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.


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.