America’s Worst Trading Partners

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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