Tag: trade deficit

Media Feeds America’s Skepticism about Trade

As usual, Dan Griswold does an excellent job today correcting fallacies about trade and the trade deficit that continue to be perpetuated in the mainstream media (particularly at the Washington Post).  

I just want to add my two cents without belaboring any of Dan’s succinctly-made points.  (Besides, I’ve harped on and on and on and on and on about the problem of trade reporting this year.) It’s a shame that so much time and energy has to be diverted to cleaning up messes left by reporters and editors, who should know better by now.

The bottom line is that neither imports nor trade deficits cause U.S. job loss or slower economic growth.  If anything, the charts below (all compiled from BEA and BLS data) support the conclusion that imports and the trade deficit rise when the economy is growing and creating jobs, and they both fall when the economy is contracting and shedding jobs. 

Is the Trade Gap to Blame for Slowing GDP Growth?

What had been a recurring story line buried in the business pages has now burst onto the front page: “Economic growth slowed by trade gap,” the Washington Post reports this morning in an above-the-fold headline.

The lead sets the stage for a story long on generalizations: “A widening U.S. trade deficit has become a substantial drag on economic growth as the country’s exports struggle to keep pace with the swelling sums that Americans are again spending on imported goods.”

The half truth in the story line is that exports fell by $2 billion in June compared to the month before, and that this has a negative effect on overall GDP growth. In our more globalized world, the rising wealth of our trading partners translates into more production in our own economy, and vice versa.

The fatal flaw of the story line (as I tackled recently here and at greater length here) is that it assumes that rising imports slow economic growth. That assumption, in turn, rests on a simplistic Keynesian view that if a portion of domestic demand is satisfied by spending on imports, that means less demand for domestically produced goods, thus less output and lower employment.

That view neglects the supply-side role of imports. More than half of what we import consists of goods consumed by producers—capital machinery, raw materials, parts and other intermediate inputs. Those imports help us produce more, not less. The Keynesian view also confuses cause and effect: Imports usually grow in response to RISING domestic demand. Consumers more eager to spend “swelling sums” on imports typically buy more domestically produced goods as well.

The bean counters at the Commerce Department “subtract” imports from GDP, not because those imports are a drag on growth, but to avoid double counting. If we want to count the number of widgets and other goods added to the economy in a quarter, we would obviously not count those that have been imported. But this does not mean the economy would have been that much larger if the widgets had not been imported.

The Post story adds to the misunderstanding by claiming: “At a basic level, trade deficits represent a loss of wealth for a country—money flowing abroad for goods and services produced elsewhere, supporting businesses and workers in other countries.”

This betrays a basic misunderstanding of wealth that Adam Smith exposed two centuries ago in The Wealth of Nations. Does wealth consist of money—pieces of green paper or blips on a computer or, in Smith’s day, bars of gold—or does it consist of the actual stuff that people produce to make their lives better, all those goods and services that we consume each year? Smith argued it was the latter. And in that case, a trade deficit at a basic level represents an inflow of wealth from the rest of the world—a cornucopia of cool stuff arriving everyday at our ports and stocking the shelves of our stores.

Of course, even if you think that dollars are the ultimate measure of wealth, obsession with the trade deficit ignores the fact that those dollars spent on imports quickly return to the United States. If they are not used to buy our goods and services, they are buying our assets—real estate, stocks, Treasury bonds, and so on. The “loss of wealth” supposedly represented by the trade deficit is almost exactly offset every year by a “gain of wealth” represented by the net inflow of dollars in the form of capital investment from the rest of the world.

Besides being wrong in its basic economics, making the trade deficit the scapegoat for slow growth poses a double danger for economic policy:

Danger no. 1 is that it tempts politicians to reach for the snake oil of protectionism to create jobs. If only we could stop the flood of imported goods, Americans would make more of those same goods themselves, creating millions of jobs. In reality, higher trade barriers impose a host of offsetting costs on the economy, resulting in lower output.

Danger no. 2 of blaming the trade deficit is that it diverts attention from policies that are far more plausible culprits in dampening growth. Politicians find it much easier to blame imported consumer goods from China for slower GDP growth than huge looming tax increases, expensive new health care mandates, a depressed housing sector, and a generally anti-business climate in Washington.

The trade gap should be the least of our worries.

More Nonsense about the Trade Deficit

It has become conventional wisdom that a rising trade deficit is bad news for the economy. This week’s announcement of an expanding deficit in June prompted such headlines today as this one in the news pages of the Wall Street Journal: “Wider Trade Gap Signals Weak Growth.” As my colleague David Boaz blogged earlier today, the trade deficit is even blamed for daily swings in the stock market.

I’ve been studying and writing about the trade deficit for years, and devoted a whole chapter of my 2009 Cato book Mad about Trade to the subject, and I keep coming back to a basic question: If the trade deficit signals weak growth, why does the U.S. economy seem to perform so much better during periods when the trade deficit is growing, and so much worse when the trade deficit is shrinking?

Think back to the 1990s, the “goldilocks economy” when growth was strong, jobs plentiful, and inflation low. That was also a time of rising trade deficits. In fact, the trade gap grew for eight years in a row, rising from $77 billion in 1991 to $455 billion in 2000. In that same period, the unemployment rate dropped from 7.3 to 3.9 percent.

Again, in the middle of the George W. Bush presidency, the trade gap grew for five straight years, during a period when the economy expanded and the unemployment rate fell from 5.7 to 4.4 percent.

In contrast, the trade deficit invariably shrinks during periods of recession. The trade deficit fell by more than half from 2007 to 2009 as domestic demand and imports plunged and unemployment soared. Sagging domestic demand means fewer imports.

