Trade Deficit in Manufactured Products Hits Record in April

June 2, 2017

The Department of Commerce released the April figures for international trade in goods and services this morning, and the trade deficit rose again to its worst reading since January – $47.6 billion.  Imports were up and exports were down.  But you can’t even find the worst news in the report – the deficit in manufactured goods.  The Commerce Department doesn’t even bother to calculate it.  But I do.  By subtracting from the overall deficit the figures for services, foods, feeds, beverages and petroleum products, you can arrive at a pretty good estimation of trade in manufactured goods.  The news is bad.  The deficit in manufactured products rose to $63.4 billion, beating the previous record set in March, 2015 by $0.1 billion.  Imports rose to a record level and exports fell to their lowest level in five months.  Here’s a chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  As you can see, the deficit in manufactured goods continues to worsen at the same pace that it has since 2010, more than doubling in seven years.

Separately this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a weak employment report for the month of May.  Unemployment dropped, but thanks only to the old “mysteriously vanishing labor force” trick used so often during the Obama administration.  The employment level actually fell by 133,000 workers.  An accurate reading of unemployment would have had it actually worsening by two tenths of a percent.  Manufacturing employment fell yet again by another 1,000 jobs.  No surprise, in light of what’s happening with the trade deficit.  Add this data to the extremely weak first quarter GDP and you have a picture of an economy that’s stalled and might be on the brink of something worse.

So President Trump now owns the worst performance in manufactured goods of any president.  He vowed to “Make America Great Again.” The first step in that process is to stop it from getting worse.  That hasn’t happened yet.  Talk and optimism will only carry you so far.  There’s been little action.  There’s no border tax.  NAFTA still stands.  Jobs are still heading to China and Mexico.

To be fair, it’s still early in his administration, and the Republican congress has done nothing either.  But I fear that the opportunity to “make America great again” is being frittered away.


Trump and Ross played for fools by China

May 13, 2017

In 2016, the U.S. trade deficit with China was $347 billion.  The deficit in manufactured goods was $372 billion.  China accounts for over half of the total U.S. trade deficit.  The deficit with China is responsible for the loss of five million manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  and for the downward spiral in Americans’ standard of living.

Throughout the campaign, Trump promised to impose tariffs of up to 45% on Chinese goods to restore a balance of trade.  It’s one of the key reasons he was elected.  In his inaugural address, Trump declared:

“These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

“Right here and right now.”  Yet, four months into his administration, details of his plans for trade with China are beginning to emerge, as reported in this Reuters article.

The United States and China have agreed to take action by mid-July to increase access for U.S. financial firms and expand trade in beef and chicken among other steps as part of Washington’s drive to cut its trade deficit with Beijing.

That’s it?!?!?!?  Beef and chicken!?!?!?!?  So instead of “right here and right now,” what we get instead is that, six months into his administration, we might be able to sell China a few more hamburgers?  And what do we get in return?  Chicken imports.  Who in their right minds would eat chicken imported from China?  We can’t even feed our pets dog food from China for fear that it’ll kill them, which has actually happened.  And we supposedly got some cooperation from China in reining in North Korea.  Doesn’t Trump realize that China and North Korea work together to blunt any action on trade?  Maybe that’s what we need – some puppet state to develop nuclear weapons to threaten China.  Then we can agree to pull in on their reins if China will just agree to some heavy tariffs.

What will the next 100 days of negotiations yield?  A side order of fries?

As has always happened following trade negotiations with the U.S., Chinese President Xi must have been rolling in the aisle with laughter on his plane ride home from Mar-a-Lago.  Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross were played for total fools.  This is beyond pathetic.  It’s an insult to Trump’s supporters and all American workers.

“This will help us to bring down the deficit for sure,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at media briefing in Washington. “You watch and you’ll see.”

Oh, we’re watching, Wilbur, and I already know what we’ll see.  Nothing.  The trade deficit with China will, if anything, get worse.  America’s been suckered yet again.


Economic Data Still Stuck in “New Normal” of Globalization

May 6, 2017

Three major economic reports were released in the past week, each of which I usually write about separately.  But there was nothing particularly noteworthy about any of them.  Taken together, however, they paint a picture of a U.S. economy that’s still stuck in the “new normal” that characterizes globalization (trading freely with all nations, regardless of whether it makes any sense) – stagnation, an imbalance in the supply vs. demand for labor that puts downward pressure on wages, and a host-parasite relationship between the U.S. and the overpopulated nations of the world.

First quarter GDP was announced last Friday, and it came in at a measly 0.7%.  Expressed in per capita terms, it rose only 0.09%.  Over the past ten years, per capita GDP has risen at an annual rate of only 0.6%.  That’s very close to no growth at all and explains a lot about Americans’ sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction.  Population growth and free trade with much more densely populated nations has become a significant drag on the economy.

