America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2018

October 22, 2019

With little more than two months left in 2019, I’ve finally finished compiling and analyzing America’s trade data for 2018.  Why the delay?  Thanks to the government shutdown early this year, the trade data wasn’t released this year until nearly July – four months later than usual.  And tabulating the results for hundreds of 5-digit end use code products for 165 nations is no small feat.

What we’re looking at here are the deficits in manufactured goods as opposed to services and various categories of natural resources.  Why?  Because manufacturing is where the jobs are.  Yes, there are jobs associated with the harvesting and mining of natural resources but, pound for pound, those jobs pale in comparison to the number generated by manufacturing.

And it should be noted that there are more than 165 nations in the world.  The CIA World Factbook lists 229.  Nearly all of the 64 nations that I left out of this study are tiny island nations with whom, combined, trade represents only a tiny fraction of America’s total.  Also, their economies tend to be unique in that they rely heavily on tourism and their manufacturing sectors are virtually non-existent, if for no other reason than a lack of space to accommodate manufacturing facilities.

It should also be noted that I’ve rolled the results for tiny city-states into their larger surrounding nations – states like Hong Kong, Singapore, San Marino, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco and others.  They too tend to have unique economies, heavily dependent on services like financial services, and mostly devoid of manufacturing for the same reason as small island nations – a lack of space.  There is no room for sprawling manufacturing complexes.

So, with that said, let’s begin with a look at America’s biggest trade deficits.  Here are the top twenty:  Top 20 Deficits, 2018.

It comes as no surprise that China once again has topped the list with a whopping $416 billion deficit – up from $385 billion the year before.  It’s more than four times as large as the next biggest deficit – Japan.  But Japan is less than one tenth the size of China, making the deficit with Japan nothing to scoff at.  Look at our deficit with Ireland.  It’s one tenth that of China, but China is 200 times as large as Ireland.

There are many other interesting observations that can be made about this list:

  1. There’s a lot of variety on this list – nations big and small, rich and poor, Asian, European and Middle Eastern nations.  But there’s one thing that all except one have in common – a high population density.  The average population density of this list is 629 people per square mile.  Compare that to the population density of the U.S. at 92 people per square mile.  On average, the nations on this list are seven times more densely populated than the U.S.
  2. With a few exceptions, these are not poor countries where wages are low.  Half of the top ten nations have a “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP,” a measure of wealth that is roughly analogous to wages) near or, in two cases – Ireland and Switzerland, above that of the U.S. ($59,500).  Only one nation in the top ten – Vietnam – has a PPP of less than $10,000.  So, the conventional wisdom that low wages cause trade deficits isn’t supported by this list.
  3. Two nations on this list – China and India – represent 40% of the world’s population.  On the other hand, there are others that, combined, make up less than 1% of the world’s total.  Naturally, if we have a trade deficit with a big nation, it tends to be really big.  In order to identify the factors that influence trade, we need to factor sheer size out of the equation.
  4. On average, the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods has risen by 166% with this group of nations over the past ten years.  Whatever it is that drives trade deficits has a very potent effect.  The fastest growing deficit is with India, rising by 428% in ten years.  India is the 2nd poorest nation on the list.  Perhaps low wages do play a role here?  On the other hand, nearly tied with India (in terms of the rate of growth in the deficit, not the deficit itself, which is actually larger) is Switzerland, the 2nd wealthiest nation on the list – wealthier than the U.S. – debunking the low wage theory.
  5. It’s often said that America needs to be more productive in order to compete in the global economy.  Yet we see nations like France and Italy on this list – nations notorious for long vacations, short work weeks, etc. – not exactly bastions of productivity.  So if productivity is an issue, why are we losing out to nations who are much less productive?
  6. In 2018, the U.S. had a total trade deficit of $816 billion in manufactured goods.  Of the 165 nations in this study, the top nine deficits on this list account for more than that entire total.  The U.S. actually has a small surplus of trade with the other 156 nations of the world combined.

