Tag: trade deficit

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.

Embracing More of Trade’s Selling Points

As a primer for the new Congress, my friend John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce posted the “top ten reasons why pro-growth trade and investment policies and agreements are good for America.” As usual, I agree with John’s points. And I concur that the time is particularly ripe for educating policymakers about the virtues of trade.

But with all due respect to John, his list is not so much about trade and investment. It’s really about exports (one of 10 points is about imports). Informing new members and reminding old of the benefits of exports to U.S. businesses and workers is clearly a worthwhile objective of the Chamber, the business community, and really anybody interested in economic growth. But in some respect there’s a preaching-to-the-choir element in that approach. You’re not going to find too many policymakers opposed to exports, and the administration has constructed a whole new bureaucracy devoted to the proposition that exports should double in five years.

Where the trade agenda has stalled (and where it always has problems) is on the rough terrain that–for lack of a better catchphrase–might be called “rationalizing” imports. That’s been the hard part of trade adovcacy over the years: “We had to cede some access to our markets, but look what we got in exchange!”

In pitching the very same bilateral trade agreements two and three years ago that the business community is pitching today, then-USTR Susan Schwab liked to remind Congress that the United States had an aggregate trade surplus with the countries with whom the Bush administration had concluded free trade agreements, as though that were the appropriate success metric. “We export more to them than we import from them; let’s call this a triumph!” But anyone inclined to accept that statistic as conclusive could simply visit the Commerce Department’s website and see that, at the time, our overall trade account was in deficit by about $800 billion. Thus, if “exports minus imports” is the measure by which we judge the benefits of trade, then America should shun trade entirely. That sales approach doesn’t seem to be in short- or long-run equilibrium. Mercantilist arguments only ensure that every step forward on trade requires a full-fledged battle. We need better–that is, more comprehensive–salesmanship of trade for the new Congress.

In 2002, then-USTR Robert Zoellick said of his new Doha Round proposal for zero tariffs on industrial goods by 2015 that it would “turn every corner store into a duty-free shop.” That was the right message—although apparently not for the timid White House at the time, which adhered to the sweep-imports-under-the-rug model.  In 2011, we should remember, embrace, and revive Ambassador Zoellick’s words in our advocacy of trade liberalization. In that spirit, I return to John Murphy’s top ten list and introduce a few tweaks (in bold).

  1. The United States is the number one manufacturing nation in the world, and that success depends on exports.  And since over half of the total value of U.S. imports consists of “intermediate goods” (products that are used as inputs for further value-added activity), manufacturing success also depends on imports.
  2. The United States is the world’s number one services exporter and has been since services trade data have been tracked.  And one of the reasons that foreigners are able to purchase American services is because they have been able to earn dollars by selling goods to American businesses and consumers.
  3. U.S. agricultural exports support nearly a million jobs in the United States.  And, agricultural and manufactured imports have made life’s necessities and conveniences more affordable to hundreds of millions of Americans.
  4. 95 percent of the world’s consumers lives outside the United States…as do 95 percent of the world’s workers, who produce many of the goods Americans consume as imports less expensively than Americans can, freeing up U.S. resources for investment, innovation, and consumption of the higher value products and services that Americans produce.
  5. FTA countries purchased more than 40 percent of U.S. exports in 2009. And imports from those countries have helped extend families’ budgets and reduced the costs of production for U.S. business relying on inputs from those countries.
  6. Since the creation of the WTO in 1994, U.S. exports of goods and services have doubled to more than $1.5 trillion. And real U.S. GDP has increased by 50 percent.
  7. Imports support millions of U.S. jobs in retail, research, design, sourcing, transportation, warehousing, marketing and sales…and in manufacturing. 
  8. U.S. exports to China have quadrupled over the past 15 years, and China is now the 3rd largest market for U.S. exports.  And U.S. imports from China, too often wrongly portrayed as evidence of U.S. profligacy or decline, have enabled U.S. industries that require access to lower-cost labor for economic viability to be born, to blossom, and to spark the advent of new products and industries.
  9. U.S. companies with overseas investments account for 45 percent of all U.S. exports.  And foreign companies operating in the United States employ 5.6 million Americans, support a payroll of $408.5 billion, provide compensation that is 33% higher than the U.S. average, account for 18% of U.S. exports,   pay U.S. taxes, support local charities, and act as investment magnets in communities across the country.
  10. Trade supports 38 million jobs in the United States–more than one in five American jobs.  And most Americans enjoy the fruits of international trade and globalization every day: driving to work in vehicles containing at least some foreign content; talking on foreign-made mobile telephones; having extra disposable income because retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Home Depot are able to pass on cost savings made possible by their own access to thousands of foreign producers; eating healthier because they now can enjoy fresh imported produce that was once unavailable out-of-season, etc.

Of course, all of these selling points are economic in nature.  There is an even stronger moral argument for free trade, which is what all Americans – indeed all earthlings – should embrace.

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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.

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Economists Ignore the Facts in Supporting Chinese Currency Legislation

The Chinese currency issue is in full bloom this week, as the House of Representatives passed the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act of 2010 by a vote of 348-79 on Wednesday.  Though there is so much to criticize about the bill and about the layers upon layers of misinformation, myth, and subterfuge that brought us to this point, this post concerns the dubiousness of the bill’s central premise: that Yuan appreciation will significantly reduce the bilateral trade deficit.

That is the position of the Peterson Institute’s Fred Bergsten and Bill Cline.

