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.

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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.