The U.S. trade deficit rose in January, according to this morning’s monthly trade report from the U.S. Commerce Department, and on cue the news is being greeted as a bad omen for the U.S. economy.
Reflecting the conventional wisdom, this morning’s Associated Press story states as a matter of fact, with no attribution:
A widening trade deficit hurts the U.S. economy. When imports outpace exports, more jobs go to foreign workers than to U.S. workers.
Oh really? As I’ve documented elsewhere, the U.S. economy actually grows faster during periods when the trade deficit is widening compared to when it is shrinking. That’s because an expanding economy increases demand for imports as well as domestically made goods. Stronger growth also attracts more foreign investment, which is the flip side of the trade deficit.
The same story is true for jobs. In Chapter 5 of my 2009 Cato book, Mad about Trade, I show how the unemployment rate invariably rises during periods when the trade deficit is “improving,” and declines during periods when the deficit is “worsening.” (Check out Table 2.2 on p. 81, courtesy of Google Books.)
Just think back to the 1990s. From 1992 to 2000, the trade deficit widened from 0.5 percent of GDP to 3.9 percent. During that same period, the unemployment rate fell from 7.3 percent to 3.9 percent and the economy added more than 18 million jobs.
More recently, the trade deficit narrowed sharply between 2007 and 2009 as a share of GDP, while the economy lost more than 8 million jobs and unemployment soared.
The conventional wisdom on trade deficits and the economy is due for a reality check. If politicians believe that “a widening trade deficit hurts the economy,” contrary to all the evidence, they will be more tempted to reach for the snake oil of protectionism.
Did America become a great industrial power in the 19th century because of its high trade barriers? This is not just an academic question. Modern-day critics of trade, such as Pat Buchanan and Ian Fletcher, argue that the same tariff wall that made American great more than a century ago can bring back those days of industrial glory.
I did my best to debunk this flawed historical argument in Chapter 7 of Mad about Trade, but I’m delighted to see my free-trade buddy Don Boudreaux of George Mason University weigh in with an article in the new issue of The Freeman.
Under the title, “Tariffs and Freedom,” Don neatly dispels a number of myths surrounding that period in American economic history.
Many Americans believe the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high because U.S. multinational companies have been outsourcing and offshoring jobs to low-wage countries at the expense of jobs at home. And they believe this in part because politicians and the media tell them it’s so, even though it isn’t.
Consider this story today from the Associated Press under the provocative headline, “Where are the jobs? For many companies, overseas.”
Corporate profits are up. Stock prices are up. So why isn't anyone hiring?
Actually, many American companies are--just maybe not in your town. They're hiring overseas, where sales are surging and the pipeline of orders is fat.
More than half of the 15,000 people that Caterpillar Inc. has hired this year were outside the U.S. UPS is also hiring at a faster clip overseas. For both companies, sales in international markets are growing at least twice as fast as domestically.
The trend helps explain why unemployment remains high in the United States, edging up to 9.8 percent last month, even though companies are performing well: All but 4 percent of the top 500 U.S. corporations reported profits this year, and the stock market is close to its highest point since the 2008 financial meltdown.
But the jobs are going elsewhere. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, says American companies have created 1.4 million jobs overseas this year, compared with less than 1 million in the U.S. The additional 1.4 million jobs would have lowered the U.S. unemployment rate to 8.9 percent, says Robert Scott, the institute's senior international economist.
Where to start? First, look back at the reference to Caterpillar, the quintessential U.S. multinational company. If more than half of the employees the company has hired this year are outside the United States, doesn’t that imply that the company also hired workers within the United States, perhaps several thousand?
In fact, as I noted on p. 101 of my Cato book Mad about Trade, Caterpillar and other U.S. multinationals tend to hire workers at home when they are hiring workers abroad. When global business is good, employment tends to ramp up throughout a multinational company’s operations, whether in the United States or abroad. (Earlier this month the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News ran a story about Caterpillar hiring 600 new workers at a local distribution center.)
