Exports Lag Obama’s Goal by Record Margin in November

January 8, 2015

http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/international/trade/2015/pdf/trad1114.pdf

As reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (see above link), the overall trade deficit contracted by $3.25 billion in November, due entirely to a drop in oil imports.

That was the good news.  The bad news is that the deficit in manufactured goods rose by $1.2 billion, thanks entirely to a $2.8 billion decline in exports.  After hitting a record in October, manufactured exports fell to their lowest level in five months.  In fact, since June of 2013, manufactured exports have risen by only $1.8 billion.

In January, 2010, President Obama set a goal of doubling exports within five years.  In November, exports lagged that goal by $54.7 billion per month – a record.  There are now only two months to go until the data for January, 2015 is released.  So far, instead of rising by 100%, exports have grown in five years by only 32%, all of which can be explained by inflation and by the rebound in the global economy – a rebound now faltering.  Absolutely none of the increase is due to any improvement in America’s trade position relative to other countries.  Here’s an update of the charts:

Manf’d exports vs. goal

Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade

Obama set this goal because he naively believed that there was no reason that the U.S. couldn’t become a net exporter like Germany.  There is, of course, one very big reason – the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption.   Germany is five times as densely populated as the U.S., making its per capita consumption a fraction of ours.  Like the citizens of so many other badly overpopulated nations (Japan, China, Korea and much of Europe, just to name a few) they can’t even absorb their own productive capacity, so why would they buy products from us?  (Well, they do, but not nearly as much as they export.)

Obama ran in 2008 on a platform that included tackling our trade deficit.  He took the coward’s way out, choosing to ignore the import problem, which everyone knows is where the real problem lies, focusing instead on exports in order to avoid unpleasant confrontations around the punch bowl at G8 meetings.  Aside from making the promise to double exports, he never lifted a finger to do anything to make it happen.  He’s done nothing to address the imbalances of globalization which nearly collapsed the global economy in 2008, and it’s going to come back to bite us.


Japan Plunges Back into Recession

November 20, 2014

http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/markets/2014/11/16/japan-says-economy-contracted-16-pct-in-july-sept/19147417/

It was reported on Monday (see above-linked article) that Japan officially slid back into recession in the 3rd quarter.  The economy contracted 1.6% (annual rate) in the 3rd quarter, following an even larger contraction of 6.7% in the 2nd quarter.  This came as a shock to the business community, which had expected a resumption of growth.

Japan is a poster-child for what happens to an economy that is badly overpopulated.  Japan is approximately ten times as densely populated as the U.S.  Because its people live in such dense, overcrowded conditions, per capita consumption there is a fraction of what it would be otherwise.  Low consumption would mean low employment, were it not for the fact that Japan runs a massive trade surplus in manufactured goods.  (It actually runs a deficit for overall trade because it’s also heavily dependent on imported raw materials in order to manufacture those goods.)  Without that surplus of trade in manufacturing, Japan’s economy would collapse into something resembling a third world country.

Once South Korea, followed by China, began muscling in on its export business, growth in Japan’s economy ground to a halt.  It’s been in a state of recession more often than not for the past two decades.  During that time, it has racked up an enormous national debt, the largest in the world, in order to prop up its economy.

In 2012, Shinzo Abe was elected prime minister of Japan, thanks to his promise to revitalize the economy through a combination of tax cuts, a huge boost in spending on infrastructure, and massive money-printing by Japan’s central bank – a program that came to be known as “Abenomics.”  Once the economy was kick-started, then the plan was to raise sales taxes in order to once again begin addressing the debt issue.

At least that was the plan.  It worked great at first.  The Japanese people were given lots of free money and they spent it.  The Japanese stock market soared.  But then came the tax hikes and the party was over.  The economy quickly collapsed back into a deep recession.

What economists don’t understand is that macroeconomic growth in a society plagued by severe over-crowding is impossible, and nowhere is this more evident than in Japan, one of the most densely populated nations on earth.  A point is reached where falling per capita consumption erases any gains that further population growth may provide.  This effect can be masked by deficit spending, but that tactic can only be sustained for so long.  Ultimately, the Japanese people are doomed to a failing economy and worsening poverty.

This opinion piece by James Saft does a good job of illustrating how boxed-in the Japanese economy has become, and how he and economists still don’t get it – that population growth is the root of the problem, not the cure – by implying that all would be well if Japan’s central bank could simply “print people.”

