffs for catfish, for sneakers, for French fries and donkeys - tariffs that will be going away. That is the whole idea behind a trade deal. But there is this secret way countries can easily apply a tariff to every single thing coming into their country. A country can intentionally devalue its currency, make it weaker. If you were trying to sell, say, a car overseas and a country has weakened its currency by 10 percent, that makes your car cost 10 percent more in the local currency. It's just as if there is a 10 percent tariff or tax on it. This has happened. Adam Posen runs the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

ADAM POSEN: Korea and U.S. negotiated a free-trade agreement between them a few years ago, and the Koreans then proceeded to very aggressively intervene against the dollar.

KESTENBAUM: Korea made all American goods more expensive. It devalued its currency by quite a bit.

POSEN: Probably on the order of 15 percent but only for a limited period. The problem is the timing really was pretty obnoxious.

KESTENBAUM: Right after we signed the trade deal with them. This is a big deal if you are selling cars. It is also a big deal if you are in the food business. Roger Johnson is. What'd you have for lunch?

ROGER JOHNSON: I actually had homemade pork chops and potatoes and peas. It was pretty good.

KESTENBAUM: Johnson is president of the National Farmers Union.

Where's this in the TPP? What page is it on?

JOHNSON: Currency manipulation?


JOHNSON: (Laughter) Good question. Nowhere - that's the problem.

KESTENBAUM: There is a side agreement. The U.S. Treasury Department negotiated it with the other countries. And Johnson says the language in that is pretty good.

JOHNSON: Well, let's see. Each of the 12 - meaning the 12 countries in the TPP - will, quote, "refrain from competitive devaluation and will not target its country's exchange rate for competitive purposes," end quote.

KESTENBAUM: But, he says, if you read on, there are not a lot of consequences if a country does manipulate its currency. It doesn't get kicked out of the TPP, and you can't go to an international trade judge and have some penalty imposed. But Adam Posen, who runs the Peterson Institute, says the deal is better than critics are making it out to be. The agreement does require countries to release data - a lot of data - on currency transactions.

POSEN: Having these disclosure standards that are pretty strong in this new treasury agreement keeps people from getting away with doing this on the sly or hiding it. So there's a name and shame aspect here that's actually going to be more effective because we're going to have more data about when they're doing it.

KESTENBAUM: Posen says currency manipulation is not some tariff on sneakers; it's a much bigger topic. You're talking about the value of a country's currency. In that sense, he says, a trade deal isn't really the right place to deal with it.

POSEN: It's about something that affects every single person and therefore also is about something that legally and legitimately is a matter of national sovereignty. And it's about something that's above the pay grade of some trade dispute negotiator to adjudicate.

KESTENBAUM: Posen hopes Congress will approve the trade deal. The Farmers Union is urging lawmakers to vote no. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.