Detroit Files for Bankruptcy

July 19, 2013

One of my predictions for 2013 was that three major U.S. cities would file for bankruptcy, beginning with Detroit.  Now it’s begun.  As reported in this article, Detroit filed yesterday. 

Detroit was once synonymous with U.S. manufacturing prowess. Its automotive giants switched production to planes, tanks and munitions during World War Two, earning the city the nickname of the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Now a third of Detroit’s 700,000 residents live in poverty and about a fifth are unemployed.

Truth be told, everyone in Detroit is living in poverty.  If not actually poor themselves, they’re living among the effects – the blight highlighted in the article. 

In its heyday, Detroit had over 2 million residents.  The population has since shrunk by nearly two thirds.  The reason is no secret; in its heyday, the domestic auto manufacturers had nearly 100% of the share of the domestic auto market.  Today they have barely half, without picking up any foreign market share.  The blind application of flawed free trade theory has brought Detroit to its knees and, indeed, has hobbled the economy of the entire country. 

Where has all of this auto manufacturing gone?  To high wage nations like Germany, Japan and South Korea.  The problem isn’t low wages or currency manipulation.  The problem is that these nations come to the trading table with nothing to offer but badly bloated labor forces hungry to manufacture for export.  They are so densely populated that their own per capita consumption of automobiles is emaciated by severe overcrowding.  With a population density seven times that of the U.S., Germany is actually the least densely populated of the three.  South Korea is fifteen times as densely populated as the U.S.  Wherever you live in the U.S., just imagine fifteen times as many people trying to crowd onto the roadways and you begin to understand how a rising population density erodes per capita consumption. 

So we blindly give away free access to our market, never thinking about whether we’re getting access to an equivalent market in return.  Free trade with badly overpopulated nations is nothing more than a poverty-sharing program, with the U.S. taking on the poverty that those nations would otherwise have to endure.  Nowhere is it felt more in the U.S. than in Detroit. 

That’s Detroit.  Amongst all the media hubbub about Detroit, little notice was paid to the fact that Moody’s also slashed the city of Chicago’s credit rating yesterday and gave the city a negative outlook.  Chicago’s problems are much the same as Detroit’s – pension obligations – obligations that, when they were made, seemed reasonable but now can’t be met from a tax base that has had so much manufacturing removed from it. 

Our trade deficit in manufactured goods continues to drain away a half trillion dollars from our economy each year – now a cumulative $12 trillion since our last trade surplus in 1975.  It’s no wonder that pension obligations can’t be met.  If the federal government isn’t willing to acknowledge that backstopping and bailing out such key aspects of our economy is part of the price of pursuing failed trade policy, then more bankruptcies are sure to follow.


America’s Worst Trade Partner

May 4, 2013

No, it’s not China.  Our largest trade deficit, by far, is with China, but China is also a very, very large country that accounts for one fifth of the world’s population.  And it’s not Japan or Germany, with whom we suffer our second and third largest trade deficits.  Obviously, I need to define my criteria for “worst trade partner.”  I’m putting this into per capita terms.  That is, man-for-man, citizen-for-citizen, which country sucks more trade dollars out of Americans’ pockets than any other?

The hands-down winner is Ireland.  In 2012, every man, woman and child in Ireland was $5,012 wealthier because of Ireland’s $24 billion per year trade surplus with the U.S.  And Ireland has fewer than five million people.  That’s over $20,000  per year for every family of four.  And every family in America is poorer because of it.  But that’s actually an improvement over 2011, when our per capita trade deficit with Ireland set a record of $6,244.  Here’s a chart of our balance of trade with Ireland since 2001:  Ireland Trade.  The improvement in our balance of trade with Ireland in 2012 was due entirely to a slowdown in imports of pharmaceuticals from Ireland.

To put the size of our per capita trade deficit with Ireland in perspective, it’s seven times worse than our per capita trade deficit with both Germany and Japan.  And it’s almost twenty times worse than our per capita deficit with China. 

