Trade Deficit in Manufactured Goods At Record High

December 7, 2017

The trade deficit in manufactured products* rose to a record high of $64.6 billion in October, surpassing the previous record of $63.3 billion set in March of 2015.  Take a look at this chart of our monthly deficit in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade. Exports of manufactured goods haven’t risen since September of 2011 (in spite of Obama’s laughable proclamation in 2010 that we would double exports in five years).  In the meantime, imports have soared by almost $30 billion.  It’s a dubious distinction for President Trump who, during his inaugural address in January, spoke of “…rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…” and proclaimed that “This American carnage stops right here and right now.”

To be fair, Trump didn’t mean that it would happen on the spot.  His administration has been taking steps to address our trade problem, trying to renegotiate NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada), imposing tariffs on some products and, most recently, blocking China from rising to “market economy” status with the World Trade Organization.  Aside from the work on NAFTA, which may conclude soon with the U.S. walking away from that ill-conceived agreement, the rest amounts to little more than the token steps taken by previous administrations.  The net result is that the plight of the manufacturing sector of our economy grows steadily worse.

Enough is enough.  It’s time to walk away from both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and begin implementing tariffs.  Any tariffs would be better than our current trade policy, but smart tariffs that address the real cause of our trade deficit – attempting to trade freely with badly overpopulated nations characterized by bloated labor forces and anemic markets – would be much more effective.  As an example, it was reported yesterday that Canada, angered by their treatment in the NAFTA negotiations, has canceled an order for Boeing-made fighter planes.  Why are we treating Canada this way?  Sure, we have a trade deficit with Canada, but it’s due entirely to oil.  In 2016, our biggest trade surplus in manufactured goods, by far, was with Canada – $44 billion, more than double any other country.  Canada is our best trading partner.  Why anger them?  Why not tell Canada that our beef is with Mexico, with whom we had a trade deficit in manufactured goods of almost $68 billion in 2016 – our third worst behind China and Japan – and that they’ll get just as good a deal from the U.S. without NAFTA?  Slap the tariffs on Mexico, not Canada.

We could completely wipe out our trade deficit in manufactured goods by applying tariffs to only ten countries – China, Japan, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, Vietnam, South Korea, Italy, India and Malaysia.  These ten countries, all more densely populated than the U.S. (all but Ireland are many times more densely populated), account for all of our trade deficit in manufactured goods.  While we have defiicts with others, they are much smaller and are offset by surpluses with the rest of the world.  The point is, we don’t have to anger the entire world with tariffs – just ten out of the more than 220 countries in the world.  So let’s be smart about how we do it, but the time has come, Mr. President.  Stop delaying the inevitable.  Do what you know needs to be done.

* The trade deficit in manufactured products is calculated by subtracting services, trade in petroleum products, and trade in foods, feeds and beverages from total trade, as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in its monthly reporting of international trade.

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Trump on Trade with China: Media Misses the Point

November 10, 2017

http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/08/politics/donald-trump-xi-jinping-statement/index.html

As was widely reported yesterday morning, Trump emerged from two hours of a meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping and had this to say:

I don’t blame China. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
The above-linked article goes on:
Instead of pointing the finger at Beijing for exacerbating trade disputes, Trump blamed past US administrations “for allowing this trade deficit to take place and to grow.”  It was a notable shift in tone from a President who was elected to office partly for his tough talk on holding other countries accountable for practices that disadvantage US workers.
Trump went on:
We want a vibrant trade relationship with China.  We also want a fair and reciprocal one. Today, I discussed with President Xi the chronic imbalance in our relationship as it pertains to trade and the concrete steps it will take to solve the problem of massive trade distortion.
A “notable shift in tone?”  Maybe a shift in tone, but the media is completely missing the not-so-subtle and huge shift in U.S. trade policy that this represents.  Previous presidents have chided China for unfair trade practices like currency manipulation, theft of intellectual property, subsidizing their exports, and manufacturing in sweat shops that also pollute with reckless abandon.  They used to put all of the onus on China for helping to correct our enormous trade imbalance.  The Chinese must have been rolling in the aisles with laughter when our trade negotiators left.
Not this time.  What Trump is saying is that the time has come for the U.S. to take the matter of restoring a balance of trade with China into our own hands.  Trump has been itching to begin levying tariffs on imports from countries that have large trade surpluses with the U.S. and, though he made no mention of tariffs in this speech, his vow to take matters into our own hands should send chills down the spine of Xi.  Restoring balance with China by slowing their exports with the use of tariffs would practically collapse the Chinese economy.
But so far it’s just talk.  What is Trump waiting for?  It seems clear that he’s biding his time with China in the hope that their help with reining in “Little Rocket Man” in North Korea will lead to his demise.  Probably a smart move but, if it doesn’t work by the time North Korea has the ability to put a nuke on an ICBM, the U.S. will have to act and the Chinese will lose whatever leverage holding the North Korean attack dog at bay has afforded them.
In the meantime, our trade deficit in manufactured goods grows worse.  Here’s the latest chart, gleaned from the trade data for September that was released on last Friday:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  Nothing has changed since Trump took office, and nothing will until he stops dithering with pointless negotiations and begins applying tariffs to these countries with bloated labor forces and emaciated markets.  My sense is that that time is growing nearer, but time will tell.

