America’s Best Trading Partners in 2017

June 22, 2018

In my last post, we looked at a list of America’s biggest trade surpluses in 2017 and found the list populated primarily with two groups of nations – primarily those with low population densities and those who are net oil exporters.  It also included nations both large and small.  What we’re studying here is the effect of population density on per capita consumption and its effect on trade.  Does a low population density facilitate high per capita consumption (and a high standard of living), making the people who live in less densely populated conditions better trading partners?  The only way to know is to factor the sheer size of nations out of the equation and look at our trade surpluses expressed in per capita terms.  On that basis, here is a list of the top twenty nations whose people import the most American-manufactured products:  Top 20 Per Capita Surpluses, 2017.

Again, the list is dominated by two groups of countries – those with low population densities and net oil exporters.  Twelve of the twenty nations have population densities less than that of the U.S.  Eight are net oil exporters.  (Canada and Norway share both characteristics.)  That leaves only two nations with high population densities – the Netherlands and Belgium.  As I noted in my previous post, both of those tiny nations share the only deep water sea port on the Atlantic coast of Europe, which they use to their advantage as a distribution hub for American imports.

The average population density of these twenty nations is 210 people per square mile (compared to 551 for the nations with whom we have the worst per capita trade deficits).  The population density of these twenty nations taken as a whole – the total population divided by the total land mass – is only 21 people per square mile.  (The average was skewed by tiny oil exporters with high population densities.)  Compare that to 375 people per square mile for our worst trade partners.

Note too that the average purchasing power parity (PPP, roughly analogous to wages) of the nations on the list of our best trade partners is $46,000 – which is actually slightly less than the PPP of our worst trading partners at $50,700 per person.  Clearly, low wages play absolutely no role in driving trade imbalances.  That’s not to say that low wages don’t attract business to locate in such nations.  But when they do, wages quickly rise where there is a low population density and any trade imbalance soon vanishes.  But where there is a high population density, labor is in such gross over-supply that wages rise little and a trade deficit persists.  It’s the high population density that causes a long-term trade deficit, not the low wages.

Now that we’ve examined the two ends of the spectrum of trade imbalances – our twenty worst per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods vs. our twenty best surpluses – we’ve found a very compelling relationship between trade imbalance and population density.  Next we’ll look at all 165 nations included in my study and see if the relationship still holds.

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America’s Biggest Trade Surpluses in Manufactured Goods in 2017

June 9, 2018

In previous posts we examined lists of America’s biggest trade deficits, both in terms of sheer size and on a per capita basis, and found that both lists were dominated by nations with very high population densities.  If population density is a factor in driving trade imbalances, then we should see the same but opposite effect at the other end of the spectrum.  If we look at America’s biggest trade surpluses in manufactured goods, we should find the list dominated by nations with low population densities.  Here’s the list:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2017.

On this list we find that there are actually two factors at play.  First of all, the list is dominated by nations with lower population densities.  Eleven of these twenty nations are less densely populated than the U.S.  (On the list of our biggest deficits, only two nations were less densely populated.)  Only six nations on the list are significantly more densely populated than the U.S.  The average population density of the nations on this list is 209 people per square mile.  Compare that to the average for our biggest deficits – 734 people per square mile.  And if we calculated the population density of this group of twenty nations taken together – the total population divided by the total land mass – we find a population density of only 34 people per square mile, compared to a population density of 509 people per square mile on the list of the biggest deficits.

Still, how do we explain the presence on this list of some nations with some very high population densities?  Of those six nations that are significantly more densely populated than the U.S., three – United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar – are net oil exporters.  As such, it’s almost automatic that we will have a trade surplus in manufactured goods with such nations, regardless of their population density.  Why?  Because oil is priced in American dollars which can only be used to purchase things from America.  Even if the U.S. itself buys little or no oil from such countries, the countries who do must still pay in American dollars.  Strange, I know, but that’s how it is.  The end result is that oil exporters buy American products, either for their own consumption or for re-export to other nations.