Speaking of trade, that data was released Thursday.  Here’s a chart showing the monthly balance of trade in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  The deficit in manufactured goods continues to hover near its record worst level.  In fact, it was the second worst quarterly figure ever, down by only $1 billion from the record level of $177.1 billion set in the previous quarter.

The April employment report was released yesterday.  The headline numbers were that the economy added 211,000 jobs and unemployment fell to 4.4%.  No one noted that the employment level rose by a more modest 156,000 and unemployment fell because, once again, the growth in the labor force was understated at only 12,000 (while the U.S. population grew by 171,000).  Each month, as the unemployment rate ticks downward, economists proclaim the economy to be at “full employment.”  And each succeeding month, the economy adds more jobs and the unemployment rate drops more.  How can that be?  Here’s a chart of the “labor force backlog,” the cumulative amount that the government has under-reported growth in the labor force in order to make unemployment look better than it really is:  Labor Backlog.  (It’s the yellow line on the chart.)  Note that the “backlog” remains near its highest level at about 5-1/2 million workers.  Were it not for this “backlog,” an honest reading on unemployment would have the figure at 7.2% – a far cry from “full employment.”  It’s no wonder that, in spite of all of this supposed strength in labor market, there’s been no corresponding upward pressure on wages.

What does it mean when you put all of this together?  It means that the approach taken by President Trump to date – jawboning foreign leaders on trade and CEOs about manufacturing in the U.S., and making idle threats about tearing up trade deals and implementing “border taxes” – has done absolutely nothing to improve the economy.  No surprise.  These are exactly the same results that the same tactics employed by past presidents for decades has produced, which are no results at all.

Trump has seemed to be backing away from his promises on trade.  He’d better not, or he’ll find himself dealing with a recession before his first term is up.  His voters tolerate his less appealing aspects on the hope that he’ll follow through on his promise to “Make America Great Again” by fixing our trade mess.  Failure to do so won’t be tolerated.


Apple’s “Advanced Manufacturing Fund” a PR Gimmick

May 4, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-apple-fund-idUSKBN17Z2PI

Today Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, announced plans to set up a $1 billion “advanced manufacturing” fund, making it sound as though it’s going to create manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  (See the above-linked article.)  It’s actually nothing more than a clever public relations ploy – a gimmick designed to polish Apple’s tarnished image.

Ever since Trump’s message about bringing back manufacturing jobs began to resonate with voters, free trade advocates like Cook have begun waging a campaign on two fronts designed to blunt any efforts aimed at reversing globalization.  On the one hand, there has suddenly emerged a lot of talk about how most manufacturing jobs have actually been lost to automation and not trade policy which is, of course, a lie.  If the plant you worked in has just closed, you merely need to ask yourself where that product is now being made.  Is it being made by robots in a new factory, or is it now being made in a sweat shop in China or Mexico?  The answer is obvious.

The other tactic is to make themselves appear to be gung-ho for American manufacturing, lest they risk alienating the growing majority of Americans who now see free trade as a drag on the American economy.  As part of this effort, they’ve advanced the notion of “advanced manufacturing” – something that will somehow create jobs by developing factories so automated that human workers aren’t required.  Sounds like double-talk?  Of course it is.  But they believe you’re too dumb to see through it.

Apple is a perfect case in point.  Their products are considered the epitome of “high tech.”   Such a “high tech” company must be on the cutting edge of “advanced manufacturing,” right?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The manufacture of Apple’s electronic gizmos is about as low-tech as you can get.  Contracted out to companies like China’s Foxconn, Apple’s products are pieced together by hand, utilizing thousands of workers in sweat shop conditions to insert tiny components into circuit boards.  Truth be told, the manufacture of cars in Detroit assembly plants which utilize robots for hundreds of assembly tasks is far more advanced than anything that Apple does.  The manufacturing jobs in those assembly plants are well-paid, high-skilled jobs.  Interfacing with all of that automation is no job for dummies.

Apple could move their manufacturing back to the U.S. today, but they resist for two reasons.  One is the investment that would be required to build proper manufacturing facilities that comply with environmental and labor laws.  More importantly, however, they resist because they need to maintain their manufacturing presence in China in order to have access to the Chinese market.  China’s leaders are smart enough to insist that products sold in China be made in China.

Cook wants you to think of Apple as a good corporate citizen of the United States, interested in creating jobs for Americans.  Give me a break.  They want to sell you an iPhone.  They want you to pay as much as possible (regardless of whether or not you can actually afford it) for something that’s made as cheaply as it can be, and they want you to pay for it with money earned anywhere except at Apple.