Ireland is almost twice as densely populated as the U.S., which accounts for some of this trade imbalance.  (There is a strong correlation between the population density of our trading partners and our trade imbalance with them, both in terms of whether the imbalance is a surplus or deficit, and how large the imbalance tends to be.)  But that doesn’t explain such an enormous imbalance with such a small country.  Ireland offers huge tax incentives to foreign corporations to set up shop there.  Pharmaceutical manufacturers in particular have taken advantage of it.  Never mind the fact that this tax policy bankrupted Ireland and landed them on the list of EU “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).  Like those other nations, they have the EU to bail them out.  This situation constitutes a blatant unfair trade practice.  But, as with all unfair trade practices, the U.S. simply turns a blind eye. 

So, the next time you’re sick and at least try to take a little comfort in thinking that your spending for pharmaceuticals may be helping some American workers and the American economy, think again.  Our trade policy with Ireland is a good part of the reason that all of us are becoming increasingly dependent on the federal government to provide us with health care.


Analysis of Trade with America’s Top Partners Exposes Flaws in Trade Theory

April 1, 2013

An analysis of trade with America’s top fifteen trade partners in 2012 once again reveals a powerful relationship between the population density of its trade partners and its balance of trade, and very little relationship between the balance of trade and the usual suspects blamed for imbalances – low wages and currency exchange rates.

Here are America’s top 15 trade partners in 2012, based upon total imports and exports:  Top 15 Trading Partners in 2012.  These fifteen nations (out of 228 nations in the world) account for 72% of all U.S. trade.  The top three nations – Canada, China and Mexico – account for 43% of all U.S. trade.  Saudi Arabia moved from 12th in 2011 to 9th.  Singapore dropped off the list, replaced by Italy.

It should come as no surprise that a few of our major sources of imported oil appear on the list – Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.  It’s trade in manufactured goods that’s of greater interest, since it’s there that jobs are won or lost.  So let’s see how these nations stack up in terms of trade in manufactured goods.  Here’s the list:  Trade in Manfd Goods with Top 15 Partners.  Aside from China now edging out Canada for the top spot, the list doesn’t look terribly different.

Now, let’s test the results of U.S. trade with these nations against economists theories about trade – that trade deficits tend to be the result of low wages or perhaps currencies that are artificially low, and that trade deficits tend to shrink as wages rise in the surplus nation and as their currency grows stronger, making their exports more expensive and our exports more affordable.  And let’s test these results against my own hypothesis – that it’s actually disparities in population density that drive global trade imbalances while the above-mentioned factors so favored by economists actually have little or no impact.

Population Density

Let’s begin with the latter – the effect of population density – and look at a plot of per capita balance of trade in manufactured goods vs. population density.  (It’s important to express the balance of trade in per capita terms in order to remove the sheer size of a nation as a factor.  Here’s the chart:  Per Capita Balance of Trade vs. Pop Density.  (Some of the data points have been labeled with the nation’s name, some not, for the sake of legibility.)

This is a “scatter chart,” the purpose of which is to determine whether or not a correlation exists.  I had the computer generate and insert a “trend line” for the data, including the equation that defines the line and its “coefficient of determination.”  If such a chart yields a shotgun scattering of the data, then no correlation exists, and the coefficient of determination is close to zero.  On the other hand, if the data points tend to fall along a line – the trend line – then a correlation does exist and if all the data points fall perfectly along the line then we’d have a coefficient of determination of “1″ – representing a perfect correlation.

As you can see, the data points do indeed tend to fall along a line – a lined defined by a logarithmic equation with a coefficient of determination of 0.51.  That’s a strong correlation.  Taking a closer look, we find the following:

