America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2020

In my previous post, we examined the list of America’s biggest trade deficits in 2020 and saw that most of them were with nations that are far more densely populated than the U.S. Clearly, population density was a factor, but the list included nations from around the world that were both big, like China and small, like Vitenam and Ireland just to name a couple.

Today, we’ll look at America’s balance of trade from a different perspective. Which nations, man-for-man, do the most damage to America’s economy by exporting to us more than they import from us – effectively feeding off of America’s economy at America’s expense? In other words, in per capita terms, which nations are our worst trade partners?

Here’s the list of America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2020. If you’re new to this blog, there are couple of big surprises on this list:

  1. You probably expected to see China at the head of this list. In fact, they don’t make the list at all. China ranked 22nd in 2020.
  2. At the top of the list you see Ireland and Switzerland, both of whom are more wealthy than the U.S. If low wages drive trade deficits, as we’re led to believe by economists, then how the heck did two of the world’s most wealthy nations make it to the top of this list?

To understand the reason for these surprises, take a look at the population density of these nations. Of these 20 nations, 17 are more densely populated than the U.S., which has a population density of 93 people per square mile. The average population density of these 20 nations is 526 people per square mile, more than five-and-a-half times that of the United States.

Low wages drive trade deficits? Hardly. Now look at the “purchasing power parity” (or PPP, analagous to wages) of the people of these nations. These are not poor nations. Only four of these twenty nations – Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia – have a PPP below $25,000, which is what the U.S. considers a poverty level for a family of four. Conversely, four of these twenty nations – Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria – are on a par with, or above, the PPP of the United States, which had a PPP of about $57,000 in 2020. The average for these 20 nations is $41,518.

Also, note that our trade deficit with 18 of these twenty nations is actually accelerating, even our deficits with the two nations at the top of the list who are wealthier than us.

In conclusion, there is a very powerful relationship between population density and the balance of trade evident in this list. Conversely, there appears to be no relationship whatsoever to wealth. This is important. Economists claim that trade deficits are driven by low wages, which is no cause for concern, as those wages will rise with time and restore a balance of trade. Thus, free trade works. But what we’ve seen in this post and the previous one is that this claim is simply not true. Free trade with densely populated nations doesn’t work because trade deficits are driven by population density and will never self-correct, no matter how high wages rise.

If trade imbalances are driven by disparities in population density between two trading partners, then we should see the opposite effect at the other end of the spectrum. We should see trade surpluses with more sparsely populated nations. We’ll take a look at that in my next post.

For an understanding of exactly how population density has such an effect on the balance of trade, read my book, Five Short Blasts, or read my series of posts begining with “Five Short Blasts” Theory Explained, Part 1.

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