Media Miss Real News in Latest Trade Report

This morning’s report from the U.S. Department of Commerce that the pesky trade deficit shrank unexpectedly in October is being hailed in the media as “good news” for the economy, while the real news behind the numbers remains buried.

According to the latest monthly trade report, exports of U.S. goods rose in October compared to September, while imports declined slightly. Rising exports are good news in anybody’s book, but according to the conventional Keynesian and mercantilist logic, falling imports must also be good for the economy because that means consumers are spending more on domestically produced goods, right? Wrong.

In the real world, that assumption is almost always false, as I did my best to document a few weeks back in an op-ed titled, “Are rising imports a boon or bane to the economy?”

The real news in the report is the spectacular rise of U.S. exports to China. Year to date, U.S. exports to China are up 34 percent compared to the same period in 2009. That compares to a 21 percent increase in U.S. exports to the rest of the world excluding China. China is now the no. 3 market for U.S. exports, behind only our NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico, and by far the fastest growing major market.

The politically inflammatory bilateral trade deficit with China is also up 20 percent so far this year, but our trade deficit with the rest of the world excluding China is up 38 percent.

Yet Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are still talking about pushing a bill during the lame-duck session that would authorized the same Commerce Department to assess duties on imports from China because of its undervalued currency. A cheaper Chinese currency relative to the U.S. dollar supposedly inhibits U.S. exports to China while tempting American consumers to buy even more of those useful consumer goods assembled in China. [For the record, U.S. imports from China so far this year have grown, too, but at a rate slightly below imports from the rest of the world.]

To anyone taking an objective look at the numbers, this morning’s trade report shows that whatever the wisdom of China’s currency policy, it has not been a real obstacle to robust U.S. export growth, nor has it fueled an extraordinary growth in our bilateral trade balance with China. Members of Congress should drop their obsession with China trade and move on to more urgent matters.