Trade deficits matter.  As noted above, our overall deficit in manufactured goods in 2018 was $816 billion.  On a per capita basis, that’s a deficit of $2,500 for every man, woman and child in the U.S., or a deficit of nearly $10,000 for an average household of four.  That’s how much poorer you are than if we had a balance of trade.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at the other end of the spectrum – America’s top twenty trade surpluses in manufactured goods.  If population density is a factor, then we should see that list comprised of nations with low population densities.  And if low wages aren’t a factor, we shouldn’t see anything much different than what we saw on this list presented here – a list peppered with rich and poor nations alike.  So stay tuned.  You won’t find this in-depth analysis of trade or the factor that actually drives it anywhere else.


August Trade Data – More Evidence that Tariffs Work

October 7, 2019

You won’t find it in the headline number, but the August trade data that was released on Friday provides more evidence that tariffs work to reduce trade imbalances.

The overall trade deficit in August remained in the same tight range where it’s been for over a year, at $54.9 billion.  Imports remained locked in the same range where they’ve been for a year, while exports remained at the same level where they’ve been for two years.  The deficit in manufactured goods, which came in at $73.8 billion, may be showing signs of finally leveling off, although it’s too early to draw that conclusion.  (Here’s a chart of that all-important trade category:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.)

What’s significant is what’s happening in trade with China.  Through August, the trade deficit with China is on track to finish at about the same level as 2014 – $345 billion – after soaring to $420 billion in 2018.  It will likely end the year even lower as companies ramp up efforts to shift manufacturing to tariff-free suppliers.

The August trade data also illustrates that all of the talk of the tariffs hurting farmers is a bunch of baloney.  Through August, total farm exports are off from the previous year by less than 1%.  Exports of soybeans, which gets so much attention, are actually up in 2019 to $17.3 billion from $15.3 billion during the same period in 2018.

Unfortunately, the exodus of companies from China to find other tariff-free manufacturers hasn’t yet led to a boost in manufacturing in the U.S.  The trade deficit with other suppliers like Mexico, Vietnam, South Korea and others is actually getting worse as companies turn to them, their alternate, back-up manufacturers, to provide the capacity that’s been pulled out of China.  That won’t change until Trump begins extending his tariff policy to those countries as well.  Tariffs on all auto imports would be especially helpful.   As I said last month – what’s he waiting for?


Evidence Mounting that Trump Tariffs are Working

September 9, 2019

The July trade data released on Friday by the Commerce Department provides evidence that the tariffs implemented by the Trump administration on Chinese imports are working.  The purpose of the tariffs, of course, is to shift manufacturing away from China and back to the U.S. to bolster the U.S. economy and manufacturing employment and break America’s dependence on massive budget deficits to counteract the damage done by trade deficits.

You won’t find much evidence of it in the headline number – the overall trade deficit – which shrunk marginally in July to $54 billion, a figure actually slightly worse than a year ago – $53.4 billion in July, 2018.  You have to look deeper at what’s happening with manufactured goods – not just “goods” in general, which the Commerce Department tracks and which includes trade in resources like oil and and farm products that have little impact on job creation.  The trade deficit in manufactured goods has been deteriorating rapidly for many years, interrupted only by the “Great Recession” in 2008/2009.  From January, 2010 to December of 2018, the deficit in manufactured goods nearly tripled, from $28.6 billion to $76.5 billion.  However, in the past twelve months, the deficit in manufactured goods has risen by only $0.3 billion – an actual decline when adjusted for inflation – and has actually fallen by $6.4 billion since the record of $76.5 billion set in December.

The impact on trade with China has been dramatic.  Through 2018, the deficit with China had been rising at a rate of about 10% per year, from $56.9 billion in 1998 to $419.5 billion in 2018.  In 2019, however, the deficit has fallen by 12% and the rate of decline is accelerating, though it ticked up slightly in July, likely the result of importers stockpiling goods in anticipation of the next round of tariffs.

The effect on manufacturing employment in the U.S. has been much less dramatic, though there has been some effect.  Manufacturing employment gains have been slow in 2019 after a strong 2018, but that may be about to change.  The Labor Department reported on Friday that, while the average work week in the U.S. rose a tenth of an hour to 34.4 hours, the manufacturing work week rose by 0.2 hours to 40.6 hours.  That bodes well for an overdue jump in manufacturing employment as employers look to cut overtime costs.  Also, although the headline number of Friday’s employment report – 130,000 jobs added in August (according the establishment survey portion of the report) – was below expectations for a gain of about 158,000 – what went unreported was that employment in the U.S. (as measured by the household survey portion of the report) rose by nearly 600,000!

