Low Wages Play Little Role in Trade Imbalances

July 20, 2017

In my previous two posts in which we examined the lists of America’s worst trade deficits and best trade surpluses in manufactured goods, it seemed clear that low wages were not a factor.  Many of our worst trade deficits were with wealthy nations like Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Japan and South Korea.  The list of our best trade surpluses was also dominated by wealthy nations.

Let’s take a closer look at the issue.  If we sort a list of nations by purchasing power parity, or “PPP” – a factor roughly analogous to wages, and divide them equally into five groups, ranging from the wealthiest nations to the poorest, here’s what we find:

  • Among the 33 wealthiest nations, whose PPP ranged from $129,700 (Qatar) to $34,400 (Cyprus) in 2016, the U.S. had a trade deficit in manufactured goods with 15 of them.
  • Among the next 33 nations, whose PPP ranged from $33,200 (Czech Republic) to $16,500 (Iraq), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 13 of them.
  • Among the next 33 nations, whose PPP ranged from $16,100 (Costa Rica) to $8,200 (Ukraine), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 10 of them.  China is near the top of this group.
  • Among the next-to-last poorest group, whose PPP ranged from $8,200 (Belize) to $3,100 (Lesotho), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 13 of them.
  • Among the very poorest nations, whose PPP ranged from $3,100 (Tanzania) to $400 (Somalia), the U.S. had a trade deficit with only 4 of them.

So if low wages cause trade deficits, why aren’t our trade deficits concentrated among the poorest nations instead of that group actually representing the fewest deficits by far.  And why does the richest group of nations include the most (and some of the biggest) deficits?

There’s no denying the fact that, among the poorest nations, the U.S. had a deficit in manufactured goods with 17 of them.  Included in that group are Vietnam and India.  But both rank among the top 25 nations with the fastest growing PPP (146% and 145% relative to the U.S., respectively) over the past ten years.  Since incomes are rising so fast in those countries, then if low wages are a factor in driving trade imbalances, shouldn’t our deficits with those countries be declining?  They’re not.  Quite the opposite is happening.  Our deficits with both have exploded over the past ten years, by 349% with Vietnam and 250% with India.  Our trade deficit is making them wealthier.

It’s difficult to argue that low wages play no role whatsoever.  Mexico is an obvious example of where American companies are setting up shop there, just across the border, for no other purpose than to save on labor.  Everything made there comes back into the U.S.  Virtually none of those products are sold into the Mexican market.  While many of the other manufacturing operations built in other countries like China are put there primarily in pursuit of those markets, that’s not the case with Mexico.  And mysteriously, the increased demand for labor in Mexico doesn’t seem to do much to raise wages there.  Mexico is being used as a virtual slave labor camp and, by all appearances, there must be some collusion between American companies and the Mexican government to keep it that way.

Aside from the glaring example of Mexico, low wages play no role whatsoever in creating our massive trade imbalance in manufactured goods, as proven by the fact that the vast majority of our worst trade imbalances are with wealthy nations.  Instead, trade imbalances are caused by high population densities that make our trading partners incapable of consuming products anywhere close to their productive capacity.

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America’s Best Trading Partners in 2016

July 12, 2017

In my previous post we found that the list of America’s worst trade partners in 2016 – those with whom the U.S. has the biggest trade deficit in manufactured goods – in terms of both total dollars and in per capita terms – was dominated by nations whose population densities were far above the world median.  Only two of the twenty worst nations had population densities below the world median.

So what about the other end of the spectrum – the nations with whom the U.S. enjoyed trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2016?  If there is a relationship between population density and trade imbalance, we should see the opposite effect – that the list is dominated by nations with low population densities.  Here’s the list of America’s twenty biggest trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2016:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2016

It isn’t as clear as you might expect, and here’s why.  The fact that all oil around the globe is priced in U.S. dollars makes oil exporters float to the top of the list, regardless of population density.  Those nations with whom the U.S. has a trade deficit in oil are high-lighted in yellow.  Of these twenty nations, eleven were net exporters of oil to the U.S.  Why does this matter?  Because American dollars, aside from being legal tender for purchasing oil anywhere in the world, can only be used as legal tender in the U.S.  That means that all those “petro-dollars” have to be used to buy something from the U.S. – primarily two things:  U.S. government bonds and products made in the U.S.  While eleven net oil exporters appear on this list, only one appeared on the list of our top twenty worst trade deficits – Mexico.