  • There are four data points (nations) with a population density less than the United States, which is about 86 people per square mile.  They are Canada (10), Saudia Arabia (32), Brazil (61) and Venezuela (83).  The United State enjoys a surplus of trade in manufactured goods with all four of them.
  • There are eleven data points (nations) with a population denisty greater than the United States, and we have a trade deficit with all but one – by far the smallest – the Netherlands.  This isn’t surprising since the Netherlands is barely larger than the tiny city states which fall outside the boundaries of my theory (based on a rather arbitrary cut-off of 1,000 square miles).  They are excluded because cities represent incomplete economies.  They thrive primarily on services and are dependent on the surrounding countryside to complete their economies with resource production and manufacturing.  People who live in cities manufacture relatively little, since they lack the space required for manuacturing facilities.  The U.S. almost uniformly has a surplus of trade with city-states, regardless of their population density.
  • Our biggest surplus of trade in manufactured goods is with the least densely populated nation – Canada.
  • Our worse deficit (in per capita terms) is with Taiwan, which is also the most densely populated nation on the list.
  • Notice that, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China no longer looks so abnormally large.  In fact, it falls right in line where you’d expect to find it.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this relationship between trade imbalance and population density.  Accurately predicting a surplus or deficit in 14 out of 15 cases is a very powerful correlation.  It puts into persepctive our very large trade deficit with China.  Of course it’s large; China is a very large country – one fifth of the world’s population.  It’s no wonder that we have a big deficit with China when we applied to them the same trade policy that produced the results we see with Germany, Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, Mexico and other densely populated countries.  It’s exactly what we should have expected.

Low Wages

It’s impossible to gauge the effect of low wages directly, since the data on wages doesn’t exist and, if it did, it would vary industry-by-industry and even employer-by-employer, making the calculation of an average wage nation-by-nation a nightmare.  But the data is readily available for another factor – “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP”) – essentially a nation’s gross domestic product divided by its population - and it’s a good relative measure of how wages in one nation compare to another.  So let’s plot PPP vs. our per capita balance of trade in manufactured goods:  Per Capita Balance of Trade vs. PPP.

It’s immediately apparent that the data points are not randomly scattered, but tend to form a “V” shape, converging at a zero balance of trade as PPP falls toward zero.  The balance of trade tends to rise upward and outward – in either a positive (trade surplus) or negative (trade deficit) direction as wealth increases.  We already know that those nations on the surplus side (with the exception of the Netherlands) are all nations with population density lower than that of the U.S.  Those on the deficit side are more densely populated nations.

Because the data points fall on both the positive and negative side of the Y-axis, the computer is unable to generate an equation that describes the relationship that seems to be apparent in this chart.  But if we divide the data into two charts, it will be able to tell us the equation and just how strong the correlation may be.  So, first, here’s a chart for the data on the surplus side:  Per Capita Surplus of Trade vs. PPP.   There is a very strong correlation between our trade surplus in manufactured goods and a nation’s wealth.  As we deal with wealthier nations, our trade surplus (if we have a surplus) tends to be larger.  This makes sense.  Wealthier nations, where people earn higher wages, have more disposable income to spend on products both imported and produced domestically.  But, again, it’s important to note the role that population density has played here.  Not only can these people afford to buy more products, but they’re also able to utilize those products because they live in uncrowded conditions that foster high per capita consumption.

It’s also important to note there that, though these are wealthy nations, none are as wealthy (with wages as high) as the United States, with a PPP of $49,800 in 2012.  What this means is that every nation on this chart has a trade deficit with a nation (the U.S.) that actually has higher wages, not lower.  This debunks the notion that low wages cause trade deficits.

Now let’s look at the trade deficit side.  Here’s that side of the chart, with trade deficits now expressed as positive numbers so that a trend line equation can be calculated:  Per Capita Trade Deficit vs. PPP.  What we see here is exactly the same thing – that if we have a trade deficit with any given nation, it will tend to be larger if that nation is a wealthy nation.  While the correlation isn’t as strong – the coefficient of determination is .36 vs. .73 for the surplus nations – there’s still a fairly strong correlation.  Here it’s important to note that every nation on this side of the chart is more densely populated than the U.S. – most of them much more densely populated.  The per capita consumption of these people is stunted by overcrowding, leaving them incapable of consuming enough products to result in a trade surplus for the U.S.  Thus the trade deficit.  But why does the deficit tend to be larger for wealthier, densely populated nations?  These nations have grown wealthy because of their large trade surplus in manufactured goods, not just with the U.S. but with the whole world.  Poorer, densely populated nations are poor because of their overcrowding and because they haven’t been able to elevate their standard of living by manufacturing for export.