And there’s this:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-women/tight-u-s-labor-market-shrinks-gender-and-race-gaps-to-record-lows-idUSKCN1VR2JC.  In August, the gap in the labor force participation rate between men and women fell to an all-time record low and black unemployment also fell to an all-time record low.

Still, job gains in manufacturing at this point could be and should be much better.  What’s holding it back is Trump’s failure to expand his tariff policy beyond China, enabling companies to shift production from China to secondary suppliers in other countries – especially Mexico – where the trade deficit has jumped 24%.  Mexican workers have been the biggest beneficiaries of the tariffs on China, not Americans.

Trump can’t really claim that he’s “Made American Great Again” until manufacturing jobs come back to the U.S. in a much bigger way.  That can’t happen until he applies tariffs beyond China to include Mexico and imported autos from Europe, Japan and South Korea.  The results with China prove that they work.  Why is he holding back?


“Embrace change,” corporate America!

September 3, 2019

I was there, working in manufacturing in the 1980s, when a cold wind swept across America.  I was there when our corporations, until then led by manufacturing and the engineers who rose up through its ranks, kicked manufacturing to the curb and replaced their leadership with marketing people, skilled in the art of B.S., and bean counters, focused on nothing but cutting costs.  I was there when the United Nations and the World Trade Organization embarked on their campaign of raising poor nations out of poverty through the systematic plundering of jobs from the U.S. – as many jobs as possible without tipping the balance of power in favor of bad actors who might threaten this new concept of “globalism” and the “New World Order” – the new regime of parasites dedicated to keeping its U.S. host alive just enough to keep the blood flowing.

I was there when they began scaling back manufacturing operations, laying off good workers and closing plants.  “Embrace change,” we were told constantly by business managers with an air of condescension, as though they were addressing fools too dumb to recognize good things and good opportunities when they see it.  We had made careers of embracing change – change for the better – changes that automated our factories, boosted production, cut emissions, improved quality and grew profits.  Now we were being insulted by con men whose only goal was the next promotion, which required laying off more people than the next guy.

I was there at a big division-wide meeting – one of those meetings whose purpose was ostensibly to gather input, but it was clear from the start that input was the last thing they wanted.  What they wanted was “buy in” for the new direction of the company.  In other words, you’d better accept what’s coming enthusiastically, with a big smile on your face, if you know what’s good for you.  The leader, the division manager, asked, “what are we going to need to succeed?”  I raised my hand and replied – perhaps naively or perhaps in a thinly-veiled attempt to stand up for what I and many others present had built our careers around.  “We’ll need excellence in manufacturing.”  I was stunned by his arrogant, dismissive reply.  “Why?  We don’t need that.  We can buy that!”  I thought to myself, “you dumbass, you can buy it if you want, but you still need it, and now you’re at the mercy of your supplier.”  But it would have been a pointless example of falling on your own sword to come right out and say it.  “Embrace change.”  Here it comes.

Our final days before closing the doors were spent writing operating procedures, documenting every detail of our operations, and then training workers brought over from foreign subsidiaries.  We were forced to facilitate the widespread technology transfer that played a critical role in ruining the American economy.

It’s decades later and the tables have turned.  As it always does, the pendulum swung too far.  The globalist corporations over-played their hand, planting the seeds of political change.  Americans are sick of working for minimum wages and being the world’s chumps.  America itself can no longer fund massive trade deficits.  The wind has shifted and now blows cold on globalist dreams of reaping big profits from a China transformed into western-style consumers and from plundering the American market with cheap products.  Those dreams never had a chance.  China will never be more than a sweat-shop labor pool with their gross over-population dooming any hope of a western-style, consumer-driven economy.

In the meantime, a lot of weeds sprouted in the devastated American economic landscape.  By “weeds,” I mean business models that bring so little value to the table that they are dependent on virtual slave labor wages.  Cheap junk of poor quality has perpetuated a throw-away mindset among consumers.  Cheap clothing made of thin, flimsy fabric.  Tools that break after one use.  Auto parts and appliances that break as soon as the warranty expires.  An economy dependent on consumers burning through their severance packages.  A retail economy that employed laid-off workers manning check-out lines until everyone had burned through their savings.  An economy totally dependent on consumers buying stuff that they had no hand in producing.  All the while the economy grew.  It didn’t matter if the growth was flowers or weeds, as long as the color was green – money pouring into corporate coffers.