Still, the population density effect is in play, even among these net oil exporters.  Believe it or not, Canada (not Saudi Arabia or some other Middle Eastern country) is our biggest source of imported oil.  With Canada, our trade surplus in manufactured goods is bigger than our deficit in oil by about $6 billion per year.  With Saudia Arabia, trade in oil and manufactured goods was almost perfectly balanced.  The same with New Zealand.  With Norway, our surplus in manufactured goods exceeded the deficit in oil by over $3 billion.

In addition, there are two very densely populated nations that appear on this list who are not oil exporters – the Netherlands and Belgium.  There’s a reason for this also.  Both are tiny European nations who happen to share the only deep water port on the Atlantic coast of Europe.  They use this to their advantage, buying American exports and then re-selling them to the rest of Europe.  Taken as a whole, the trade deficit with the European Union in 2016 was $138 billion, which would rank it 2nd on the list of our worst trade deficits, just after China.  The population density of the EU is 310 people per square mile – a little less than China.  And, in per capita terms, our trade deficit in manufactured goods with the EU was $274, a little worse than China.

Now let’s look at a list of our top twenty trade surpluses in per capita terms in 2016:  Top 20 Per Capita Surpluses, 2016.  This results in some small nations floating up onto the list:  Brunei (an oil exporter), Iceland, Belize, Guyana (an oil exporter), the Falkland Islands, Suriname, Oman and Equatorial Guinea (the latter two also being net oil exporters).  But in terms of population density, both lists are pretty similar.  The average population density of the nations on both lists are 213 people per square mile and 197, respectively.  Compare that to the lists of nations with whom we have the largest trade deficits where the population densities were 729 (our largest deficits in dollar terms) and 522 (our largest deficits in per capita terms).  But let’s look at those lists another way.  Let’s calculate the overall population density (the total population divided by the total land area) for the nations with whom we had the twenty largest per capita trade deficits vs. the nations with whom we had the twenty largest per capita surpluses.  Those figures are 372 people per square mile vs. 20 people per square mile.

Oh, and by the way, look at the purchasing power parity of both lists.  They’re remarkably the same.  Clearly, wealth (or wages) play no role in determining the balance of trade whatsoever.

The data couldn’t be more clear.  While other factors may come into play in trade, their effects are dwarfed by the role of population density in determining the balance of trade.  Free trade with densely populated nations is almost assured to yield terrible results for the U.S. – a huge trade deficit in manufactured goods, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the ruination of the manufacturing sector of our economy.  Because of the role of over-crowding in eroding per capita consumption, those nations consume little but are very bit as productive.  So they come to the trade table with a bloated labor force hungry for work, and a wilted market, unable to consume our exports in equal measure.  Free trade with more sparsely populated nations, on the other hand, is likely to yield the opposite result.  Any trade policy that doesn’t use tariffs to maintain a balance of trade with densely populated nations is doomed to failure, as decades of America’s free trade policy has proven.

We’ll look at even more data from 2016 in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned.

 


America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2016

July 6, 2017

America’s trade policy is a disaster.  There’s just no other way to describe it.  In 2016, our trade deficit rose to almost $505 billion, beating the old record set in 2015.  We can’t continue on this path.  An economy that has that much money drained from it can only avoid a permanent state of recession through deficit spending, which is exactly what we’ve done for decades, and it’s bankrupting us.  Our infrastructure is crumbling.  The Social Security trust fund is on a path to bankruptcy.  Medicare is already there.  Household incomes and net worth are declining.  And the government can’t come up with a scheme that makes health care affordable.