That leaves three nations – the Netherlands, Belgium and Ecuador – unexplained.  The Netherlands and Belgium are tiny, adjoining nations who together enjoy the only deep water sea port on the Atlantic coast of Europe.  They use this to their advantage, making themselves into major points of entry for imports from America and for their distribution to the rest of Europe.  So their presence on the list is more of a geographic anomaly than anything else.

At number one on the list, Canada is both very sparsely populated while also being a huge oil exporter.  In fact, they are America’s biggest source of imported oil.  This is why the surplus with Canada is more than three times the size of our next largest surplus.  The U.S. has no better trade partner than Canada – hands down.  While I give Trump high marks for taking on the trade issue, I wish he’d find a way to exempt Canada from tariffs.  Canada has a legitimate beef regarding these tariffs.  Canada is not the problem.

By the way, does it come as a surprise to see Russia on the list?  It’s less surprising when you look at their population density.

Also, take a look at the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP, roughly analogous to wages) of the nations on this list.  The average PPP is just under $40,000 per capita.  The average of the nations on the list of our biggest deficits was $35,000 – a difference of only 15%.  The difference in population density between these two lists is 1400%.  Which do you think is more likely to be the real driver of trade imbalances – wages or population density?

As was the case with our list of the biggest trade deficits, the list of our biggest trade surpluses is also populated with very large and very tiny nations.  In order to factor sheer size out of the picture, let’s next take a look at our biggest trade surpluses expressed in per capita terms.  Stay tuned for the next post.


America’s Worst Trading Partners

May 17, 2018

Earlier this month, I posted a list of America’s twenty biggest trade deficits in manufactured goods in 2017, and noted that the list was dominated by nations with very dense populations.  But it also included some very large nations, like China, and some very small ones as well.  It’s only natural that any trade imbalance will be exaggerated by the sheer size of a country.  In order to determine which countries are our best and worst trading partners, it’s only fair to express the trade imbalance in per capita terms.  Which countries, on a man-for-man basis, are the worst and best trading partners for the U.S.?  Will these lists also be affected by population density?

In this post, we’ll take a look at the twenty worst trade partners in manufactured goods for 2017.  Why the emphasis on manufactured goods?  Because that’s where the jobs are, and trade in natural resources (food, oil, minerals, lumber products, etc.) has more to do with nations’ geography than anything else.  With that said, here’s the list:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2017.

With only two exceptions – Finland and Sweden, every other nation on this list is more densely populated than the U.S.  With one exception – Mexico – the remaining eighteen nations are at least twice as densely populated.  Of the remaining seventeen nations, all but Ireland are at least three times as densely populated.  The average population density on this list is 551 people/square mile – more than five times the U.S. population density.

In most cases, our trade deficits with these nations are rapidly getting worse, nearly doubling in ten years.  It’s also very important to note that the average “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP”), a measure of wealth that’s roughly analogous to wages, is $50,700, compare to the U.S. PPP of $59,000.  In other words, for the most part, these are not poor nations with low wages.  In fact, our two worst per capita deficits are with wealthier nations – Ireland and Switzerland.

Speaking of Ireland, with one of the lower population densities on the list, there’s clearly more at play here than population density.  Ireland is essentially a tax haven for companies – creating an unfair trade situation.

Note that China barely makes this list, ranked at 19th.  Our deficit with China is so huge because it holds one fifth of the entire world’s population.  But it’s a big country and so, in terms of the average population density on this list, its population density is fairly unremarkable.  The density of many others who rank higher on the list is much worse.

The fastest growing deficit is with Finland, the least densely populated nation on the list.  It’s an anomaly I can’t explain, except to note that the import of cars from Finland – a nation where there is little to no auto production – has exploded in the past ten years, while the export of American cars to Finland – once robust – has completely collapsed.  Can it be that Germany is funneling exports through Finland’s seaports?  I don’t know.  It’s worth noting that Germany has actually dropped one position on this list in the past year.

