Rising Exports — and Imports — Are Good News for U.S. Economy

The U.S. trade deficit rose in 2010, and the bilateral deficit with China reached a record high last year, according to the monthly trade report released this morning by the U.S. Commerce Department. The usual critics (such as Peter Morici of the University of Maryland) are already spinning it into yet another indictment of trade, but the report contains a lot of good news for the U.S. economy.

Last year, Americans bought $2,330 billion worth of goods and services from other countries, while selling $1,832 billion, for a trade deficit of $498 billion. Our bilateral deficit with China grew to a record $273 billion.

Politicians and commentators love to focus on the trade deficit, as though it were a scorecard of who is winning in global trade. But the real measure is the total volume of trade. As economies expand, so does trade, both imports and exports. Exports help us reach new markets and expand economies of scale, while imports bless consumers with lower prices and more choices, while stoking competition, innovation, and efficiency gains among producers.

By this measure the trade report was good news all around, and one more sign that the U.S. and global economies continue to recover from the Great Recession. Last year, U.S. exports of goods were up 21 percent from 2009, while imports were up 23 percent. In contrast, in the recession year of 2009, exports of goods dropped 18 percent from the year before while imports plunged 26 percent. (Unemployment soared in 2009, but, hey, at least the trade deficit was “improving”!)

Our trade with China last year tells the same story. The value of goods imported from China rose 23 percent in 2010 (the same rate as imports from the rest of the world), while the value of the goods we exported to China jumped by 32 percent. That’s a rate of export growth that is 50 percent higher than export growth to the rest of the world. Members of Congress who complain that China’s managed currency is somehow a major barrier to U.S. exports should take note.