It is simply false to argue that, if U.S. multinationals did not add jobs to their operations abroad, those jobs would be created at home. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Over the past 30 years, the change in employment of U.S. multinationals in their U.S. parent operations and in their affiliates abroad has been positively and strongly correlated. When hiring grows abroad, it grows at home, and when it lags at home, it lags abroad.
And when U.S. companies do hire abroad, their aim is not typically to cut wage costs but to reach new customers (as I explained in an earlier op-ed). That's why U.S. multinationals employ far more workers in high-wage Europe than in low-wage countries such as India and China. In fact, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Commerce Department, U.S. multinationals employed five times as many workers in Europe (4.82 million) in 2008 than they did in China (950,000).
If U.S. companies are forced to reduce their operations abroad in the name of fighting unemployment at home, they will be less able to compete in global markets and less able to expand production and employment in their domestic operations.
In the final push before Election Day, President Obama has been traveling the country criticizing Republicans for favoring tax breaks for U.S. companies that supposedly ship U.S. jobs overseas. It’s a bogus charge that I dismantle in an op-ed in this morning’s New York Post:
The charge sounds logical: Under the US corporate tax code, US-based companies aren't taxed on profits that their affiliates abroad earn until those profits are returned here. Supposedly, this "tax break" gives firms an incentive to create jobs overseas rather than at home, so any candidate who doesn't want to impose higher taxes on those foreign operations is guilty of "shipping jobs overseas."
In fact, American companies have quite valid reasons beyond any tax advantage to establish overseas affiliates: That's how they reach foreign customers with US-branded goods and services.
Those affiliates allow US companies to sell services that can only be delivered where the customer lives (such as fast food and retail) or to customize their products, such as automobiles, to better reflect the taste of customers in foreign markets.
I go on to point out that close to 90 percent of what U.S.-owned affiliates produce abroad is sold abroad; that those foreign affiliates are now the primary way U.S. companies reach global consumers with U.S.-branded goods and services; and that the more jobs they create in their affiliates abroad, the more they create in their parent operations in the United States. If Congress raises taxes on those foreign operations, it will only force U.S. companies to cede market share to their German and Japanese (and French and Korean) competitors.
I unpack the issue at greater length in a Free Trade Bulletin published last year, and on pages 99-104 of my recent Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.
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.
If you want to witness the clash of two worldviews on trade, check out the online debate I’m having with Ian Fletcher of the U.S. Business and Industry Council. A self-described protectionist, Fletcher has written a new book with the unambiguous title, Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace it and Why. In the opposite corner, I argue for eliminating barriers to trade, drawing on my own recent book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.
The debate is being hosted by the International Economic Law and Policy Blog. We’ve already filed two 600-word posts each, with a third to come at the end of this week and concluding arguments early next week.
Three items in the news this week remind us why we should be glad we live in a more global economy. While American consumers remain cautious, American companies and workers are finding increasing opportunities in markets abroad:
- Sales of General Motors vehicles continue to slump in the United States, but they are surging in China. The company announced this week that sales in China of GM-branded cars and trucks were up 67 percent in 2009, to 1.8 million vehicles. If current trends continue, within a year or two GM will be selling more vehicles in China than in the United States.
- James Cameron’s 3-D movie spectacular “Avatar” just surpassed $1 billion in global box-office sales. Two-thirds of its revenue has come from abroad, with France, Germany, and Russia the leading markets. This has been a growing pattern for U.S. films. Hollywood—which loves to skewer business and capitalism—is thriving in a global market.
- Since 2003, the middle class in Brazil has grown by 32 million. As the Washington Post reports, “Once hobbled with high inflation and perennially susceptible to worldwide crises, Brazil now has a vibrant consumer market …” Brazil's overall economy is bigger than either India or Russia, and its per-capita GDP is nearly double that of China.
As I note in my Cato book Mad about Trade, American companies and workers will find their best opportunities in the future by selling to the emerging global middle class in Brazil, China, India and elsewhere. Without access to more robust markets abroad, the Great Recession of 2008-09 would have been more like the Great Depression.