So far, it seems we can conclude that low wages don’t necessarily cause trade deficits.  And we can conclude that our trade imbalance (whether its a surplus or deficit) with poor, low wage nations tends to be small, but grows as partner nations become wealthier.  Whether the imbalance is a surplus or deficit seems determined not by wealth and incomes, but by population density relative to the United States.

Economists may argue that those deficits are due to some other factors – currency manipulation perhaps (and we’ll examine that one soon) – but as wages rise, our trade deficit will shrink as our exports become more affordable and their exports become more expensive for us.  Sounds logical, doesn’t it?  Alright, let’s see what the data says.  Let’s begin with a look at how the wealth of these fifteen nations (as measured by PPP) has changed relative to the U.S. since 2001.  U.S. PPP has risen by 38.1% during that period.  So, if a trade partner experiences the same increase in PPP, then their wealth relative to the U.S. hasn’t changed.  If it rises by 48.1%, then the wealth (and wages) in that nation have risen 10% relative to the U.S.  Using that methodology, here’s how the wealth of these nations has changed relative to the U.S. since 2001:  %Change in PPP Relative to U.S..

As you can see, eleven of our top fifteen trade partners experienced faster growing wealth (as measured by PPP) than the U.S., led by China with a growth rate of 210% in excess of the growth rate in the U.S.  On the other hand, four nations – all European nations – experienced a decline in wealth relative to the U.S., led by Italy with a decline of 20%.  If economists are right, then we should see an improvement in our balance of trade with nations that are growing more wealthy relative to the U.S., and a worsening of our trade balance with those nations where wealth (and wages) are declining.  Let’s take a look at the facts.  Here’s a chart that plots that change of wealth since 2001 vs. the change in our per capita balance of trade in manufactured goods:  %Change in PPP vs. %Change in Balance of Trade.

Here we see a shotgun-like scatter of data.  In trying to insert a computer-generated trend line, I got lines sloped in both directions depending on the type of line – linear, exponential, logarithmic and power.  To emphasize the randomness of the data, consider the following:

  • Eleven of these fifteen top trade partners grew in wealth (as measured by PPP) relative to the U.S., led by China with a growth of 210%.  Of these eleven, the U.S. experienced a worsening of its balance of trade with seven of them – the opposite of how economists say it should have responded to rising wages in those nations.
  • Four nations experienced a decline in wealth relative to the U.S., led by Italy with a 20% decline.  (The others are also European nations – the U.K., the Netherlands and France.  Germany was the only European nation among the five nations to experience an increase in wealth relative to the U.S.)
  • Of these four nations that experienced a decline in wealth (and wages) relative to the U.S., our balance of trade worsened with three of them.  It improved with the Netherlands.  This is in line with what economists predict should happen.
  • Overall, our balance of trade responded to changes in wealth among our top fifteen trade partners as economists would predict in only seven instances – less than 50% of the time.

From this data, we can conclude two things regarding the effect of wealth and wages among our trade partners: (1) The imbalance of trade – both surpluses and deficits – will tend to be larger with wealthier nations.  Whether the imbalance is a deficit or surplus has little to do with wages, but is determined by population density.  (2) Over the 12-year span studied, changes in wealth don’t predict which way our balance of trade will change.  Rising wealth is no more likely to improve our balance of trade than it is to erode it.

Currency Exchange Rates

Finally, let’s see what effect changes in currency exchange rates may have played in changing our balance of trade with these top fifteen trade partners.  Economists say that a stronger currency relative to the U.S. dollar should make a nation’s exports more expensive for American consumers and should make American products more affordable for consumers in that nation.  Thus, our balance of trade should improve.  Deficits should get smaller and surpluses should grow.

If we plot this on a bar chart, with two bars representing the percent change in balance of trade in manufactured goods and the percent change in currency, we should see both bars on the same side of the line, if economists are correct.  A positive change in the value of a nation’s currency should correspond with a positive change in our balance of trade with that nation.  So let’s see what really happened.  Here’s the chart:  %Change in Balance of Trade vs % Change in Currency.