Trump: “I want tariffs. ….bring me some tariffs.”

September 1, 2017

https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/27/trump-reportedly-demands-china-action-i-want-tariffs-and-i-want-someone-to-bring-me-some-tariffs.html

With trade negotiations with both China and Mexico bogged down in trivial minutae, it was beginning to appear that Trump’s campaign promise to impose tariffs on both was nothing more than a ploy to win votes.  After all, we’ve seen this movie dozens of times over the past decades:  endless talk about intellectual property rights, labor laws, unfair government subsidies.  The list goes on and on and, in the end, our trade deficit gets bigger and bigger while our manufacturing sector withers.

Then, a few days ago, the above-linked report appeared.  Perhaps Trump has just been giving the “globalists” one last shot at negotiating something meaningful so that, at least, they can’t say he didn’t try.  But it seems that he’s getting fed up with the lack of progress.

Reportedly, in the presence of the “globalists” on his economic team – U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Economic Council director Gary Cohn, among others (which perhaps included daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner?) – Trump told chief of staff John Kelly:

So, John, I want you to know, this is my view. I want tariffs. And I want someone to bring me some tariffs … I know there are some people in the room right now that are upset. I know there are some globalists in the room right now. And they don’t want them, John, they don’t want the tariffs. But I’m telling you, I want tariffs.

Do it, John!  Draw up a tariff plan.  Help President Trump implement it and our long, long nightmare of trade policy idiocy will finally be over!  Then, instead of debt ceiling and budget negotiations getting deadlocked over how to pay for everything, our congressmen will have a new problem – what to do with all the additional revenue.

Let’s not give up hope yet.


Seven Months Into Trump’s Administration, Has Anything Changed?

August 14, 2017

I’m back from a hiatus at my north woods retreat, and there’s a bit to catch up on.  For now, however, I’m wondering what has really changed in terms of the economy since Trump took office seven months ago.  Let me begin by sharing a recent experience.

My wife and I stopped into a small restaurant in Boulder Junction, Wisconsin for dinner one evening earlier this week.  Boulder Junction is a tiny town in Vilas County in northern Wisconsin, a popular vacation area frequented mostly by folks from Chicago and Milwaukee.  A polite Asian lady, speaking broken English, seated us and told us the waitress would take our order shortly.  Upon ordering, the waitress assured us that our order would be prepared as we had requested.  It wasn’t.  When we complained, the waitress – without even offering to make it right – apologized and explained that there was a “language barrier” in the kitchen.  A language barrier in Boulder Junction!  I couldn’t believe it.

Another old lodge that we visit for dinner is staffed with waiters and waitresses from Lithuania.  They just can’t find reliable help in the north woods of Wisconsin, they explain.  However, another restaurant just up the road seems to have no problem.

I know what’s going on here.  These little businesses don’t have the wherewithal to recruit foreign laborers.  So how do they get them?  While I can’t provide proof, I’m certain that the Chamber of Commerce is importing foreign labor and pushing them on these businesses, or making them available at rates so cheap that these businesses don’t even have to bother with trying to hire locally.  So, when it comes to Trump’s promises to stop these kinds of practices, there’s no evidence that anything has changed.