The premise seems plausible enough.  At least, the economics textbooks tell us that as a nation’s currency appreciates, its people will consume more imports and foreigners will reduce consumption of that nation’s exports.  Hence, a stronger Yuan vis-à-vis the dollar would mean that the Chinese buy more from the United States and sell less to the United States, reducing the bilateral deficit.

But in March Cato published a short paper of mine titled “Appreciate This: Chinese Currency Rise Will Have a Negligible Effect on the Trade Deficit.”  The central argument of that paper was that our national obsession with the value of the Chinese currency is misplaced—a red herring, in fact.  I presented recent historical data showing that despite a 21 percent increase in the value of the Yuan between July 2005 and July 2008, the U.S. deficit with China increased from $202 billion to $268 billion, or by 33 percent.  U.S. exports to China increased (as would be expected) by $28 billion, but U.S. imports from China increased, as well (contrary to expectations based on the old textbooks), and by $94 billion, or 38.7 percent. 

In other words, in the face of a 21 percent increase in the Yuan’s value, the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China increased by 33 percent—a fact that raises serious questions about the integrity of the testimony, discussion, and “debate” that preceded the House vote on Wednesday. 

How can the premise that Yuan appreciation will reduce the bilateral deficit still hold?  Why is so much credence given to economists with fancy models who project with certainty that an X% increase in the value of the Yuan will generate a Y% increase in economic growth, which will produce Z number of new jobs in the economy, when recent evidence plainly refutes those claims?  What is the value in holding hearings when conjecture matters more than fact?

Bergsten and Cline (in testimony and podcast, respectively) dismiss the counterintuitive relationship between currency and the trade deficit during 2005-2008 by suggesting that there is a long lag period to consider—two to three years, according to Bergsten; two years, according to Cline.  In other words, the impact on the trade deficit of Yuan appreciation in the period 2005-2008 would not be fully manifest until the period 2007-2010.  While lags are expected (economists speak of a J-curve effect that accounts for the process of adjustment to the new prices in both countries), a two- or three-year lag in an era of instant communications, cyberspace transactions, transnational production, and airtight supply chains is simply not credible.  It took only a matter of months for the financial meltdown in 2008 to spread to the real economy, which prompted an overnight crash in international trade volumes, as production orders were terminated, shutting down operations throughout supply chains across the globe.

The two- to three-year lag theory is convenient merely because it puts in play the data for 2009, when international trade tanked worldwide, and the Chinese global trade surplus and the U.S. deficit with China were cut in half.  If the two- to three-year lag theory were plausible, the U.S. trade deficit with China would be falling in 2010, not rising, as the steepest appreciation in the Yuan occurred in 2008.

There’s a more plausible theory than that.

In my paper, I went on to examine whether the increase in imports was attributable to American demand for Chinese goods being price inelastic.  In other words, if the price of Chinese goods to American consumers increased by 21 percent (on average) and Americans reduced their consumption of Chinese goods by less than 21 percent, then demand would be considered inelastic, the price effect would dominate, and total import value would rise (adding to the trade deficit).  There are plenty of reasons that American demand for Chinese goods is price inelastic including, most importantly, that there are limited substitutes for those goods.  Much of what Americans consume from China is not made in the United States anymore.  So facing limited alternatives, Americans are forced to absorb the higher prices (a fact that currency legislation supporters are undoubtedly unwilling to share with their constituents).  Of course, eventually American consumers might adjust their consumption habits (which speaks to the lag factor).

But closer examination of the data revealed something else.

The fact that a 21 percent increase in the value of the Yuan was met with a 38.7 percent increase in import value means that the quantity of Chinese imports demanded increased by nearly 15 percent after the price change.  Increased!  Higher prices being met with greater quantity demanded would seem to defy the law of demand.

So what happened?  Chinese exporters must have lowered their Yuan-denominated prices to keep their export prices steady. That would have been a completely rational response, enabled by the fact that Yuan appreciation reduces the cost of production for Chinese exporters—particularly those who rely on imported raw materials and components. According to a growing body of research, somewhere between one-third and one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China is actually Chinese value-added.  The other half to two-thirds reflects costs of material, labor, and overhead from other countries. China’s value-added operations still tend to be low-value manufacturing and assembly operations, thus most of the final value of Chinese exports was first imported into China.

Yuan appreciation not only bolsters the buying power of Chinese consumers, but it makes Chinese-based producers and assemblers more competitive because the relative prices of their imported inputs fall, reducing their costs of production. That reduction in cost can be passed on to foreign consumers in the form of lower export prices, which could mitigate entirely the intended effect of the currency adjustment, which is to reduce U.S. imports from China.

That process might very well explain what happened between 2005 and 2008, and is probably a reasonable indication of what to expect going forward.  Yet this elephant in the room continues to be wantonly ignored in the anlayses that push us toward provocative legislation.

It seems that the textbook discussion of currency and the trade account needs to be updated to account for the compelling facts of globalization.

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China Bill All about Saving Lawmakers’ Jobs

The House is expected to vote today on a bill that would allow U.S. companies to petition the Commerce Department for protective tariffs against imports from countries with “misaligned currencies.” Everybody knows the bill is aimed squarely at China.

Advocates of the legislation say it is about jobs, and they are partly right. The bill is about saving the jobs of incumbent lawmakers who are desperate to appear tough on China trade, which they blame for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

As my colleague Dan Ikenson and I have argued at length, in blog posts, op-eds, and longer studies,

Let’s hope cooler, wiser heads in the Senate and the White House save us from this election-season folly.

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. 

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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.

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