Not only do economists seem to be wrong on this issue, the exact opposite seems to be true.  Growth in a nation’s currency exchange rate vs. the dollar is actually far more likely to correspond with a worsening of our balance of trade – not an improvement.  As you can see, economists’ prediction held true with only four nations – India, Canada, Brazil and the Netherlands.  In the case of India, a slightly weaker currency corresponds with a huge increase in our trade deficit.  In the other three cases, a strengthening of the currency corresponds with an improvement in our balance of trade.   In a 5th case – Saudi Arabia – our balance of trade in manufactured goods improved dramatically while the currency exchange rate held steady.  (The Saudi currency is pegged to the dollar.)  With ten of these fifteen nations, the change in our balance of trade was exactly the opposite of what economists predict.  The most blatant example is Venezuela.  In spite of their currency devaluing by 495% since 2001, our balance of trade in manufactured goods with them actually improved by 184%!  In the case of Italy, the Euro rose by 31% but our balance of trade with Italy worsened by 42%.  In the case of China, their currency rose by 24% while our balance of trade with them worsened by 319%!

Once again, economists are wrong and have the cause and effect relationship backwards.  Instead of currency rates affecting the balance of trade, what appears to be happening is that the balance of trade affects currency exchange rates.  If a nation has a trade surplus with the U.S., their currency strengthens.  If a nation has a trade deficit with the U.S., its currency tends to weaken.

Conclusion:

An analysis of trade between the U.S. and its top fifteen trade partners, accounting for 72% of all American exports and imports, proves that the balance of trade in manufactured goods is determined by the population density of the nation in question.  Almost without fail, America experiences a trade deficit with nations more densely populated, and a trade surplus with nations less densely populated.

Claims that low wages cause trade deficits are false.  Our worst trade deficits are with densely populated, wealthy nations.  Densely populated nations that build their economies on manufacturing for export experience growth in their wealth and wages.

Claims that low currency values cause trade deficits are also clearly false.  The cause and effect is just the opposite.  A trade deficit with a particular nation tends to drive the value of that nation’s currency higher.  A trade surplus tends to drive that nation’s currency value down.

Those who claim that if we’re just patient enough, rising incomes and currencies will reverse our trade deficits, haven’t tested their theories against actual data.

Because the majority of the world’s population lives in densely populated conditions, the U.S. is doomed to a massive trade deficit in manufactured goods and a loss of manufacturing jobs as long as it places its faith in flawed free trade theory that fails to account for the role of population density in driving trade imbalances


U.S. Trade Deficit with Germany Soars to New Record

March 21, 2013

The U.S. trade deficit with Germany shattered the record set only one year earlier, soaring from $49.3 billion in 2011 to $59.7 billion in 2012.  The deficit in manufactured goods was $59.9 billion, completely erasing a small surplus in all other categories of goods.  Here’s a chart of the U.S. trade balance with Germany since 2001:  Germany Trade

Economists say that a strengthening currency with our trade partner should improve the balance of trade in our favor.  They also say that low wages cause trade deficits, and that our trade deficit should improve as wages rise, making theirexports more expensive and our exports more affordable.  Here are two charts that plot our exploding trade deficit in manufactured goods with Germany against their currency (Euro) exchange rate and against the change in their per capita purchasing power parity (PPP) - a measure of their wealth and analagous to wages there:  Germany Trade vs Exchange Rate, Germany Trade vs PPP

As you can see, as our trade deficit with Germany has worsened dramatically, the Euro has been rising, from 1.16 Euros per dollar in 2001 to 0.8 Euros per dollar in 2012.  And German PPP has risen by 44% during that same time frame (while U.S. PPP rose 38%).  Clearly, the currency theory holds no water in this case.  Nor does the theory about low wages.  So much for economists’ usual trade scapegoats.  Furthermore, economists, how do you explain the following?

  1. If low wages cause trade deficits, why is our deficit with Germany, when expressed in per capita terms (thus factoring the sheer size of nations out of the equation), the worst among our top five trade partners (Canada, China, Mexico, Japan and Germany) – almost three times worse than our deficit with China – in spite of the fact that they are a wealthy nation, second only to Canada? 
  2. And why is our next worst deficit with Japan (again, almost three times worse than our deficit with China), also a wealthy nation?
  3. Why does Canada have a large trade deficit in manufactured goods with the U.S. when U.S. wages are higher than those in Canada? 
  4. Of these top five U.S. trading partners we’ve examined so far, why has our trade imbalance responded to changes in currency valuation as economists would predict with only one country – Mexico? 
  5. And why has our trade imbalance responded to rising incomes as economists would predict in only one case – Canada?