Changing gears, the Commerce Department released the June trade figures last week.  Here’s a chart that shows the balance of trade in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  As you can see, it continues on the same downhill trajectory that it’s been on throughout the Obama administration.  In fact, in the 2nd quarter of 2017, the deficit in manufactured goods set a new record of $185.6 billion.  In other words, contrary to Trump’s inaugural vow that:

“… rusted out factories scattered like tombstones … stops right here and stops right now!”

matters have actually gotten worse.  While the Trump administration is currently involved in renegotiating NAFTA and in negotiations with the Chinese, and the U.S. negotiators are reportedly taking a much harder line in these negotiations, I’m very pessimistic that any improvement in our balance of trade will result.  Why?  Because there’s nothing to negotiate.  The ONLY thing that will make a difference in America’s favor is tariffs, something that no nation would agree to in “negotiations.”  Anything they will agree to will be totally unenforceable and any attempts to enforce them would be met with whining and, more importantly, a cut-off in funding of candidates unless they pressure the Trump administration to back off of enforcement actions.  These same kinds of negotiations have been tried and have failed for decades.  Most recently, Obama’s deal with South Korea, which he hailed as a “big win for American workers,” has actually proven to be a disaster.

In the meantime, the “new normal” economy that emerged during the Obama administration, in the wake of the Great Recession, goes on.  GDP growth remains stuck in the 1-2% range, wages are stagnant and job growth (when viewed in the context of the “100,000 jobs is the new zero” economy) is anemic at best.  The economy is being kept afloat by deficit spending (up 10% so far this year), a once-again growth in credit and an inflated stock market.  The illusion of good times isn’t going to last.

I’m growing impatient with the Trump administration’s dithering on these issues.  Can you tell?


Low Wages Play Little Role in Trade Imbalances

July 20, 2017

In my previous two posts in which we examined the lists of America’s worst trade deficits and best trade surpluses in manufactured goods, it seemed clear that low wages were not a factor.  Many of our worst trade deficits were with wealthy nations like Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Japan and South Korea.  The list of our best trade surpluses was also dominated by wealthy nations.

Let’s take a closer look at the issue.  If we sort a list of nations by purchasing power parity, or “PPP” – a factor roughly analogous to wages, and divide them equally into five groups, ranging from the wealthiest nations to the poorest, here’s what we find:

  • Among the 33 wealthiest nations, whose PPP ranged from $129,700 (Qatar) to $34,400 (Cyprus) in 2016, the U.S. had a trade deficit in manufactured goods with 15 of them.
  • Among the next 33 nations, whose PPP ranged from $33,200 (Czech Republic) to $16,500 (Iraq), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 13 of them.
  • Among the next 33 nations, whose PPP ranged from $16,100 (Costa Rica) to $8,200 (Ukraine), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 10 of them.  China is near the top of this group.
  • Among the next-to-last poorest group, whose PPP ranged from $8,200 (Belize) to $3,100 (Lesotho), the U.S. had a trade deficit with 13 of them.
  • Among the very poorest nations, whose PPP ranged from $3,100 (Tanzania) to $400 (Somalia), the U.S. had a trade deficit with only 4 of them.

So if low wages cause trade deficits, why aren’t our trade deficits concentrated among the poorest nations instead of that group actually representing the fewest deficits by far.  And why does the richest group of nations include the most (and some of the biggest) deficits?

There’s no denying the fact that, among the poorest nations, the U.S. had a deficit in manufactured goods with 17 of them.  Included in that group are Vietnam and India.  But both rank among the top 25 nations with the fastest growing PPP (146% and 145% relative to the U.S., respectively) over the past ten years.  Since incomes are rising so fast in those countries, then if low wages are a factor in driving trade imbalances, shouldn’t our deficits with those countries be declining?  They’re not.  Quite the opposite is happening.  Our deficits with both have exploded over the past ten years, by 349% with Vietnam and 250% with India.  Our trade deficit is making them wealthier.

It’s difficult to argue that low wages play no role whatsoever.  Mexico is an obvious example of where American companies are setting up shop there, just across the border, for no other purpose than to save on labor.  Everything made there comes back into the U.S.  Virtually none of those products are sold into the Mexican market.  While many of the other manufacturing operations built in other countries like China are put there primarily in pursuit of those markets, that’s not the case with Mexico.  And mysteriously, the increased demand for labor in Mexico doesn’t seem to do much to raise wages there.  Mexico is being used as a virtual slave labor camp and, by all appearances, there must be some collusion between American companies and the Mexican government to keep it that way.

Aside from the glaring example of Mexico, low wages play no role whatsoever in creating our massive trade imbalance in manufactured goods, as proven by the fact that the vast majority of our worst trade imbalances are with wealthy nations.  Instead, trade imbalances are caused by high population densities that make our trading partners incapable of consuming products anywhere close to their productive capacity.


