Has Trade Saved Us from Recession?

Good news on the economy, sort of. The Commerce Department reported this morning that it has revised the economy’s growth rate in the first quarter of 2008 to 1.0 percent. That is slightly higher than the government’s earlier two estimates and it means we have probably dodged a technical recession, at least for the first half of this year.

Politicians on the campaign trail should take note of the report for a couple of reasons. First, let’s not exaggerate the U.S. economy’s current difficulties. Politicians love a full-blown crisis because it can be used to justify all sorts of regulatory and spending programs. This is not a crisis (and government “stimulus” efforts typically have little effect, anyway).

Second, they should give thanks to America’s more globalized economy for smoothing the business cycle and possibly saving us from full-blown recession this time around. Trade is one of the bright spots of the latest report. While the housing sector has contracted by a quarter, shaving more than a percentage point from overall GDP growth, exports have been going gangbusters. Exports rose by more than 5 percent in the first quarter on an annual basis, offsetting about two-thirds of the negative effect of the housing market.

As I wrote in a Cato Free Trade Bulletin earlier this year on the subject:

[E]xpanding trade and globalization have helped to moderate swings in national output by blessing us with a more diversified and flexible economy. Exports can take up slack when domestic demand sags, and imports can satisfy demand when domestic productive capacity is reaching its short-term limits. … A weakening dollar has helped to boost exports and earnings abroad, but the main driver of success overseas has been strong growth and lower trade barriers outside the United States.

Instead of blaming trade for our current economic slowdown, politicians should be thankful that trade has spared us from something worse.