In contrast to economists’ theories on trade imbalances, the disparity in population density between the U.S. and these top five trading partners has accurately predicted the trade imbalance in every single case.  With the one nation less densely populated than the U.S. (much less), the U.S. enjoys a healthy trade surplus in manufactured goods.  With all four other nations – all of whom are more densely populated than the U.S. – we endure big deficits. 

If you’re new to this blog and don’t understand why population density disparity is by far the single biggest determinant of the balance of trade between the U.S. and other nations, making free trade with badly overpopulated nations tantamount to economic suicide, please read my book, Five Short Blasts, and explore the other data presented on this site. 

My next article will summarize in a similar fashion U.S. trade with our top 15 trade partners.


Trade Deficit with Japan Grows 22% in 2012

March 18, 2013

We now turn our attention to Japan, America’s 4th largest trade partner (by total imports and exports), accounting for 5.7% of all U.S. trade in 2012.  In 2012, the U.S. imported $141 billion in manufactured goods from Japan, an increase of $16.7 billion, while our manufactured exports to Japan rose by only $6.3 billion.  The result was that our deficit in manufactured goods with Japan worsened by 12.6%, contributing the lion’s share to an overall worsening of our trade balance with Japan of 22%.  If you’re president Obama, with his myopic focus on exports, the $6.3 billion increase can be ballyhooed as great news – as long as you’re dumb enough to turn a blind eye to the much worse increase in imports. 

It should come as no surprise that automobiles account for $37 billion of the imports from Japan, dwarfing the next biggest category of products – motor vehicle transmission and power train parts, at $6.2 billion.  That’s a $7 billion increase in imports of Japanese vehicles over 2011.   In comparison, the U.S. exported less than $1 billion worth of automobiles to Japan in 2012.  No suprise.  The Japanese auto market is so badly stunted by overcrowding that even Japanese auto companies have trouble selling vehicles there. 

Here’s a chart of our overall balance of trade with Japan, dating back to 2001:  Japan Trade

In response to my suggestion that the U.S. needs to change its trade policy and return to the use of tariffs to assure a balance of trade, people sometimes reply that “tariffs don’t work; they’ll just raise their tariffs too and we’ll lose all our exports.”  Or I hear that “you can’t do that; it’ll start a war.”  Well, here’s a link to an article that appeared on Reuters just a couple of days ago, reporting on Democratic lawmakers’ alarm that Japan might be included in Obama’s trade talks:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/15/us-usa-japan-autos-idUSBRE92D14A20130315

“In an industry with razor-thin profit margins, the elimination of the 2.5 percent car tariff (as well as the 25 percent truck tariff) would be a major benefit to Japan without any gain for a vital American industry, leading to more Japanese imports, less American production and fewer American jobs,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Obama.

… Levin (Michigan senator Carl Levin) … played a major role in persuading the Obama administration to renegotiate auto provisions of a free trade pact with South Korea.

The revised pact, which took force one year ago, allowed the United States to keep its 2.5 percent tariff on South Korean autos until the fifth year and to keep its 25 percent tariff on South Korean light trucks until the eighth year, when it will begin to be phased out.

Has anyone noticed that you don’t see any Japanese or Korean trucks on American roads (aside from Japanese-brand pickup trucks that are built in the U.S.)?  That’s because 25% tariffs have been extremely effective in keeping them out, preserving market share for American truck manufacturers.  And have you heard any Americans complaining about that?  Has anyone complained that shipping costs are too high because we don’t have enough cheap Japanese and Korean trucks in our trucking fleets?  Of course not.  People do complain about shipping costs, but that’s because of the high price of fuel.  Virtually no one in America even knows that we maintain high tariffs on Japanese and Korean trucks, with the exception of people employed in the truck-manufacturing industry – people who owe their jobs to those tariffs.

Why don’t we take the same approach with automobiles?  Since the Japanese and Koreans won’t buy our cars, why don’t we raise our tariffs on theirs?  Why don’t we take this same approach to all of our trade imbalances with other nations? 