America’s Best Trading Partners in 2016

July 12, 2017

In my previous post we found that the list of America’s worst trade partners in 2016 – those with whom the U.S. has the biggest trade deficit in manufactured goods – in terms of both total dollars and in per capita terms – was dominated by nations whose population densities were far above the world median.  Only two of the twenty worst nations had population densities below the world median.

So what about the other end of the spectrum – the nations with whom the U.S. enjoyed trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2016?  If there is a relationship between population density and trade imbalance, we should see the opposite effect – that the list is dominated by nations with low population densities.  Here’s the list of America’s twenty biggest trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2016:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2016

It isn’t as clear as you might expect, and here’s why.  The fact that all oil around the globe is priced in U.S. dollars makes oil exporters float to the top of the list, regardless of population density.  Those nations with whom the U.S. has a trade deficit in oil are high-lighted in yellow.  Of these twenty nations, eleven were net exporters of oil to the U.S.  Why does this matter?  Because American dollars, aside from being legal tender for purchasing oil anywhere in the world, can only be used as legal tender in the U.S.  That means that all those “petro-dollars” have to be used to buy something from the U.S. – primarily two things:  U.S. government bonds and products made in the U.S.  While eleven net oil exporters appear on this list, only one appeared on the list of our top twenty worst trade deficits – Mexico.

Still, the population density effect is in play, even among these net oil exporters.  Believe it or not, Canada (not Saudi Arabia or some other Middle Eastern country) is our biggest source of imported oil.  With Canada, our trade surplus in manufactured goods is bigger than our deficit in oil by about $6 billion per year.  With Saudia Arabia, trade in oil and manufactured goods was almost perfectly balanced.  The same with New Zealand.  With Norway, our surplus in manufactured goods exceeded the deficit in oil by over $3 billion.

In addition, there are two very densely populated nations that appear on this list who are not oil exporters – the Netherlands and Belgium.  There’s a reason for this also.  Both are tiny European nations who happen to share the only deep water port on the Atlantic coast of Europe.  They use this to their advantage, buying American exports and then re-selling them to the rest of Europe.  Taken as a whole, the trade deficit with the European Union in 2016 was $138 billion, which would rank it 2nd on the list of our worst trade deficits, just after China.  The population density of the EU is 310 people per square mile – a little less than China.  And, in per capita terms, our trade deficit in manufactured goods with the EU was $274, a little worse than China.

Now let’s look at a list of our top twenty trade surpluses in per capita terms in 2016:  Top 20 Per Capita Surpluses, 2016.  This results in some small nations floating up onto the list:  Brunei (an oil exporter), Iceland, Belize, Guyana (an oil exporter), the Falkland Islands, Suriname, Oman and Equatorial Guinea (the latter two also being net oil exporters).  But in terms of population density, both lists are pretty similar.  The average population density of the nations on both lists are 213 people per square mile and 197, respectively.  Compare that to the lists of nations with whom we have the largest trade deficits where the population densities were 729 (our largest deficits in dollar terms) and 522 (our largest deficits in per capita terms).  But let’s look at those lists another way.  Let’s calculate the overall population density (the total population divided by the total land area) for the nations with whom we had the twenty largest per capita trade deficits vs. the nations with whom we had the twenty largest per capita surpluses.  Those figures are 372 people per square mile vs. 20 people per square mile.

Oh, and by the way, look at the purchasing power parity of both lists.  They’re remarkably the same.  Clearly, wealth (or wages) play no role in determining the balance of trade whatsoever.

The data couldn’t be more clear.  While other factors may come into play in trade, their effects are dwarfed by the role of population density in determining the balance of trade.  Free trade with densely populated nations is almost assured to yield terrible results for the U.S. – a huge trade deficit in manufactured goods, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the ruination of the manufacturing sector of our economy.  Because of the role of over-crowding in eroding per capita consumption, those nations consume little but are very bit as productive.  So they come to the trade table with a bloated labor force hungry for work, and a wilted market, unable to consume our exports in equal measure.  Free trade with more sparsely populated nations, on the other hand, is likely to yield the opposite result.  Any trade policy that doesn’t use tariffs to maintain a balance of trade with densely populated nations is doomed to failure, as decades of America’s free trade policy has proven.

We’ll look at even more data from 2016 in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned.