The next fastest growing deficit is with Vietnam, a nation more than eight times as densely populated as the U.S., but also the poorest nation on this list.  It’s possible that low wages are playing a role there.  Low wages do play a role in attracting manufacturing but, as wages rise, the trade imbalance levels off and then disappears in nations with low population densities, as they quickly exhaust their labor supply.  But that doesn’t happen with nations that are very densely populated.  China is a good example.  In spite of its wages rising dramatically, our trade deficit with them has only worsened.

Trinidad and Tobago is another anomaly on this list.  It reappeared on this list after a couple of years of not making the list, in spite of the fact that our deficit with them has declined by 81% over the past ten years.  That’s because in spite of the fact that our deficit with them spiked in 2017, putting them back on the list, it’s still far lower than it was ten years ago.

The take-away from this list is that population density is clearly a factor, while low wages aren’t.  Low per capita consumption, fostered by an extreme population density, turns a nation into one that comes to the trade table with a bloated labor force desperate for work, and with nothing but a stunted market to offer in return.  Trade policy that fails to account for this effect by using tariffs to maintain a balance of trade is doomed to failure and virtually guarantees massive job-killing trade deficits.

Next we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum – our twenty biggest per capita trade surpluses.


U.S. Employment Picture Darkening?

May 9, 2018

There was a lot of hoopla that accompanied the April employment report, released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The economy added another 164,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 3.9% – the lowest rate since December of 2000.  Much discussion ensued in the media over the effects of “full employment.”  Will there now be upward pressure on wages, prompting the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates?  Where will employers find the workers they need?  Will the shortage of labor constrain economic growth?

Less notice was taken of some not-so-rosy news in the report.  Wages rose less than expected – only 0.1%.  The labor force participation rate fell by 0.1%.  And literally no one took notice of some even darker news in the report.  The employment level (from the household survey) rose by only 3,000 after falling by 37,000 in March.  And the civilian labor force has fallen by nearly 400,000 over the past two months, reversing much of the spike that occurred in February, and contributing to the drop in unemployment.  Without that decline in the labor force, unemployment would actually have risen by two tenths over the past two months.

In fact, per capita employment has risen only twice in the past seven months – a two-month spike that occurred in January/February – and remains at exactly the same level as in September.  And the number of unemployed has actually risen slightly.

The fact is that there remains a lot of slack in the labor force.  An accurate reading of unemployment – one that grows the labor force along with growth in the population (instead of erasing people from the labor force if they give up looking for work) – has unemployment at 6.8% and U6 unemployment (a less reported measure that includes discouraged workers) at 12.0%.  This Reuters article, contrary to the title of the article, admits as much – that the job market is “hot” only if you don’t count all the people who have been left behind.

The current expansion is among the longest ever and brought national unemployment to an 18-year low. Yet over 6.3 million are still out of work, many of them clustered in cities with chronic, high unemployment.

6.3 million people is the number that were unemployed before the “Great Recession” of 2008.  It doesn’t even count the additional 5 million people who still haven’t been put back to work since then.

None of this is surprising.  Though the Trump administration is making moves in the right direction with the process of renegotiating NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), with the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum, and with threats of a trade war with China, there has yet to be much in the way of meaningful results.  Our trade deficit is as bad as ever.  Further delay in progress on trade will risk a return to a stagnating economy.


America’s Biggest Trade Surpluses in 2017

May 4, 2018

In my last post, we looked at a list of America’s twenty worst trade deficits in manufactured goods in 2017 and saw that the list was dominated by nations much more densely populated than the U.S.  We also saw that, contrary to conventional wisdom, low wages don’t seem to be a factor in driving these deficits.

