America’s Biggest Trade Surpluses in 2018

In my previous post, we examined the list of America’s biggest trade deficits.  Of the top 20 trade deficits, all but one were with nations more (usually much more) densely populated than the U.S.  It appears that population density may be a factor in driving these deficits.  But what will we find at the other end of the spectrum?  Will a list of our top 20 trade surpluses be dominated by more sparsely populated countries?  Well, let’s see.  Here’s the list:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2018.

We do see more sparsely populated nations on the list, but we also see a half dozen very densely populated nations.  At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much correlation with population density.  But let’s take a closer look at those densely populated nations.  Do they all have something in common?  Indeed they do.  Most of them, but not all, are net oil exporters.  Canada, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Norway and Nigeria are all net oil exporters.  Why is that significant?  Because all oil is priced and sold in U.S. dollars.  And, ultimately, there is only one place where those U.S. dollars can be spent as legal tender – in the United States itself.  So those oil exporters use their “petro dollars” to buy products from the U.S.

Consider an example.  If China buys oil from Saudi Arabia, they have to pay for it with U.S. dollars.  No problem for China.  They’re rolling in dollars that Americans spent on their exported manufactured goods.  So now Saudi Arabia has a bunch of dollars.  They have no choice but to use it to buy American goods or American investments, like U.S. bonds.  But their economy is built around oil.  They don’t manufacture anything else to speak of.  So they have dollars to spend on manufactured goods and the only place they can spend those dollars is in the U.S.  Thus, the U.S. has a trade surplus in manufactured goods with Saudi Arabia and, for the same reason, with virtually every nation that is a net oil exporter.

That leaves two other very densely populated nations on the list that are thus far unexplained – Belgium and The Netherlands.  They’re 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.

Now, back to the subject of population density.  With all of the above said, the list of our top 20 trade surpluses is still dominated by eleven nations that are less densely populated than the U.S., and three more that are only slightly more densely populated.  The average population density of these twenty nations is 239 people per square mile, compared to the average population density of 629 for the nations that represent our biggest trade deficits.  The combined population density of all twenty nations on the surplus list (total population divided by total land surface area) is  43 people per square mile, compared to 502 for the deficit list.  It certainly appears that population density is a real factor in driving trade imbalances.

A few more observations about this list of our biggest trade surpluses is in order:

  1. 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.
  2. Are you surprised to see Russia on the list?  It’s less surprising when you look at their population density.
  3. 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 almost 1200%.  Which do you think is more likely to be the real driver of trade imbalances – wages or population density?

When it comes to the sheer size of trade imbalances, of course our deficit with China is bigger than our deficit with other, much smaller nations.  And of course our trade surplus with Canada is much larger than, say, our surplus with New Zealand.  Does that mean that Canada should enjoy more favorable trade terms than New Zealand, or that China should be punished with harsher trade terms than, say, Japan or Germany?  Hardly seems fair.  Trade policy should be formulated to address the factor that actually drives trade imbalances, regardless of the size of the nation in question.  That factor is population density.  In order to factor sheer size out of the equation, let’s now look at our trade deficits and surpluses in per capita terms, starting with our biggest per capita trade deficits.  The results are fascinating.  Stay tuned.

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