What Japan’s people need, more than anything else, is simply room to breathe.  Less densely populated, they could live in real homes instead of rabbit hutches.  They could drive real cars and park them in their own garages.  They could have lawns and gardens.  They could play golf on golf courses that currently don’t exist.  The quality of their lives would improve by leaps and bounds.  But, with fewer of them, the Japanese macroeconomy, as its traditionally measured, would be smaller and economists would be sounding the alarm.

It never ceases to amaze me how economists are incapable of recognizing or acknowledging how dumb their reliance on never-ending population growth in a finite world is.  Japan is a perfect example.


Trade Deficit in Manufactured Goods Soars to New Record in September

November 4, 2014

http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/international/trade/2014/pdf/trad0914.pdf

As announced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis this morning, the overall trade deficit rose by $3.0 billion to $43.0 billion in September, driven entirely by a steep rise in the deficit in manufactured goods – which rose by $3.9 billion to $52.1 billion – a new record.  (Check the chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.)

The expansion of the deficit in manufactured goods was driven mostly by a sharp decline in exports.  September exports of manufactured goods fell to $111.9 billion.  That’s only $0.2 billion higher than in March, 2012.  Over that same time frame, manufactured exports needed to rise by $48 billion to keep pace with President Obama’s promise (made in January, 2010) to double exports within five years.  Here’s the chart:  Manf’d exports vs. goal.

In September our trade deficit with China soared to $35.6 billion, completely obliterating the previous record of $30.9 billion set only two months earlier.  Imports from China rose by $5.1 billion in September while exports to China fell by $0.3 billion.

The entire trade deficit in September is due to only four countries:  China ($35.6 billion), Germany ($6.1 billion), Japan ($5.3 billion) and Mexico ($4.8 billion).  All four nations are more densely populated than the U.S.  China’s population density is four times that of the U.S.  Germany’s is eight times.  Japan’s is ten times.  Mexico is only about twice that of the U.S.  Take away these four countries and the U.S. actually had a surplus of trade with the rest of the world.

Expressed in per capita terms (which factors out the sheer size of nations), the trade deficit with Germany was the worst of these four nations at approximately $100 per German citizen.  Mexico and Japan were nearly tied at about $43 and $41 respectively.  China was last at $29.   It’s important to note that Germany and Japan are both high wage nations, disproving the theory that trade deficits are caused by low wages.

Today, Americans went to the polls in a sour mood.  They’re unhappy with falling incomes and trumped-up employment reports.  They’re fed up with a president who’s more concerned with illegal aliens than he is with the plight of American workers.  And they’re sick of inaction on trade policy that’s has been a proven loser for decades, stripping them of their ability to make a decent living.  They’re right to be angry.  Since President Obama made his promise to double exports, our trade deficit in manfactured goods has nearly doubled while exports have barely budged.  There’s been no follow-through and there was never a plan.  Just a proclamation and crossed fingers.

Voters are in a “throw-the-bums-out” frame of mind.  If the president had been on the ballot, he’d surely have been the first “bum” to go.


The End of Growth

October 22, 2014

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/16/us-cenbanks-markets-policy-idUSKCN0I501120141016

Last week, markets were in a steep sell-off, driven largely by increasing worries about global economic growth.  (See the above-linked Reuters article from last week.)  In the wake of the Great Recession, years of interest rates at zero and money printing by the central banks of the U.S., Europe and Japan have yielded pretty disappointing results.  Europe is once again on the brink of recession.  And Japan has either been in recession or been on the brink for decades.  And slowing economic data in the U.S. is making it look as though we won’t avoid backsliding into recession either.

We’ve all seen cartoons depicting pessimists standing on street corners wearing sandwich-board signs declaring that “the end is near.”  Well, folks, it’s time to face facts.  When it comes to economic growth, the end is, in fact, here.

Let’s begin with a step back – way back – to World War II.  The imperialist ambitions of both Germany and Japan had similar roots.  Both nations were badly overpopulated, short on resources and long on unemployment.  Both embarked on huge land grabs.  In the wake of the war, in 1947, the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – the precursor of today’s World Trade Organization – was implemented, with the primary goal of preventing such wars by giving Germany and Japan easier access to resources and more access to U.S. markets, thus alleviating the high unemployment that fostered Hitler’s rise to power.