As I’ve done in my previous articles on our top three trade partners – Canada, China and Mexico, let’s now take a look at how our trade balance with Japan has responded to changes in Japan’s currency and Japan’s purchasing power parity – or PPP – analagous to Japanese wages.  Economists are fond of blaming trade deficits on artificially low currency values and on low wages.  Here’s a chart of our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Japan vs. the yen-dollar exchange rate:  Japan Trade vs Exchange Rate

As you can see, while the yen held steady in value in 2012, our trade imbalance with Japan worsened dramatically.  In fact, over the past eleven years, while the yen has appreciated in value by 37% – rising in value from 124.4 yen per dollar to only 79.22 yen – our trade deficit worsened by 14%, rising from $80 billion in 2001 to $91 billion in 2012.  This is exactly the opposite of what economists say should happen.

In the meantime, Japan’s PPP has increased by almost 40%, rising from $25,900 in 2001 to $36,200 in 2012.  Of course it’s gone up.  The Japanese are getting richer from their growing trade surplus.  In the meantime, Americans’ median income has actually declined.  Here’s a chart of our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Japan vs. the rise in their PPP:  Japan Trade vs PPP

Once again, we see that the “low wages” theory doesn’t hold water.  Our trade deficit with Japan gets worse as their wages have risen.  And, in terms of PPP, Japan ranks among the top 16% of the wealthiest nations on earth.  They’re not a “low wage” nation at all.  In fact, our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Japan, expressed in per capita terms,  is three times worse than our deficit with China, in spite of the fact that wages in Japan are four times higher than Chinese wages.  How do you explain that? 

The explanation is that low wages and currency valuations have almost nothing to do with trade imbalances, while they have everything to do with disparities in population density between the U.S. and its trading partners.  So far, with America’s top 4 trading partners, accounting for 48.7% of all of our trade, population density accurately predicts the balance of trade with all four, while the currency valuation theory is batting only .500 and the low wages theory is batting .250.

In my next two articles, we’ll focus next on our 5th largest trading partner – Germany, followed by an overall assessment of trade with our top 15 trading partners.  Stay tuned.


The ‘Malo’ Half of NAFTA

March 15, 2013

In the previous two articles, we examined trade with America’s two largest trading partners (by total imports and exports):  Canada and China.  We saw that while the U.S. has a fairly large trade deficit with Canada, all of it and more is due to the fact that Canada is by far our largest source of imported oil.  The U.S. actually enjoys a healthy surplus of trade in manufactured goods with Canada, making Canada the good half of NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Now we turn to the other half of NAFTA – Mexico.  Mexico is a fairly densely populated nation – almost twice as densely populated as the U.S.  Mexico isn’t a wealthy nation but, by world standards, they’re not poor either.  With a per capita purchasing power parity (PPP) of $15,300, Mexico ranks 83rd out of 228 nations, placing them in the top 40%.  However, 51% of its people live in poverty, though it’s not for lack of jobs.  Mexico currently enjoys a rather low unemployment rate – 4.5% – a rate that is the envy of the United States.

Here’s a chart of overall trade with Mexico, through 2012:  Mexico Trade.

Since 2007, our overall trade deficit with Mexico has moderated somewhat, dropping from $73 billion to $61 billion in 2012.  But all of that decline is due to a drop in oil imports.  Our deficit in manufactured goods rose in 2012 to $46.1 billion, only $0.8 billion shy of the record deficit set in 2007.  Expressed in per capita terms, that’s a deficit of $401 with every Mexican citizen.  In 2011, our per capita deficit with Mexico in manufactured goods was our 14th worst – worse than China, with whom our per capita deficit is “only” $258.

So, of our top three trading partners in 2012 (who together account for 43% of all U.S. trade), the U.S. enjoys a surplus in manufactured goods with only Canada, a nation with a population density of less than ten people per square mile.  The U.S. suffers large deficits with China and Mexico, nations with population densities of 361 and 151 people per square mile respectively.  You should be starting to get suspicious that population density may be a factor.