Now let’s examine the other end of the spectrum – America’s twenty biggest trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2017.  Here’s the list:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2017

There are actually a couple of factors that jump out on this list.  Most importantly, notice that this list is peppered with nations with low population densities.  The average population density of the twenty nations on this list is 209 people per square mile, compared to 734 people per square mile on the list of our twenty worst deficits.  However, the difference is actually much more dramatic when you account for the fact that four of the nations on the list of surpluses are very tiny nations with small (but dense) populations – the Netherlands, Belgium, Kuwait and Qatar.  If we calculate the population density of the twenty nations on this list as a composite – the total population divided by the total land area – we arrive at a population density of only 34 people per square mile.  Doing the same with the twenty nations on the deficit list yields a population density of 509 people per square mile.  Thus, the nations with whom we have our largest trade deficits are fifteen times more densely populated than the nations with whom we have our largest trade surpluses.

Why do the aforementioned nations – the Netherlands, Belgium, Kuwait and Qatar – seem to buck the trend?  The first two nations are tiny European nations who take advantage of their deep sea port – the only one on the Atlantic coast of the European Union – to build their economies around trade, importing goods from the U.S. for distribution throughout Europe.  These surpluses offset somewhat the much larger trade deficit that the U.S. has with other European nations.  Even with the Netherlands and Belgium included, the trade deficit with the European Union is still enormous – second only to China.

The presence of Kuwait and Qatar on the list of trade surpluses, in spite of their dense populations, illustrates the other factor that drives trade surpluses.  Both of these nations, along with the other nations highlighted in yellow on the list, are net oil exporters.  Since all oil is priced in U.S. dollars, it leaves these nations flush with U.S. dollars that can only be used to buy things from the U.S.  It makes a trade surplus with an oil exporter almost automatic.

Now, look at the “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP,” roughly analogous to wages) for the nations on this list.  The average is just under $40,000, compared to an average PPP on the deficit list of $35,000.  However, that average is skewed significantly by tiny Qatar, who has a PPP of $124,900.  Take Qatar out of the equation and the average drops to $35,500 – almost exactly the same as the nations on the list of our biggest deficits.

So, of these two factors – population density and wages – which do you now think is the real driver of trade imbalances?  Is it the one that differs by a factor of fifteen between the two lists, or the factor that is virtually the same on both lists?  Clearly, population density seems to be a much more likely factor in driving trade imbalaces, at least from what we’ve seen from these two lists.

But both lists contain nations that are very large and very small.  It seems only natural that, if we’re going to have a trade imbalance with any particular nation, it will be a much bigger imbalance if that nation is very large.  We need to factor the sheer size of nations out of the equation.  That’s what we’ll do next in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned.

 


America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2017

May 2, 2018

I’ve finished compiling and analyzing America’s trade data for 2017, which was released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in late February.  Why the delay?  Tabulating the results for hundreds of 5-digit end use code products for 165 nations is no small feat.  What we’re looking at here are the deficits in manufactured goods as opposed to services and various categories of natural resources.  Why?  Because manufacturing is where the jobs are.  Yes, there are jobs associated with the harvesting and mining of natural resources but, pound for pound, those jobs pale in comparison to the number generated by manufacturing.

And it should be noted that there are more than 165 nations in the world.  The CIA World Factbook lists 229.  Nearly all of the 64 nations that I left out of this study are tiny island nations with whom combined trade represents only a tiny fraction of America’s total.  Also, their economies tend to be unique in that they rely heavily on tourism and their manufacturing sectors are virtually non-existent, if for no other reason than a lack of space to accommodate manufacturing facilities.

It should also be noted that I’ve “rolled” the results for tiny city-states into their larger surrounding nations – states like Hong Kong, Singapore, San Marino, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco and others.  They too tend to have unique economies, heavily dependent on services like financial services, and mostly devoid of manufacturing for the same reason as small island nations – a lack of space.  There is no room for sprawling manufacturing complexes.

