I can’t tell you how disheartening it was to sift through the latest trade data, for the month of July, released by the Commerce Department late last week. There’s just no getting around the fact that the administration’s efforts to cut the trade deficit and bring manufacturing back to the U.S. have failed. “Failure” would be the word to describe results that haven’t shown any improvement. But America’s trade picture has deteriorated so badly that the scope of the failure can only be described as “spectacular.”
In his inauguration address, Trump observed:
… rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation …
Earlier in the address, regarding situations like that noted above, he proclaimed:
… That all changes – starting right here, and right now …
The July trade data comes 3-1/2 years into his administration – plenty of time to implement changes and to see the effects. It’s hard to find any silver lining. Consider:
- The trade deficit in manufactured goods in July soared to $80.4 billion, a new record that completely blows away the record set under the Obama administration ($63.3 billion in March, 2015). Check out this chart: Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.
- During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to quickly tear up the NAFTA deal and replace it with a much better deal. Most of his term has been wasted negotiating the new “USMCA” trade deal that replaces it. It finally went into effect on July 1st of this year, but the terms have been known for a long time, so you’d expect that manufacturers would have been busy implementing plans to get in compliance. The results? In July, the trade deficit with Mexico soared to $10. 6 billion. When Trump took office in January, 2017 it was $3.8 billion. Since then it has nearly tripled.
- When Trump took office, the deficit with China was $31.4 billion. In July of this year it was $31.6 billion. After Trump took office, the deficit with China continued to grow until, finally fed up with China’s promises to buy more American products, Trump imposed 25% tariffs on half of all Chinese products. Almost immediately, the deficit with China began to shrink dramatically. However, all momentum was lost with the signing of the “Phase 1” deal with China, when the U.S. agreed to halt plans to impose tariffs on the remainder of China’s products in exchange for Chinese promises to dramatically increase their purchases of American goods. The results were predictable; China reneged on the deal. They haven’t even measured up to the 2017 baseline that was used as a starting point. Here’s the data, updated through July: Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD. What has Trump done in response? Nothing. He continues to insist it’s a good deal, in much the same way that Obama stuck by his trade deal with South Korea while our deficit with them exploded.
- What progress was made in at least stagnating the deficit with China didn’t translate into any benefit to American workers. Instead, it contributed to the tripling of the debt with Mexico and also ballooned the debt with Vietnam. When Trump took office, the trade deficit with Vietnam, an economic back-water, was $3.3 billion per month. In July of this year it was more than doubled to $6.8 billion per month. Why? Because no tariffs were applied to anyone other than China. The tariffs motivated manufacturers to begin moving out of China, but there was no disincentive to simply move to secondary suppliers in Mexico, Vietnam and other places.
Some might say that such conclusions are unfair in the midst of the pandemic. Not so. The effect of the pandemic has been to cut economic activity to a depression-like level, and the effect of an economic slow-down has always been to shrink the trade deficit, not grow it. That makes the enormous deficit in manufactured goods in July even more troubling.
Speaking of the pandemic, at least people are beginning to realize that being dependent on foreign suppliers for critical goods like ventilators and face masks is a threat to national security. It’d be nice if that realization extended to other products that would just as easily be cut off during war time. Better yet, wouldn’t it be nice if people realized that an economy that needs to stand on agriculture, construction, manufacturing and services is hollowed out and unstable if one of those legs is gone?
I don’t doubt Trump’s desire to truly “make America great again” by bringing back our manufacturing sector. But he sees himself as a “deal-maker” and believes he can deal his way out of the trade deficit. That’s where the problem lies. For America, at least, there’s no such thing as a good trade deal. I defy anyone to identify a single trade deal that has ever left America with anything but a growing trade deficit.
And forget about “free trade.” That centuries-old concept is about as relevant to today’s trade environment as theories about a flat earth and how the sun rotates around it. Today, trade is war – a war for increasingly scarce jobs in an ever more over-populated world. Unlike America, the rest of the world understand this. They know that what they really need is access to America’s market so that they can keep their bloated populations employed manufacturing goods for export. Americans don’t have a clue. They think it’s about lower price and more choice.
Had Trump simply applied tariffs everywhere where America was suffering a big trade deficit in manufactured goods, manufacturers would have come running back like refugees fleeing a war. Instead of improving incrementally, our economy would have exploded. Manufacturers would have eagerly snapped up any workers who lost their jobs to closures of restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, etc. during the pandemic. Trump’s re-election would be a foregone conclusion. Instead, he’s going to be lucky to win. Forget about the pandemic. It’s his failure to make progress on truly making America great again that has left him vulnerable.
Don’t interpret this post as an endorsement of Biden. It’s reported in the news today that Trump has criticized Biden as a “globalist.” He’s not wrong. But it’s not just Biden. Until Trump came along, every politician, Democrat and Republican alike, were and still are globalists. I’d vote for Biden in a heartbeat if he vowed to use tariffs to restore a balance of trade, but he won’t. Though the results under Trump have been disappointing, things could and would be much worse under virtually anyone else, at least until more American politicians are willing to engage in the trade war that they don’t even acknowledge today.