Tag: trade deficit

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.

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.

Trade Gap Plunges in 2009, but Where Are the Jobs?

Lost in the buzz last week over health care was the news that the broadest measure of the U.S. trade deficit fell sharply in 2009 from the year before. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. current account deficit plunged from $706 billion in 2008 to $420 billion last year – the smallest deficit since 2001.

I’ve been waiting for a few days now for the usual trade deficit hawks to hail this development as great news for millions of Americans looking for work.

In years when the trade deficit was rising, it was common practice for the labor-union-friendly Economic Policy Institute to publish detailed studies showing that larger trade deficits caused the U.S. economy to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs each year. For example, according to an October 2008 EPI paper, rising non-petroleum trade deficits from 2000 to 2006 caused a lost of 484,400 jobs per year, while the shrinking deficit in 2007 lead to the creation of 272,500 jobs.

By the EPI’s own internal logic, the past two years should have been a boom time for job creation. Between 2007 and 2009, the non-petroleum trade deficit dropped by $174 billion as the sagging domestic economy cut demand for impost. If that was good news for jobs, somebody forgot to tell the U.S. labor market. Since the end of 2007, the U.S. economy has shed a net 8 million jobs.

Oops, maybe it’s time for EPI to rework its model.


Wednesday Links

  • There has been talk that House Democrats are planning to “deem” the health care bill into law without calling for a vote. If you’re not sure how that process works, read this.