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.

Advertisements

Ending NAFTA Would Hurt U.S.?

December 1, 2017

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nafta-economy/ending-nafta-would-hurt-growth-competitiveness-of-united-states-canada-report-idUSKBN1DR1D4

The above-linked story appeared a few days ago, warning of a 0.2% “hit” on U.S. GDP (gross domestic product) if the U.S. walked away from NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has resulted in a huge trade deficit with Mexico.  The argument is that the U.S. will be less competitive with the rest of the world without access to the cheap labor in Mexico.  Making autos and parts in the U.S. will raise costs, making American autos more expensive relative to imports from Japan, South Korea and Europe.

That’s probably true, but the answer to that is fairly simple.  Raise tariffs on products from those regions as well.  The trade deficit has never been about “competitiveness.”  Rather, it’s the result of attempting to trade freely with badly overpopulated nations who come to the trade table with a gross over-supply of labor and markets plagued by low per capita consumption.  I’ve always maintained that a piece-meal approach to addressing this problem can never work.  Tariffs need to be applied universally to every country whose emaciated markets are out of balance with their over-supply of labor.

One might question whether this will result in higher prices for American consumers.  Sure it will.  But the explosion in the demand for labor to make all these products in the U.S. once again, as we did decades ago, would drive wages higher even faster, making products more affordable in spite of higher prices.

President Trump has long promised to “put America first” in trade by withdrawing from NAFTA and even the World Trade Organization, and by then levying tariffs as necessary to restore a balance of trade.  During his recent trip to Asia, he made it clear once again that that will be our approach to trade from now on.  This is exactly what’s needed to halt the parasitic drain of the life blood from our economy.  The time has come, Mr. Trump.  Do it.

 


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.


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.


Student Visas

February 24, 2017

The subject of student visas aggravates me as much as illegal immigration (although we’re finally getting some great news on that front).

Why?  “What’s the problem with student visas?” you might ask.  For most, the topic probably conjures up images of foreign exchange students coming to the U.S. to experience life here and return home to spread the news about what a great place the U.S. is and to help spread our value system around the world.  Or maybe you envision students coming here for an education that can be put to work back home in some underdeveloped country, helping to raise living standards there.  But the reality of the situation is nothing like this.  The student visa program boils down to money.  It’s a system designed to suck trade dollars back into the U.S. economy and to prop up inflated tuitions.

Let’s begin with some data.  Here are the statistics for non-immigrant visas issued from 2011 through 2015.  (The data for 2016 is not yet available.)  Student visas are primarily “F” visas.  “M” visas are for vocational students.  Taken together, they totaled nearly 700,000 in 2015.  These are “non-immigrant” visas, but don’t be fooled.  A large percentage of these students receive immigrant visas (leading to permanent status) almost automatically upon graduation.

Where do these students come from?  About 280,000 came from mainland China.  75,000 came from India.  28,000 came from Saudi Arabia.  27,000 came from South Korea.  17,600 came from Vietnam.  An equal number came from Mexico.  17,000 came from Japan.  The rest are spread across the remaining nations of the world.  The significance of this list will be discussed later.

To get an idea of what the student visa program is really about, take a look at this web site, which provides information for foreign students for how to apply:

https://www.studyusa.com/en/a/33/how-to-get-your-u-s-student-visa

What it boils down to is this:  you have to explain why you want to study in the U.S. and, more importantly, you have to prove that you can pay for it.  There’s no student loan program here, at least not through U.S. agencies.  If you can get scholarship money from your native country, fine, but regardless of how you get the cash, you have to be able to pay your way.  You must also declare your intent to return to your home country when you’re finished with your studies.  But that’s a formality, one easily skirted when you actually get your degree.

In 2015, over 677,000 “F” visas were issued.  223,000 applicants were refused.  In other words, about three quarters of all applicants are accepted.

Now, let’s take a look at some interesting findings about the student visa program published in a study by the Brookings Institution in 2012.  Here’s the link:

https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/the-geography-of-foreign-students-in-u-s-higher-education-origins-and-destinations/#/M10420

“From 2008 to 2012, 85 percent of foreign students pursuing a bachelor’s degree or above attended colleges and universities in 118 metro areas that collectively accounted for 73 percent of U.S. higher education students. They contributed approximately $21.8 billion in tuition and $12.8 billion in other spending—representing a major services export—to those metropolitan economies over the five-year period.”

Got that?  They paid full tuition and living expenses, bringing over $33 billion into the economy.  And that was through 2012.  In 2015, when 25% more visas were issued than in 2012, that figure rises to over $42 billion.