 


America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2016

July 6, 2017

America’s trade policy is a disaster.  There’s just no other way to describe it.  In 2016, our trade deficit rose to almost $505 billion, beating the old record set in 2015.  We can’t continue on this path.  An economy that has that much money drained from it can only avoid a permanent state of recession through deficit spending, which is exactly what we’ve done for decades, and it’s bankrupting us.  Our infrastructure is crumbling.  The Social Security trust fund is on a path to bankruptcy.  Medicare is already there.  Household incomes and net worth are declining.  And the government can’t come up with a scheme that makes health care affordable.

But what to do?  How did “free trade,” the darling of economists, back-fire so badly for the U.S.?  A quick glance at the balance of trade data, which is broken into “services” and “goods,” reveals a nice surplus in services.  It was in this category that the U.S. economy was really expected to shine, and it has.  But the “goods” part of the equation has run completely off the rails, with the deficit in goods dwarfing the small surplus in services.

What’s the problem with “goods?”  Is it oil?  There was a time, decades ago, when the deficit in goods was due almost entirely to oil imports.  But no more.  It has shrunk dramatically and now accounts for less than 25% of the goods deficit.  The vast majority of our deficit in goods is due to manufactured products.  So let’s focus there.

Let’s begin with a look at which nations account for our biggest trade deficits in manufactured goods.  Here’s a list of the top twenty in 2016:  Top 20 Deficits, 2016.  China is at the top of the list, yielding a trade deficit that’s more than four times as large as the next nation on the list, Japan.  In fact, so large is the trade deficit with China that it is larger than all of the nations of the rest of the world combined.  It would seem that China must be doing something underhanded.  Some say that the problem is low wages in China.  Others claim that China manipulates its currency, keeping it artificially low, thus making its exports cheaper for American consumers and making American imports too expensive for Chinese consumers.  Or maybe it’s just the sheer size of China, a big country with one fifth of the world’s population.

What is it about this list of nations that they have in common?  The list includes nations from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Central America.  It includes some of the wealthiest nations on earth – like Germany, Switzerland and Ireland – casting doubt on the “low wage” theory.

I mentioned China’s size.  But geographic size can’t be much of a factor.  Without any people, we wouldn’t even have trade with any particular country or region.  Take Antarctica.  It’s bigger than China, but we have no trade with that continent at all.  People are what’s important.  It’s their consumption of products that drives trade.  So maybe that’s where we should start looking.  Perhaps the number of people in a country – or their population density – is a factor.  So let’s take a look.  Let’s express the trade deficit with each one of those countries in per capita terms.  Now look at the list:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2016.

The median population density of the 165 nations* included in this study is 184 people per square mile.  The population density of the U.S. is apprximately 90 people per square mile.  Seventeen of the twenty nations on this list have population densities above the median.  The odds against that happening are 128:1.  Conversely, the chances of that happening are only 0.7%.  Clearly, population density is a factor.  The average population density of these nations is 522 people per square mile – almost three times the world median and more than five times the density of the U.S.

In per capita terms, China barely even makes the list, ranking 19th out of these twenty nations. Eleven of the twenty nations are European Union nations.

And what about the claim that low wages are to blame for trade deficits?  That’s clearly nonsense.  The average “purchasing power parity” (roughly analogous to wages) is just over $46,000 – on a par with the U.S.

On average, the per capita trade deficit with these nations has risen by 88% in the past ten years.

The fact that America’s deficit with Ireland, with a population density close to the world median, is almost three times that of Switzerland, the number two nation on the list, is an indication that something else is going on that tilts trade in favor of Ireland, and indeed there is.  Ireland is a tax haven and America is a fool to tolerate it.

Why is population density such a dominant factor in determining the balance of trade?  It’s because of the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption.  It’s because people living in crowded conditions consume less but are just as productive.  The result is that they come to the trade table with a bloated labor force and an emaciated market.  To understand more about why this happens, read Five Short Blasts.  It’s also the theme of this blog.

Any trade policy that fails to account for the role of population density in driving trade imbalances and fails to employ tariffs to maintain a balance of trade with overpopulated nations is doomed to failure.  America’s free trade policy is blind to this factor.  The resulting trade deficit is inevitable.

Next we’ll take a look at the list of America’s twenty best trade partners.  If population density is a factor, we should see the opposite results on that list.  It should be dominated by nations with low population densities.  Stay tuned.

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  *  There are 229 nations in the world.  Tiny island nations and city-states have been excluded from the study.  Trade with these nations is minuscule, accounting for less than 1% of U.S. trade.  The U.S. tends to have a surplus with such nations, regardless of their population density, since their economies are primarily based on tourism and not manufacturing.