Many people – perhaps most – have little understanding of the economic impact of the balance of foreign trade. The best way I can explain it is to use your own checking account as an example. If more money is drawn out of your account than the income that goes into it, then you’re steadily getting poorer and, if kept up long enough, you’ll eventually be broke. Until you reach that point, you create an illusion of prosperity by buying more than you can afford, but it’s just that – an illusion. Your day of reckoning – of financial ruin – is fast approaching.
The United States, just like every other nation, has a national account that’s very much like your checking account. Influxes of money, like income taxes, other federal taxes, tariffs on imports and the money collected from foreign entities for exported goods make us richer. Conversely, outflows are bad – like money spent by the federal government (for defense, domestic programs, etc.) and money spent on importing goods. Those make us poorer.
Therefore, our balance of trade with the rest of the world makes us either richer or poorer, depending on whether it’s a surplus or a deficit. And we’re not just talking about red numbers on some obscure balance sheet deep within the Department of Treasury. A trade deficit hits you directly in the wallet. For every $50,000 increase in the trade deficit, another American’s job is lost. If it wasn’t your job, you’re still hit in the wallet when an ever-growing number of unemployed compete for your job and put downward pressure on your wages. Do the math. Since our last balance of trade in 1975, the deficit in manufactured goods has grown by $1 trillion. Divided by $50,000, that’s a loss of 20 million high-paying manufacturing jobs. The downward pressure on wages has been enormous.
With all that said, let’s take a look at how we did in 2020. Each year I think to myself that America’s trade picture couldn’t get worse, but each year it does. The year 2020 was no different. If anything, our downward spiral accelerated. Our deficit in manufactured goods came in at $911 billion, blowing past the “old” record of $831 billion set only one year earler. Which countries were our worst trading partners? Here’s the list: America’s 20 worst trade deficits in 2020.
First of all, look at the total deficit for these twenty countries. It was $1.001 trillion. That’s more than America’s trade deficit with the entire world. In fact, our entire trade deficit is due to our deficit with only the top twelve nations on this list. Think about that. Take away those twelve nations, and the U.S. enjoys a balance of trade with the other 216 nations of the world.
Now look more closely at the list. It’s no surprise to see China at the top. They’ve been there for at least the last fifteen years. What is a surprise is that the deficit with China fell precipitously in 2020, from a record high of $416 billion in 2018. Why? Because of the 25% tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on half of all Chinese imports. It’s proof that tariffs work.
Unfortunately, those tariffs on Chinese imports also explain, at least in part, the explosive growth in the deficit with other nations, most notably Vietnam. Companies scrambled to move their manufacturing operations out of China to avoid the tariffs. Trump should have applied the tariffs to these other countries as well, leaving companies no alternative but to bring their manufacturing back to America.
Note that most of the nations on this list are actually quite wealthy, high-wage nations, on a par with the U.S. (Ireland and Switzerland are even wealthier.) This casts doubt on economists’ claim that low wages are the driving force behind trade deficits. So if low wages don’t drive trade imbalances, what does? The list includes nations both very large and very small, and nations from Europe, Asia and Central America. Is there something that these nations have in common – something that should be factored into our trade policy to return us to a balance of trade?
Indeed there is. Look at the population density of the nations on this list and note that all but one (Sweden) are more densely populated than the United States, which has a population density of 94 people per square mile. Most are far more densely populated. The average population density of the nations on this list is six times greater than the U.S. There clearly seems to be a relationship between population density and balance of trade. But why? What is it that makes people who live in more crowded conditions poor trade partners for the United States?
We need to look at this more deeply. We need to factor out other variables, like the sheer size of nations, which puts China at the top of this list with a deficit three times bigger than the next nation on the list – Mexico – which is only one tenth the size of China in terms of population. In my next post, we’ll sort the nations of the world by population density and see how their balance of trade with the U.S. stacks up.