The TPP is a wide-ranging free-trade agreement among the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries (with the notable exclusion of China). It has been touted by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative as a vehicle for "leveling the playing field for American workers and American business." According to the USTR, the TPP will boost U.S. exports while increasing American jobs and strengthening the nation's economy. Import barriers will fall in all of the signatory countries, which account for an estimated two-fifths of the global economy.
The TPP is now headed for Congress, where it will be approved or rejected without lengthy debate or amendments, under the fast-track authority that lawmakers granted President Obama in June. Nevertheless, the agreement will face hostile legislators from both parties. The fact that it was negotiated in secret only serves to fuel the opposition.
The TPP is being criticized as much for what it doesn't include as for what it does. Jean Ergas, chief economist with Tigress Financial Partners and adjunct assistant professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies, says China's recent devaluation of the yuan served as "a powerful wakeup call" for conclusion of the agreement. Yet it contains no explicit language about what Ergas terms "competitive devaluations," and what others call currency manipulation on the part of China – that is, keeping the yuan artificially weak to boost the nation's exports.
"This deal lowers tariffs and some other non-tariff barriers to trade, but the agreement apparently does nothing to prevent TPP members from manipulating their currencies to gain a trade advantage," said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, in a statement. "Currency devaluations can nearly instantly wipe out the positive effects of free-trade agreements and lead to factory job losses in the United States."
The TPP's failure to address the currency issue could prove to be a "wild card" during congressional scrutiny, Ergas says, despite informal assurances that members of the International Monetary Fund and Group of Twenty major economies won’t engage in competitive devaluation. "We deem these assurances as null and void, seeing the continued use of accommodative monetary policy to lower currency values and boost exports."
China is clearly engaged in competitive devaluation, Ergas says, so it's ironic that TPP countries declined to address the practice in their agreement. Still, its very existence can be viewed as a defensive measure to safeguard member nations' markets, and better withstand the competitive pressures from a cheaper yuan.
Time will tell whether it succeeds on that score. Ergas predicts that China will devalue the yuan by another 10 percent, in a further attempt to bolster sluggish exports. So much for the nation's expressed desire to retool its economy to focus on satisfying domestic demand by a growing middle class.
In the U.S., the TPP's biggest selling point has been its potential impact on domestic employment, but don't hold your breath waiting for a surge of new manufacturing jobs. “"The key benefit shall not be in job creation but in lower prices, and consequent increases in disposable income," Ergas says. But a boost in the latter won’t be nearly enough to offset the nation's growing problem of income inequality.
Will TPP have an impact on the current trend of partial reshoring of manufacturing from China back to the U.S.? That, too, is unclear. Ergas says the U.S. already has the advantage of low energy costs, coupled with a more sophisticated approach to manufacturing than many Asian producers. (At least until the Chinese are done replacing their human workers with robots.) But ratification of TPP could make production sourcing more fluid. Countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia might become more attractive locations for low-cost production, especially with the removal of import tariffs. Ergas calls that last development the “low-hanging fruit” of trade liberalization.
Big as it is, the TPP is far from the final word on modern-day free-trade agreements. The U.S. and China are busy negotiating a bilateral investment treaty that could in some ways trump the TPP, given the close economic ties of the two countries. Other TPP members, who came together with the expressed desire of offsetting the influence of China on the global economy, would object to no avail. “We are not a customs union and therefore can do agreements with anyone we want,” says Ergas.
There’s even the chance that China might join the TPP at some point down the line, an action that would overturn the “anybody but China” sentiment that largely drove creation of the agreement in the first place.
In the long run, it’s better for countries to be functioning under some kind of trade agreement than be engaged in all-out economic war. But a pact the size and scope of TPP creates its own problems. Still to be determined, for example, is the impact of the investor-state dispute settlement provision, which allows companies to sue governments for policies that result in the loss of profits or property rights. Ergas says ISDS represents an attempt to protect the interests of companies doing business in countries where the rule of law is relatively weak. But it could also come home to roost, if multinationals use the provision to challenge U.S. rules on, say, environmental protection.
All are issues yet to be resolved. It could take years for the full implications of TPP and similar mega-pacts to become clear. Eventually, we’ll get an answer to what might be the biggest question of all: Who will dictate global economic policy in the future – governments or multinational corporations?