So, with that said, let’s begin with a look at America’s biggest trade deficits.  Here are the top twenty:  Top 20 Deficits, 2017

It comes as no surprise that China once again has topped the list with a whopping $384.7 billion deficit.  But there are many interesting observations that can be made about this list:

  1. There’s a lot of variety on this list – nations big and small, rich and poor, Asian, European and Middle Eastern nations.  But there’s one thing that all except one have in common – a high population density.  The average population density of this list is 734 people per square mile.  Compare that to the population density of the U.S. at 91 people per square mile.  On average, the nations on this list are eight times more densely populated than the U.S.
  2. With a few exceptions, these are not poor countries where wages are low.  Half of the top ten nations have a “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP,” a measure of wealth that is roughly analogous to wages) near or, in one case (Ireland), above that of the U.S. ($59,500).  Only one nation in the top ten – Vietnam – has a PPP of less than $10,000.  So, the claim that low wages cause trade deficits isn’t supported by this list.
  3. Two nations on this list – China and India – represent 40% of the world’s population.  On the other hand, there are others that, combined, make up less than 1% of the world’s total.  Naturally, if we have a trade deficit with a big nation, it tends to be really big.  In order to identify the factors that influence trade, we need to factor sheer size out of the equation.
  4. On average, the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods has risen by 81% with this group of nations over the past ten years.  Whatever it is that drives trade deficits has a very potent effect.  The fastest growing deficit is with Vietnam, rising by 335% in ten years.  Vietnam is the 2nd poorest nation on the list.  Perhaps low wages do play a role here?  On the other hand, the 2nd fastest growing deficit is with Switzerland, the 2nd wealthiest nation on the list – wealthier than the U.S. – debunking the low wage theory.
  5. It’s often said that America needs to be more productive in order to compete in the global economy.  Yet we see nations like France and Italy on this list – nations notorious for long vacations, short work weeks, etc. – not exactly bastions of productivity.
  6. In 2017, the U.S. had a total trade deficit of $724 billion in manufactured goods.  Of these 165 nations in this study, the top eight deficits on this list account for more than that entire total.  The U.S. actually has a small surplus of trade with the other 157 nations of the world.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at the other end of the spectrum – America’s top twenty trade surpluses in manufactured goods.  If population density is a factor, then we should see that list comprised of nations with low population densities.  And if low wages aren’t a factor, we shouldn’t see anything much different than what we saw on this list presented here.  So stay tuned.


Red China Runnin’ Scared

April 18, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-eu-exclusive/exclusive-china-seeks-trade-firewall-with-u-s-allies-in-rush-of-ambassador-meetings-sources-idUSKBN1HO1Y0

It all began with Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.  Red China responded with tariffs on about $3 billion of American exports.  Trump upped the ante with a proposal for tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports.  Red China responded in kind, including tariffs on American soybeans, and they promptly began buying their soybeans from Brazil.  No dummies, the Brazilians.  They raised their prices.  And the EU, now unable to buy from Brazil, placed big orders for American soybeans.  No skin off the noses of American soybean farmers.

Trump then responded with a proposal for tariffs on another $100 billion of imports from Red China, whose tit-for-tat strategy was now exhausted since they import so little from the U.S.  Instead, they threatened severe retaliation in some form that remains unspecified.  But their rhetoric was threatening.  Not Islamist “rivers of blood running through your cities” threatening, but scary enough to those who don’t really understand international trade.

Now it’s looking a whole lot like a bluff.  As reported in the above-linked article, the Chinese are now running scared, trying to drum up support for “free trade” (their version of it) with the EU (European Union).

Some of the western diplomats involved in the meetings with Fu Ziying, who is also a vice-commerce minister, have viewed the approaches as a sign of how anxious Beijing is getting about the expanding conflict with Washington, the sources said.

The rush of meetings last Thursday and Friday with ambassadors from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and the European Union, may be a signal that China is trying to build a firewall against Trump’s aggressive trade measures, the severity of which some foreign diplomats said Beijing had miscalculated.

“China is showing confidence, but internally they appear quite concerned. They have apparently underestimated Trump’s resolve on trade,” the diplomat said, adding that Beijing is nervous about China’s major trading partners siding with Washington.

It’s not likely they’re getting much sympathy from the EU.  In 2016, the EU had a $175 billion trade deficit with Red China.  If anything, the EU is probably realizing that America’s new get tough policy has Red China running scared and, just maybe, they ought to try a little of that tariff medicine themselves.