Gimmicks like these won’t bring manufacturing jobs back.  Only tariffs (or “border taxes” or whatever you want to call them) will force companies like Apple to manufacture in the U.S. and actually create real jobs for American workers.

 


Trump’s “Faulty Trade Math?” Accuser’s math is faulty.

April 29, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-trade-analysis-idUSKBN17U2SL

This is rich!  In this above-linked op-ed piece (which isn’t identified as such but, rather, is presented as a factual report), the author takes Trump to task for “faulty math” regarding trade policy.  But it’s the author of this article whose math is “faulty” at best, or deliberately misleading at worst.  First, let’s consider some of the statements leading up to his “math.”

In the case of Mexico, the American companies that exported a quarter of a trillion dollars of goods and services to that country last year would be out a customer, and likely cut jobs.

Those American companies that tried to replace the $323 billion in Mexican imports would likely do so at a higher cost — assuming they are in the United States to begin with.

They would be in the United States if similar policies are applied to other countries, which would only make sense.  Then, yes, the domestic manufacturers would likely replace those Mexican imports at a higher cost.  But the author conveniently ignores the fact that the increased demand for labor in the U.S. would drive wages up even faster.

“Americans seem to really like guacamole,” Noland said, “but the idea that we are going to have giant greenhouses and lots of avocados and limes – the fact that we are purchasing them from the Mexicans rather than producing them at home tells you producing them at home is more expensive. We can stop trading with the Mexicans, and have $60 billion less in consumption.”

Seriously?  This is the argument for not bringing a million manufacturing jobs back from Mexico?  Avocados and guacamole?  If they cost 20% more, people won’t buy them?  They’ll just consume less?  They won’t serve onion dip at their parties instead?  Come on!  How much of your disposable income do you spend on avocados and guacamole?  How much more income would you have to spend on them if your wages went up?

By the statistics most widely accepted among economists, the U.S. position with the rest of the world has been steadily improving as investment flows into the country from abroad and supports millions of jobs.

This is an outright lie.  The flow of capital investment has been negative for decades.  While some investment dollars do come into the U.S., far more have left, making net investment a big drag on jobs.

OK, now for the “faulty math:”

Even if Trump achieved his wildest success, and eliminated the United States’ $500 billion trade deficit solely through increased exports that boosted gross domestic product on a dollar-for-dollar basis, it would do little to dent the estimated $7 trillion in government deficits his tax plan is projected to generate over the next decade.

Alan Cole, an economist at the Tax Foundation, said that every dollar of gross domestic product generates about 17.6 cents in federal government revenue, meaning the $500 billion trade shortfall would translate into just $88 billion in new taxes.

That part is true but, as free trade advocates tend to do, he’s presented only one half of the equation.  That annual trade deficit of $500 billion (actually $800 billion if talking about manufactured products) is a drain on the economy.  If every dollar of that deficit isn’t re-injected into the economy in some way, the result is a permanent recession.  Since we’ve already noted that capital investment is also a net outflow, the only way left to re-inject that money into the economy is through federal deficit spending, in all its forms.  Grants for education, for police and fire, for infrastructure. safety net programs like welfare and medicaid, health care premium support under the Affordable Care Act, student loans … the list goes on and on.  All of this federal spending is made necessary by the trade deficit drain of money from the economy.

So, not only would restoring a balance of trade produce an additional $88 billion in new federal revenue (nothing to sneeze at and it would likely be more than that), but it would also cut federal spending by $500 billion.  That’s a net impact of nearly $600 billion per year – enough for the federal government to balance its budget.  And it would likely pave the way for cuts to personal income tax rates, saving all of us a bundle.

The case for free trade made by its advocates often reminds me of the commercials we all see on TV for the local casinos.  Everyone gathered around the blackjack table or the crap table pumps their fists and high-fives their friends as they celebrate another win and rake in their money.  Everyone’s winning and having a great time!  “Casinos are a big boost for the local economy,” we’re always told when some development group wants to build a new one in your community.  The casino owners and a few surrounding hotels and restaurants are winners.  You’re not.  If you’re someone who frequents one of these places, you’re a loser.  You may not want to admit it, but you are – you’re a loser.  Don’t feel bad.  Everyone who goes there is a loser.  Everyone who owns a business where you’d spend your money if you hadn’t lost it at the casino is also a loser.  Casinos are a net drag on the broader community, siphoning away money that people need for other things.

