It’s been an interesting week for the U.S. economy. According to figures released on Thursday, the U.S. trade deficit jumped by 16.3 percent to $32 billion in June, a figure sharply higher than the $27 billion that had been forecast. The dramatic increase in imports was fueled by the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which led to a dramatic increase in auto imports. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported that the poverty rate had increased from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 13.2 percent in 2008. The poverty rate, which is defined as the number of people with an annual income of less than $11,200 (or less than $22,000 for a family of four), increased as a result of the global economic downturn. Home foreclosures also remain near their record high level. The troubled status of the U.S. economy led the Federal Reserve to indicate that it would be unlikely to raise interest rates in the first half of next year.
In news from outside the U.S. economy last week:
1. A trade dispute between the United States and China may be headed to the World Trade Organization for resolution. The United States last week imposed a new duty on tires manufactured in China, less than one week after it also imposed higher tariffs on Chinese steel piping. A spokesperson for the Chinese government condemned the move as protectionism, warning that “a chain reaction of trade protectionist measures that could slow the current pace of revival in the world economy.” Observers fear that the Chinese could respond with higher tariffs on U.S. agricultural and automotive exports, potentially sparking a trade war. But in an interesting editorial in the Financial Times, Clyde Prestowiz argued that the imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese exports to the Untied States could potentially help the push for free trade.
2. With the German election just a couple of weeks away, campaigning is in full force, and observers are already working through the numerous possible coalition arrangements. But in perhaps the most interesting development to date, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück last week called for the imposition of a new global tax on international financial transaction, the proceeds of which would be used to repay governments for the cost of fiscal stimulus packages and bank rescue operations. While not dismissing the idea out of hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the proposal “electioneering.” Steinbrück’s call follows a similar proposal made by the Chair of the British Financial Services Authority, Lord Turner, and could make for interesting discussions at the upcoming G20 summit.
3. The counting process in the Afghan elections continues to drag on. Although incumbent President Hamid Karzai now has enough votes to win the disputed presidential election outright, according to the most recent results of the Independent Election Commission, widespread irregularities have led to calls for partial recounts. On Sunday, the IEC agreed to move forward with discussions on a recount, but it stopped short of spelling out precisely what votes would or would not be included. The Electoral Complains Commission, a body established by the United Nations to observe elections and investigate allegations of fraud, noted “clear and convincing” evidence of fraud and vote rigging in southern provinces which went heavily towards Karzai.
4. The first high-level contact between the government of Zimbabwe and the west took place on Sunday, as the European Union’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Development and the Swedish Prime Minister (who also holds the European Union’s rotating presidency) met with representatives of the Zimbabwean government in Harare. The meeting is the first high-level contact since the European Union imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2002. While the European Union delegation remained noncommittal regarding the future direction of contact with the Zimbabwean government, stating only that “We’re entering a new phase. The [power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe] was an important step forward, but much more needs to be done. The key to re-engagement is the full implementation of the political agreement.” The status of the power sharing arrangement in Zimbabwe remains uncertain, as President Robert Mugabe and his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, continue to struggle over the distribution of political authority within the country.
5. The government of Guatemala last week declared a “state of calamity” in response to the widespread hunger gripping the country. The World Food Programme estimated that the country would require an immediate shipment of 20 tons of food the worst affected areas in order to stave off starvation. Alvar Colom, Guatemala’s president, said that global climate change was affecting the El Niño, causing a massive drought in the northeastern portion of the country. But Colom was also critical of the high level of inequality in the country, observing that “There is food, but those who go hungry have no money to buy it.” Critics also note that poorly defined land rights, narcoviolence, and alleged corruption have also undermined food production. According to the World Food Programme, half of all children under five in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition.
And in a bonus story for this week:
6. After more than three months since the general election, the political situation in Lebanon remains cloudy. On Thursday, Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s pro-Western majority, resigned as prime minister designee, despite performing well-above expectations in June’s elections. According to Hariri, the country’s parliamentary minority blocked efforts to develop a coalition government, leaving the country in a period of political uncertainty.