As we did with Canada and China, let’s consider the other factors that economists like to blame for trade deficits – weak currencies and low wages.  The following is a chart of our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Mexico vs. the peso-dollar exchange rate:  Mexico Trade vs Exchange Rate.

As the peso has weakened from 9 per dollar in 2001 to 14 pesos per dollar in 2012, our trade deficit in manufactured products with Mexico has worsened dramatically, almost doubling during that 11-year span.  This is the effect that economists would predict but, so far, the exchange rate theory is only batting 2 for 3, while the population density theory is batting a thousand.  Mexico’s weakening currency may explain why our enormous deficit with Mexico is so out-of-proportion to their population density. 

And I won’t deny that low wages also play a role.  Many American companies have set up shop just across the border for that very reason.  Here’s a chart of our balance of trade in manufactured  goods with Mexico vs. their PPP:  Mexico Trade vs PPP.

As you can see, Mexico’s PPP (analagous to wages in Mexico) has risen by over 50% since 2001.  But, instead of our balance of trade improving as economists would predict, our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Mexico has nearly doubled.    If the “low wages” theory really held water, we should be seeing at least some improvement in our balance of trade with Mexico as their incomes have risen dramatically.  Instead, it has gotten much worse.  Once again, we see that economists have the cause and effect backwards.  Mexicans are growing wealthier because of their surplus with the U.S., instead of rising incomes in Mexico improving our balance of trade.   So far, economists’ “low wages” theory is batting zero.

Taken together, the 55% decline in the value of the peso since 2001 essentially cancels out the 50% rise in PPP (and wages) during the same period in Mexico.  So traditional economic theory should predict that our trade imbalance with Mexico should have held steady instead of nearly doubling.  The real explanation for that is that the effects of the population density disparity are becoming more pronounced the longer we attempt to apply free trade in a situation where it’s a hopelessly inappropriate trade strategy. 

Free trade with sparsely populated Canada – the good half of NAFTA – makes sense and has been enormously beneficial to the U.S.  Free trade with Mexico – the “malo” (or bad) half of NAFTA – has been a trade policy disaster, draining hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs from the U.S.  And it’s getting worse as the Obama administration stands idly by and renegs on its promise to fix NAFTA.

Next up, our 4th largest trading partner:  Japan.


China’s Economy: Heavy on Stimulus, Light on Consumption

January 22, 2013

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/01/20/us-china-economy-idUSBRE90J0I820130120

The above link will take you to an interesting piece that appeared on Reuters this weekend.  Much of the celebrated growth in China’s economy has been driven by debt-fueled infrastructure spending and other private investment-funded development in anticipation of western-style consumption by its 1.2 billion consumers – consumption that has yet to materialize.  The article also notes that the explosion in property values there, while a boon to the developers, is taking a big bite out of the Chinese consumers’ ability to afford anything other than their cramped, overpriced living quarters.  This should come as a surprise to no one, since the price of dwelling space reaches exhorbitant levels in every other densely populated area of the world, whether it’s New York City or the entire country of Japan.  People who spend all of their income on rent and food have little left for the purchase of other products. 

The economy picked up in the fourth quarter as a spurt of infrastructure spending orchestrated by Beijing broke seven straight quarters of a slowdown. Consumption’s contribution to growth fell in the fourth quarter for the third straight quarter even though retail sales were rising in each of the last three months.

Retail sales, or total consumption, continues to grow but consumption’s share of the Chinese economy is declining.  It’s exactly what happens in a society whose population density is beyond that critical point where over-crowding impairs per capita consumption.  It’s happening not only in China, but throughout the world as the global population continues to grow.  While the sum total of the world’s economic output continues to grow, consumption’s share of the economy is declining as unemployment rises, making the world ever more dependent on deficit spending to maintain an illusion of prosperity.  Deficit spending has grown to the point where there aren’t even enough investors willing to fund it, forcing all of the world’s central banks to accelerate their money printing to buy up their nations’ own debts. 

And it’s all to no avail.  Deficit spending is increasingly less effective in stimulating the economy because people living in cramped conditions can’t consume more products no matter how much money you give them to do it.  China’s no different and the world is in for a rude awakening when the big plans for China’s economic growth go bust.


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