In the wake of Trump’s tariffs on China, retailers are having a hissy-fit when their suppliers ask for a price increase to cover the cost of the tariffs.  Products with high perceived value needn’t fear.  They’ll always find a way to be marketed successfully even if their prices do rise a few percent.  Those with low value will bite the dust.  Good riddance.  And retailers who turn their backs on good products just because the supplier needs to raise prices to make a profit – whether to cover the cost of the tariffs or, better yet, to begin manufacturing domestically – will lose out to retailers who understand their value, and they too will fail and vanish.  Again, good riddance.  It’s not like there’s a shortage of retailers.

So, corporate America, the shoe’s now on the other foot.  EMBRACE CHANGE!  Think of the possibilities and opportunities – the opportunity to cut your shipping costs dramatically, to be in charge of your manufacturing again instead of being at the mercy of Chinese companies, to boost sales to American consumers with more buying power thanks to rising wages.  EMBRACE CHANGE!!  Maybe you can mitigate some of the increased cost by cutting fat at the top layers of your organizations – those con men who grew fat and rich by ruining the lives of the people who actually did the work.  EMBRACE CHANGE!!!  Maybe you’ll survive.  If not, good riddance and adios.  Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out.  Your workers will be fine.  The winning companies will snap them right up.


Tariffs “a problem with no solution?”

August 31, 2019

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/30/basic-fun-ceo-jay-foreman-to-keep-production-in-china-despite-trump.html

In the above-linked article, Jay Foreman, CEO of Basic Fun, Inc., the toy company whose most well-known product is “Lincoln Logs,” whines that the tariffs on China have created “a problem with no solution.”  He complains that Trump’s order to American companies to find a new supply chain, preferably in the U.S., leaves him with no good alternatives.  If he moves production to another country, like India, he may soon face the same tariff problem there.  Move production back to the U.S.?  “There’s no labor here,” he says.

“I’m not really sure the American consumer is ready to start making toys in the kind of conditions you might see in factories in India, and there’s no labor here in the United States to manufacture toys,” said Foreman.

In addition to labor condition concerns, Foreman said that moving production to India, for example, is risky because Trump has already criticized that country’s trade practices.

I’m confused.  American consumers don’t make toys, especially in India.  Workers make things, not consumers.  And Indian factories are staffed with Indian workers, not American consumers.  I think he’s saying that American consumers might be turned off if they learned that the toys they’re buying are made in deplorable conditions.  I suspect that the Chinese factories aren’t that much different.

There’s “no labor here?”  What a crock.  The U.S. is awash in labor.  There are still ten million Americans who haven’t been put back to work since the “Great Recession” in 2009.  The only reason that unemployment in the U.S. is so low – 3.7% in July – is that these long-term unemployed have been factored out of the labor force.  This is why per capita employment remains approximately 2% below the pre-2009 level.  It’s the reason that the American economy is able to add 200,000 jobs every month during this period of economic expansion without any effect on unemployment and barely any upward pressure on wages.  The workers seem to appear out of thin air like magic every month.  It’s not magic.  The workers are here, waiting and eager to be put back to work.

Any time some company executive complains that they can’t find workers in the U.S., it’s because they can’t find workers at the wages they’re willing to pay, which is probably minimum wage or even less, if they could get away with it.  Offer $20 an hour, a more reasonable wage for the kind of skilled work required by manufacturing, and see how many workers show up at your door.  The impact on product prices would be minimal, and more than offset by rising wages.  After all, every consumer is either a worker or is supported by a worker.

Oh, by the way, it’s kind of ironic that Mr. Foreman complains that his toys can’t be made in the U.S. when the most iconic toy in Basic Fun’s line-up, Lincoln Logs – a toy inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999, is actually made in Maine by Pride Manufacturing for Basic Fun.  And guess what?  American consumers still buy Lincoln Logs for their kids.  No one complains that Lincoln Logs’ manufacturing should be shipped to China so that they can save a few cents.