Two-thirds of foreign students pursuing a bachelor’s or higher degree are in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) or business, management and marketing fields, versus 48 percent of students in the United States.

Remember how tech companies claim that they depend heavily on immigrants to provide the advanced skills that they need?

Forty-five (45) percent of foreign student graduates extend their visas to work in the same metropolitan area as their college or university.

In other words, these students then go on to become the H1-B visa workers that the tech industry (and many others) claim that they need.  So the “non-immigrant” nature of student visas, and the declaration of intent to return to their home country, is truly a joke.  Here’s further evidence that student visas are used as the pipeline for H1-B visas:

http://www.h1base.com/content/f1visa

These companies who claim that they’re dependent on immigrants for the skills they need are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.  What they need are STEM graduates and they get them from American universities.  They like the fact that foreign students contribute to a glut of labor that helps to keep their payroll costs suppressed.  When Apple claims that, if immigrants aren’t allowed to travel freely to work in the U.S., then they might need to relocate to where they can have easier access to immigrant labor, that’s a “crock” and they know it.  Go ahead, Apple, move to Yemen or  Iran or Libya or one of those other countries, and let’s see how successful you can be there.  What you really need are the STEM graduates of American universities.  You won’t find them in those other places.  But what you will find are poverty, illiteracy and oppressive governments.  But you say you can do better there.  So prove it.  Just leave.  Go ahead.  Go.

There’s a mind-numbing amount of information in these links.  Let’s boil it all down:

  • Immigrants currently fill 1.2 million of the seats available in American universities.  That’s a significant percentage of the seats available.
  • Approximately three quarters of foreign students who apply are accepted.  Compare that to the acceptance rate for American students at most prominent universities, where only 10% or fewer attain admission.
  • Why the preference for foreign students?  Because they pay full tuition, propping up the ridiculous rate of tuition increases.
  • Foreign students are given preference over American students because of their ability to pay.  This effectively shuts American students out, especially from STEM curricula.
  • The influx of foreign students actually counts as an export of services.  Can you believe that?  It’s one of the tricks used by the government to draw trade dollars back into the U.S. economy and to keep our trade data from looking even worse than it does.
  • University sports teams have also gotten in on the act, now recruiting foreign students through the “student” visa program, denying athletic scholarships to deserving American athletes.  When it comes time for the Olympics, those athletes, trained in America, compete for their home countries, leaving the American teams thin.
  • Almost half of foreign students then go on to work in America, shutting American students out of those jobs as well.
  • The student visa program feeds into the H1-B visa program, which then begins to feed many of the other immigrant categories such as immediate relatives and family-sponsored preferences.

OK, remember the above list of countries that send the most students?  Did you notice anything about that list?  Did you notice that it includes the countries with whom America has the biggest trade deficits?  That should give you a clue as to where these foreign students are getting the money they need for tuition.  Their parents are getting rich on manufacturing for export to the United States.  What this means is that, in addition to taking your job, they then use your money to pay for their kids to come over here and take your kids’ jobs too!  Can this scheme possibly get any more outrageous?

If you’re an American student who hasn’t been able to get accepted into the school or program of your choice, the student visa program is probably the main reason.  If you’re a recent graduate and find yourself now saddled with crushing student loan debt, you can blame the student visa program for propping up ridiculous tuition rates.  And if you now find yourself struggling to find a job, you can once again blame the student visa program.

The student visa program is an outrage perpetrated on unsuspecting parents and students, depriving them of opportunities to help America out of its trade-created cash crisis, to help greedy universities prop up inflated tuition rates and to help corporations suppress wages with a labor glut.  It has to stop.  No foreign student should be admitted until every last American kid who wants a college education has gotten a seat in a university.  President Trump … please … take a close look at the student visa program and rein it in.


Deficit Spending Holding Recession at Bay

August 26, 2016

It’s been a long time since I posted on this subject – about a year and a half.  Some discussion about the national debt jogged my memory, and I was curious to see how my chart would look now.

The following chart tracks the growth in the national debt vs. the “cumulative trade deficit.”  It’s an important metric because the trade deficit siphons money from the economy – money that is subsequently pumped back into the economy by federal deficit spending.  Countries who run a trade surplus with the U.S. repatriate those dollars primarily through the purchase of U.S. government bonds – bonds that are used to finance deficit spending.