It’s exactly the same with a trade deficit.  Global corporations are winners.  The rest of us are losers.  But they want you to think that free trade benefits you in ways that are just too difficult to understand or quantify.  Remember Enron, the huge “energy trading company” that was such a darling of Wall Street back in the ’90s?  No one could figure out exactly how they made money.  Enron executives condescendingly sneered that their business was just too sophisticated and complicated for most investors to understand.  And lots of otherwise-intelligent people were sucked in.  Eventually, the whole thing collapsed spectacularly and was exposed as a giant scam.  Investors had been played for fools.  That’s exactly the same scam free traders are running when they tell you that it’s not just a matter of money in versus money out.

If trade deficits don’t matter, why is it that countries like Mexico, China, Germany, Japan, South Korea and others are so adamantly opposed to taking their turn at it?  It’s because they know the real math.


Anti-border tax coalition

April 20, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-tax-lobbying-idUSKBN17C2HQ

I’ve been predisposed for a week or so and it’s now time to get caught up on some things.  There’s been a lot in the news lately regarding Trump administration policies on immigration and trade.  I’m extremely pleased with what’s happening on immigration, less so with what I hear about Trump waffling on the idea of a “border tax” (another name for tariffs).

But I’ll start with the above-linked story that came out last week because this is a perfect example of the divergence of interests that takes place when a nation becomes “economically over-populated” or takes on the characteristics of such an economy through free trade with a badly overpopulated nation.  For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this concept, this divergence of interests is one of the consequences of the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption.  As a society becomes more densely populated, the need to crowd together and economize space begins to erode per capita consumption.  As per capita consumption declines, so too does per capita employment.  The result is rising unemployment and poverty.   It’s in individuals’ best interest – in the best interest of the common good – that this situation be avoided.  (To better understand this concept, I encourage you to read Five ShortBlasts.)

However, while per capita consumption may begin to decline as a population density reaches a certain level, total consumption continues to rise with a growing population.  Who benefits from that?  Anyone in the business of selling products.  Not only do they benefit from the increase in sales volume, but they benefit further as the labor force grows faster than demand, putting downward pressure on wages.  Thus, it’s in corporations’ best interest to see population growth continue forever, and to pursue more markets through free trade.

So it’s in the best interest of the common good that we avoid meshing our economy through free trade with nations whose markets are emaciated by overcrowding and who come to the trading table with nothing but bloated labor forces hungry for work.  But it’s in corporations’ best interests to grow the overall customer base through free trade with those same nations.  So it comes as no surprise that a big-business coalition is eager to steer lawmakers away from any tax plan that would include a “border tax” (a tariff) that might shut them out of their foreign markets.

They call themselves “Americans for Affordable Products,” making it sound as though it is individual Americans who make up this coalition and not global corporations.  They want us to believe that products will become less affordable.  While prices for imports may rise, they want you to forget that those increases would be more than offset by rising incomes and falling tax rates.  They don’t care if the border tax benefits you.  All they care about is that it may not necessarily benefit them.

So which of these competing interests will lawmakers heed – their wealthy corporate benefactors or the angry Americans who swept the Trump administration into power on his promise to enact a border tax and bring our manufacturing jobs back home?  Money talks and I fear that groups like this coalition are having an effect.  Trump and Republicans would be wise to ignore them.  Democrats paid the price for ignoring the plight of middle-class Americans when Obama betrayed his promise of “hope and change.”  Those same middle-class Americans will pull the trigger on Trump too if he doesn’t come through.

 


February Trade Report: New Administration, Same Old Deficit

April 4, 2017

OK, I know it’s not reasonable to expect anything different.  After all, Trump hasn’t yet had a chance to implement new trade policies that would have any meaningful impact on our trade results.   What he has done is meet with some leaders of nations who are among the worst offenders in terms of their trade surplus with the U.S.:  Mexico, Japan and Germany, most notably.  He meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping in a couple of days.  Reportedly, he hasn’t pulled any punches so far in expressing his displeasure with the trade deficit and has vowed to take tough action (like a “border tax”) to change the situation.  So, one thing we can say about the early evidence provided by the February trade results is that tough talk has absolutely no effect on trade results.  (As if the trade results of past administrations aren’t sufficient evidence.)

In February, the deficit dipped slightly.  Here’s a chart of the deficit in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  As you can see, though the deficit dipped slightly from January, it remains stuck in the $55-62 billion range it’s been in for two years.

As time goes on, I grow more nervous that Trump will cop out on the trade issue just as Obama did, as more and more meetings with world leaders and business leaders try to convince him of the intangible, unquantifiable benefits of free trade.  It worked on Obama.  Hopefully, they’ll find Trump a tougher nut to crack.  Time will tell.  If there is no border tax in Trump’s tax overhaul plan, we’ll know that he caved to the pressure.  We’re watching, President Trump.  You can kiss your supporters goodbye if you don’t come through on this campaign promise.