Trump Tariff Policy and the Risk of Recession

August 21, 2019

Early this month, Trump announced that a 10% tariff would go into effect on September 1st on all remaining imports from China.  (Half of Chinese imports were already subject to a 25% tariff.)  Stock markets plunged amid warnings of a global slowdown, inflation and the possibility of recession in the U.S.  Investors rushed to buy safe-haven bonds, sending the yield on 10-year bonds below that of 2-year bonds, producing the dreaded “yield curve inversion,” which has often been a harbinger of a looming recession.  So the warnings of recession intensified.  Every weaker-than-expected economic report blames the “trade war” and Trump’s tariffs, while every stronger-than-expected economic report – most notably a strong labor market and good GDP growth (the exact opposite of recession) is shrugged off as happening in spite of the tariffs and trade war.  The globalist media is desperately stoking fear of a recession in the hope of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is there actually a risk of recession related to Trump’s tariff policy?  You bet there is.  But the relationship is exactly the opposite of what economists and the media would have you believe.  Trump’s “slow turkey” approach to the use of tariffs – imposing them only on China – so far hasn’t yielded anything in terms of reducing the trade deficit and bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.  Don’t get me wrong.  The tariffs on China are definitely working – reducing the trade imbalance with China by nearly 25% this year.  But companies aren’t convinced that this is anything other than a blip in U.S. trade policy or that it could extend beyond China.  So, instead of bringing jobs back to the U.S., it has shifted them to other overpopulated nations hungry for work.  It appears that countries like Mexico and Vietnam have been the big beneficiaries so far, where our trade deficit with each has grown by approximately 25%.

Our overall trade deficit hasn’t budged.  In  June (the most recent month for which data is available), our deficit in manufactured goods was $73.1 billion – the 2nd worst figure ever recorded and only $3.6 billion below the record set in December of ’18.

Trump appears to be walking a fine line, taking the “slow turkey” approach to tariffs to avoid roiling markets but, at the same time, not realizing any of the benefit of bringing back manufacturing jobs, leaving the economy dependent on deficit spending to counteract the drag of the trade deficit, making it susceptible to a recession.  It’s a huge gamble.  A recession will doom any hope of a 2nd term and, with it, any hope of sustaining this badly-needed turn in trade policy.

 


EU threat on auto tariffs

July 31, 2019

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-eu/eu-redoubles-threat-to-retaliate-if-us-raises-auto-tariffs-idUSKCN1UH1N5

The above-linked report was published a few days ago, but I can’t let it pass without comment.  It’s reported that the EU is threatening to retaliate with tariffs of its own if Trump were to push ahead with tariffs on EU auto imports.

“We will not negotiate under WTO illegal action. Nor will we go down the road of managed trade,” she (Sabine Weyend, the EU’s director general of trade) said.

If Washington pushed ahead with its threat to raise auto tariffs to 25%, Brussels would respond with tariffs of its own, resulting in a “lose-lose” situation for all involved, she said.

This is exactly the same approach taken by China, and the EU should consider how well that’s working out for them.  And the EU is in a far weaker position than China.  Unlike China, who supplies electronics and other consumer products for which new supply chains will have to be re-established in the U.S., the EU competes with the U.S. in products that are still manufactured here, like autos and parts.  A full one third of our trade deficit with the EU – approximately $43 billion – is in autos.  If tariffs make such EU imports more expensive, American consumers can instantly and painlessly switch to American brands.  The same is true for pharmaceuticals, chemicals, plastics and virtually everything else imported from the EU.  We don’t need their imports – we have it all right here.

The notion that a tit-for-tat tariff battle with the EU would be a “lose-lose” situation is laughable.  When you’re already losing, as the U.S. is with a $150 billion/year trade deficit with the EU, the only possible outcome for the U.S. – even if a balance of trade with the EU were reached through a total cessation of trade with them – would be a $150 billion boost to the U.S. economy, a huge win by any measure.

If the EU wants to avoid the loss it’d suffer, it’d be better for them to boost their domestic consumption instead of relying on manufacturing for export – the same remedy that experts have recommended for China.  Of course, with a population density nearly the same as China, they face the same problem:  per capita consumption that’s depressed by over-crowding.

Trump is continuing his “slow turkey” approach to restoring a balance of trade through the use of tariffs.  It won’t be long before he levies the long-promised 25% tariffs on the remaining half of Chinese imports.  I suspect that the EU will then be his next target.