Of course, I’m not arguing that a bigger trade deficit stimulates the economy. I am arguing, contrary to the conventional wisdom reflected in this morning’s headlines, that an expanding trade deficit does not appear to be a drag on growth. In fact, the plain evidence is that an expanding trade deficit is more often than not a signal of stronger growth.

Explaining Mr. Market

A banner Washington Post headline (page 11, print edition; slightly different online) reads:

Stocks plunge as trade deficit widens

Of course, they could have gone with

Stocks plunge as Linda McMahon wins Senate nomination

Or my favorite:

Stocks plunge as Cardinals sweep Reds

Since national trade deficits are not much more meaningful than baseball scores, it’s unlikely that this month’s report drove stocks down.

The Letter Is Different, but the Spirit Still Lives

An update from my post yesterday about the bill to establish a Commission to End the Trade Deficit (now called the “Emergency Trade Deficit Commission”): apparently the bill that passed the House was different from the bill initially considered, and to which I linked (and commented). My apologies.

The bill that was passed had many of the most egregious provisions and provocative wording stripped out. There was no talk of eliminating the trade deficit, for example. And the provision that would have prohibited congressional consideration of any trade deal before the Commission reported is, thankfully, gone too. But I would suggest that the underlying message of the bill — that individuals cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about which products to buy, and from where — is intact. There are plenty of references to “improving trade balances,” “enhancing the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers,” and environmental and labor standards.  I stand by comments about those sentiments.

Maybe a commission is a useful way of distracting members of Congress from actually doing anything, and certainly this bill is less offensive than the original, but it still betrays an unwillingness of some members of Congress to let consumers and firms make decisions without a commission studying, reporting on, and possibly correcting them.

Thursday Links

  • Now that the health care bill is law, you should know exactly how it’s going to affect you, your premiums, and your coverage over the next few years. Here’s a helpful breakdown.
  • As the health care overhaul crosses home plate, global warming legislation steps up to bat.
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Calling Out Trade’s Myth Makers

Organized labor’s trade “think tank” in Washington, the Economic Policy Institute, claims that currency manipulation is a major cause of the U.S. trade deficit with China, which (along with other unfair trade practices) accounted for 2.4 million American job losses between 2001 and 2008. EPI has been making similar claims for years, getting lots of media attention for its hyperbole, and providing smoke bombs for charlatan politicians to hurl into the discussion to obscure the public’s understanding of trade.   For starters, as conveyed in this new paper, I am skeptical about the relationship between currency undervaluation and the trade account.

EPI’s methodology (to use the term loosely) is not to be taken seriously, though, because it derives from a simple formula that approximates job gains from export value and job losses from import value, as though there were a straight line correlation between the jobs and trade data. It pretends that there are no jobs created when we import, and that import value is somehow an appropriate measure of job loss.

The flaws of those assumptions are many, but perhaps the easiest one to convey is that most of the value embedded in imports from China is not Chinese. (The ensuing discussion is from a forthcoming Cato paper.)

According to the results from a growing field of research, only about one-third to one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China comes from Chinese labor, material and overhead. Official U.S. import statistics—which pay no heed to the constituent value-added elements—therefore overstate the Chinese value in those imports by 100 to 200 percent, on average. The cited job loss figures are based on import values that are unequivocally overstated because one-half to two-thirds of that value are the costs of material, labor, and overhead added in other countries, including the United States.

What is seldom discussed—because they are often portrayed as victims—is that large numbers of American workers are employed precisely because of imports from China. This is the case because the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy are highly complementary. U.S. factories and workers are more likely to be collaborating with Chinese factories and workers in production of the same goods than they are to be competing directly. The proliferation of vertical integration (whereby the production process is carved up and each function performed where it is most efficient to perform that function) and transnational supply chains has joined higher-value-added U.S. manufacturing, design, and R&D activities with lower-value manufacturing and assembly operations in China. The old factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders.

Though the focus is typically on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, legions of American workers and their factories, offices, and laboratories would be idled without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. Without access to lower-cost labor in places like Shenzhen, countless ideas hatched in U.S. laboratories, that became viable commercial products and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing might never have made it beyond conception because the costs of production would have been deemed prohibitive for mass consumption. Just imagine if all of the components in the Apple iPod had to be manufactured and assembled in the United States. Instead of $150 per unit, the cost of production might be double or triple or quadruple that amount.

Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would have sold, how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution, and sales would have supported, how much lower Apple’s profits (and those of the entities in its supply chains) would have been, how much lower Apple’s research and development expenditures would have been, how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be, how many fewer jobs those industries would support and the lower profits those industries would generate. Now multiply that process by the hundreds of other similarly ubiquitous devices and gadgets, computers and Blu-Rays, and every other product that is designed in the United States and assembled in China from components made in the United States and elsewhere.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows characterizes the complementarity of U.S. and Chinese production sharing as following the shape of a “Smiley Curve” plotted on a chart where the production process from start to finish is measured along the horizontal axis and the value of each stage of production is measured on the vertical axis. U.S. value added comes at the early stages—in branding, product conception, engineering, and design. Chinese value added operations occupy the middle stages—some engineering, some manufacturing and assembly, primarily. And more U.S. value added occurs at the end stages in logistics, retailing, and after market servicing. Under this typical production arrangement, collaboration, not competition, is what links U.S. and Chinese workers.

EPI’s work on this subject provides fodder for sensational stump speeches. But it is also a major disservice to a public that is hungering for truth, and not self-serving advocacy masquerading as truth.