But what to do?  How did “free trade,” the darling of economists, back-fire so badly for the U.S.?  A quick glance at the balance of trade data, which is broken into “services” and “goods,” reveals a nice surplus in services.  It was in this category that the U.S. economy was really expected to shine, and it has.  But the “goods” part of the equation has run completely off the rails, with the deficit in goods dwarfing the small surplus in services.

What’s the problem with “goods?”  Is it oil?  There was a time, decades ago, when the deficit in goods was due almost entirely to oil imports.  But no more.  It has shrunk dramatically and now accounts for less than 25% of the goods deficit.  The vast majority of our deficit in goods is due to manufactured products.  So let’s focus there.

Let’s begin with a look at which nations account for our biggest trade deficits in manufactured goods.  Here’s a list of the top twenty in 2016:  Top 20 Deficits, 2016.  China is at the top of the list, yielding a trade deficit that’s more than four times as large as the next nation on the list, Japan.  In fact, so large is the trade deficit with China that it is larger than all of the nations of the rest of the world combined.  It would seem that China must be doing something underhanded.  Some say that the problem is low wages in China.  Others claim that China manipulates its currency, keeping it artificially low, thus making its exports cheaper for American consumers and making American imports too expensive for Chinese consumers.  Or maybe it’s just the sheer size of China, a big country with one fifth of the world’s population.

What is it about this list of nations that they have in common?  The list includes nations from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Central America.  It includes some of the wealthiest nations on earth – like Germany, Switzerland and Ireland – casting doubt on the “low wage” theory.

I mentioned China’s size.  But geographic size can’t be much of a factor.  Without any people, we wouldn’t even have trade with any particular country or region.  Take Antarctica.  It’s bigger than China, but we have no trade with that continent at all.  People are what’s important.  It’s their consumption of products that drives trade.  So maybe that’s where we should start looking.  Perhaps the number of people in a country – or their population density – is a factor.  So let’s take a look.  Let’s express the trade deficit with each one of those countries in per capita terms.  Now look at the list:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2016.

The median population density of the 165 nations* included in this study is 184 people per square mile.  The population density of the U.S. is apprximately 90 people per square mile.  Seventeen of the twenty nations on this list have population densities above the median.  The odds against that happening are 128:1.  Conversely, the chances of that happening are only 0.7%.  Clearly, population density is a factor.  The average population density of these nations is 522 people per square mile – almost three times the world median and more than five times the density of the U.S.

In per capita terms, China barely even makes the list, ranking 19th out of these twenty nations. Eleven of the twenty nations are European Union nations.

And what about the claim that low wages are to blame for trade deficits?  That’s clearly nonsense.  The average “purchasing power parity” (roughly analogous to wages) is just over $46,000 – on a par with the U.S.

On average, the per capita trade deficit with these nations has risen by 88% in the past ten years.

The fact that America’s deficit with Ireland, with a population density close to the world median, is almost three times that of Switzerland, the number two nation on the list, is an indication that something else is going on that tilts trade in favor of Ireland, and indeed there is.  Ireland is a tax haven and America is a fool to tolerate it.

Why is population density such a dominant factor in determining the balance of trade?  It’s because of the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption.  It’s because people living in crowded conditions consume less but are just as productive.  The result is that they come to the trade table with a bloated labor force and an emaciated market.  To understand more about why this happens, read Five Short Blasts.  It’s also the theme of this blog.

Any trade policy that fails to account for the role of population density in driving trade imbalances and fails to employ tariffs to maintain a balance of trade with overpopulated nations is doomed to failure.  America’s free trade policy is blind to this factor.  The resulting trade deficit is inevitable.

Next we’ll take a look at the list of America’s twenty best trade partners.  If population density is a factor, we should see the opposite results on that list.  It should be dominated by nations with low population densities.  Stay tuned.

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  *  There are 229 nations in the world.  Tiny island nations and city-states have been excluded from the study.  Trade with these nations is minuscule, accounting for less than 1% of U.S. trade.  The U.S. tends to have a surplus with such nations, regardless of their population density, since their economies are primarily based on tourism and not manufacturing.