Beware of Wounded Lions

CAMBRIDGE – G-20 leaders who scoff at the United States’ proposal for numerical trade-balance limits should know that they are playing with fire. The US is not making a demand as much as it is issuing a plea for help.

According to a recent joint report by the International Monetary Fund and the International Labor Organization, fully 25% of the rise in unemployment since 2007, totaling 30 million people worldwide, has occurred in the US. If this situation persists, as I have long warned it might, it will lay the foundations for huge global trade frictions. The voter anger expressed in the US mid-term elections could prove to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Protectionist trade measures, perhaps in the form of a stiff US tariff on Chinese imports, would be profoundly self-destructive, even absent the inevitable retaliatory measures. But make no mistake: the ground for populist economics is becoming more fertile by the day.

The new US Congress is looking for scapegoats for the country’s economic quagmire. And, with a president who has sometimes openly questioned rigid ideological adherence to free trade, anything is possible, especially in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. If trade frictions do boil over, policymakers may look back on today’s “currency wars” as a minor skirmish in a much larger battle.