Over the years, these two metrics have tracked very closely together, but not perfectly.  Sometimes deficit spending outpaces the trade deficit.  Sometimes it lags.  But any time that deficit spending lags the trade deficit, a recession is always right around the corner, since the net effect is a drain of money from the economy.

Typically, toward the end of a president’s administration – especially if it’s been a 2-term administration, deficit spending begins to decline as stimulus programs implemented at the beginning of a new administration expire and as pressure builds to rein in the deficit.  It happened at the end of the Clinton administration and at the end of the George W. Bush administration.  For this reason, I’ve been predicting that the Obama administration would end the same way.

It doesn’t look like it will.  Take a look at the chart:  growth in nat’l debt vs cumulative trade deficit.   Clearly, the Obama administration has felt no compulsion to rein in deficit spending like his predecessors.  When it comes to deficit spending, President Obama has kept his foot on the throttle like no other before him, pouring money into the economy.  In light of this, it’s not surprising that the economy has managed to hang on by its fingernails to avoid another plunge into recession.

Where has all the concern about fiscal restraint gone?  In the early ’90s, during the George H.W. Bush administration, deficit spending raced ahead of the trade deficit.  By the time Clinton took office, there was a lot of concern about the exploding national debt, so Clinton worked with Republicans to rein in the spending and actually balance the budget (on paper, at least).  He could afford to do it.  Thanks to the explosion in personal computer and cell phone technology and manufacturing, the economy hummed along at a brisk pace.  But by the end of his administration, the tech bubble burst, the trade deficit began to explode (thanks to NAFTA and China’s admission to the WTO – both of which were Clinton’s progeny), and there was little deficit spending to pick up the slack.  His administration ended in a bad recession.

So what’s different now that makes Obama immune to the exploding deficit?

  • Interest rates have fallen to near zero.  So interest payments on the national debt have actually declined in spite of a growing debt.  Zero percent of any amount, no matter how large or small, is still zero.  In fact, there’s even some talk of the possibility of interest rates going negative, as they have in Japan.
  • Perhaps because of the above or, for whatever reason, all political pressure for fiscal restraint has vanished.  No one – not even Republicans – even mention it any more.  No one seems to care.
  • Central banks around the world – and that includes the U.S. – are getting very skittish about the potential for another recession at a time when their recession-fighting ammo is all spent.  They’re pressuring governments to actually step up deficit spending.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that the recession I’ve been predicting hasn’t yet taken hold.  What is surprising is that the economy isn’t doing better than it is.  Twenty years ago, if you had told economists that the federal government would be running a $1 trillion/year deficit, that interest rates were near zero, that the Federal Reserve would have a $4.5 trillion balance sheet, and that the result of all of this was GDP growth of only 1%, they’d have told you that you were crazy – that it was impossible.  Yet here we are.

It’s surprising to many, perhaps, but not to those of us who understand the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption, and that all of our efforts to prop up the economy with rampant immigration-fueled population growth are actually eating away at consumption as fast as we can add new “capitas.”  The end of growth is at hand.  It has often been said in the corporate world that “if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”  The day may be coming when even a “no growth” economy might look good.

 


America’s Worst Trading Partners in 2015

May 19, 2016

It’s time for my annual ranking and analysis of America’s best and worst trading partners for 2015.  No surprise, it was another dismal year for American manufacturers, racking up the 40th consecutive year of trade deficits and setting a new record in the process – a deficit of $648 billion.  That surpasses last year’s record deficit by a whopping $109 billion.

Since the surpluses of trade with our best trade partners is overwhelmingly swamped by the deficits with our worst partners, let’s begin there.  This year I’m going to first present the list in the most basic terms – a list ranked in order of the sheer size of the deficits. Check out this list of America’s twenty worst trade partners in terms of our deficit in manufactured products:  Top 20 Deficits, 2015.

The nations at the top of this list should come as no surprise to anyone.  Trade with China dwarfs them all with a deficit of $367.5 billion – more than four times larger than our second largest deficit with Japan.  That’s not surprising when you realize that China has ten times as many people as Japan.  China actually accounts for about one fifth of the entire world’s population.  The following are some other key observations about this list:

  • Look at the population density of these nations.  The average population density is 737 people per square mile.  That’s eight times the density of the United States.  With only one exception – Sweden – every nation on this list is more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are much, much more densely populated.
  • Eight of these nations are wealthy European nations.
  • Over the past ten years, our trade deficit has worsened with 17 of these nations.  Most have worsened dramatically.  The nation with whom our balance of trade has improved the most (that is, with whom the deficit has declined the most in the past ten years) is Sweden – the only nation on the list less densely populated than the U.S.
  • Our trade deficit with Japan has actually declined by 18% over the past ten years.  Why?  Simple.  South Korea is “eating their lunch.”  Imports of South Korean cars – Hyundais and Kias, along with imports of South Korean appliances like those made by LG, Samsung and others – has cut into Japan’s market share.  Remember when President Obama signed a new trade deal with South Korea in 2012, proclaiming it a “big win for American workers?”  In three short years our trade deficit with South Korea jumped 50%.
  • Our fastest growing trade deficit is with Vietnam, growing by 440% in the last ten years.  Some may point to the fact that at $6100 per person, Vietnam has the lowest purchasing power parity of any nation on this list – only slightly better than India – and that this is the reason for the explosive growth in our trade deficit with them.  However, our second-fastest growing trade deficit is with Switzerland, a nation that is actually more wealthy (with higher wages) than the U.S.  What Vietnam and Switzerland do have in common is a high population density.  It’s the one thing that (nearly) all of these diverse nations have in common.

Many people will look at this list and quickly conclude that, when it comes to our trade deficit, the problem is China and so that’s where we should focus.  Somehow, some way, they’re obviously not playing fair with us.  They’re manipulating their currency, they’re ignoring workers’ rights.  They’re trashing the environment.  And so on.  So let’s get tough with China.

The problem is that China can legitimately complain that of course our deficit with them is big, simply because they are a big nation.  Person-for-person, our trade deficit with Japan is worse.  OK, so in an effort to be fair, let’s broaden our efforts to include Japan.  “Not so fast!” the Japanese will complain.  “What about Germany?  Their surplus with you is nearly as large and they have only half as many people as we do!”

The point is that in determining the root cause of these enormous deficits in order to formulate an effective trade policy, we need to factor out of the equation the sheer size of these nations.  Let’s determine who are really our worst trade partners on a person-for-person basis.  So here’s a list of our worst trade partners in terms of the per capita trade deficits:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2015.

Now we can see what a mistake it would be to simply conclude that China is the problem.  In per capita terms, they barely make the list of the top twenty worst deficits.  In fact, there are now ten European nations on this list and, in per capita terms, our trade deficit in manufactured products is worse with all ten of them than it is with China.  Here are some more key observations about this list:

  • Once again, all but two of the nations on this list – Sweden and Finland – are more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are far more densely populated.  Only three have population densities less than the median population density of the world, which is 184 people per square mile.  One – Ireland – is right on the median.  The other 80% of the nations on this list are much more densely populated.
  • Most of these are wealthy nations, with an average purchasing power parity of $44,370 per person.  In fact, the top of the list is dominated by the wealthiest.  Clearly, the argument that low wages cause trade deficits doesn’t hold water.  If anything, the cause and effect is exactly the opposite.  Running large trade surpluses makes nations wealthier.
  • There is one nation on this list that is a net oil exporter – Mexico.  I point this out because oil is priced in U.S. dollars, and every dollar spent on oil produced by foreign countries must be repatriated to the U.S., since that is ultimately the only place where they are legal tender.  Those dollars are repatriated in several ways, primarily through the purchase of American bonds or through the purchase of American goods.  The latter tends to make net oil exporters strong buyers of American products, which usually means that the U.S. enjoys a surplus of trade in manufactured products with such nations.  But not Mexico.  What this means is that the large trade deficit in manufactured goods that we have with Mexico is actually even worse than it appears.  For a nation whose population density is one of the lowest on the list – less than twice that of the U.S. – it means that something beyond population density – such as some unfair trade practice – is at work here.  Ditto for Ireland, which has fashioned itself into a tax haven for manufacturers, virtually bankrupting itself during the “Great Recession” of a few years ago.

If you are seeing such data for the first time, it may be a little early, based on this data alone, to conclude that population density is the driving force behind trade imbalances.  More proof is needed.  If such a relationship exists, then we should see exactly the opposite at the other end of the spectrum.  We should see a list of America’s best trade partners – those with whom we have trade surpluses – loaded with nations with low population densities.  We’ll take a look at that list in my next post.

If you’re already acquainted, however, with the relationship between population density and trade imbalances, which I explored thoroughly in Five Short Blasts, then this data is just further proof that population density is, in fact, the driving force behind these trade imbalances.  Such deficits are inescapable when applying free trade theory, which fails to account for large disparities in population density, to such nations.  It will only get worse with each passing year, exactly as we have seen.