No problem, at first.  Americans had done without for years, with the nation’s manufacturing capacity devoted 100% to the war effort.  There was a lot of catching up to do and Americans’ appetite for goods seemed insatiable.  The economy boomed and the federal government was able to cut spending and whittle away the debt it had racked up during the war.

The infrastructure and economies of Germany and Japan were rebuilt.  Slowly, the new trade regime enabled imports from those nations to erode America’s trade surplus.  First came Volkswagens and a sprinkling of Mercedes and BMW’s from Germany.  Those were followed first by motorcycles from Japan, and then Hondas – pathetic little cars that were painted in paisley and sold as jokes, but they got their foot in the door.  By the early 70’s our trade surplus was gone.  We oscillated between surplus and deficit for a few years.  We ran our last trade surplus in 1975.  Since then, we’ve experienced 38 (soon to be 39) consecutive years of trade deficits.

At about the same time, America’s budget deficit began to grow again too.  It had to, to offset the trade deficit’s drain of money from the economy.  Soon, new terms began to creep into the American economic lexicon:  “redundancy,” “down-sizing,” “right-sizing” and “outsourcing.”  American manufacturers began closing their doors en masse, unable to sustain a profit margin in the face of the onslaught of foreign companies snatching up American market share.

Even with their new-found trade surpluses and manufacturing jobs cannibalized from American manufacturers, the Europeans and Japanese both found it necessary to lean heavily on deficit spending, just as America was doing, to keep a lid on unemployment.  Rising productivity enabled manufacturers to meet growing demand without growing employment at the same pace.

At the end of World War II, the world’s population stood at just under 2.5 billion.  Today it has nearly tripled.  All of this growth has been concentrated in urban areas.  Cities have expanded and grown vastly more crowded, and it’s a fact that people living in crowded conditions consume less out of necessity.  Growth in the global labor pool outpaced the rate at which workers were absorbed into the economy, putting downward pressure on wages.  And that situation grew exponentially worse when China was factored into the global trade equation, growing the global labor pool virtually overnight by 25%.

For a time, government deficit spending, used primarily to fund social safety net programs and other programs designed to supplement incomes and prop up a perception of wealth, sustained consumption and kept the economy growing.  But that tactic has run its course.  National debts have risen to worrisome levels.

Developed economies looked to China to pick up the slack by developing its economy, turning 1.3 billion people who had nothing into western-style consumers.  By that measure, China has been a huge disappointment.  Collectively, they consume a mountain of goods, but nowhere near enough to even consume their own productive capacity, much less to develop into a market for other nations.  Their growth is faltering and it looks like their domestic consumption will settle at the same diminished level as Europe and Japan.

Growth is now virtually dead and all the deficit spending in the world can’t prop it up.  Economists won’t admit that fact and adamantly refuse to give any consideration to the fact that population growth lies at the heart of the problem.  But markets don’t care, and what we’re witnessing is an adjustment to a no-growth world.  Interest rates have fallen to zero.  Bond yields, projected to rise as the economy “recovered” never did, and are now sliding backward to near-zero levels.  Central banks’ hands are tied, left only with thinly-disguised money printing programs to fall back on to provide stimulus to the economy, a tactic that’s already begun to make them nervous about unintended consequences.

The world’s economy is reaching a critical and dangerous point, where the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption begins to take hold in a big way that can trigger an irreversible downward spiral.  People consume less than they’d like for two reasons – because they lack space to make use of products, and because they are simply too poor to afford them.  When the proportion of people in the first condition reaches a critical level, the downward pressure on wages begins to make everyone poorer, accelerating the downward pressure on consumption.  Governments’ and central banks’ resources and abilities to hold this economic force at bay will soon be exhausted.

Economists had better extract their heads from that place where the sun doesn’t shine, and soon, if this economic fate that they don’t understand and are unable to see is to be avoided.  I fear that they won’t.  Growth isn’t always desirable.  Sometimes it’s cancerous.  Left unchecked, population growth will soon present the one challenge that none of them are clever enough to overcome – worsening poverty that gets so bad that it throws the world population into decline.  In essence, if economists and world leaders aren’t smart enough to manage our population to a level where all can enjoy a high quality of life, their stupidity will surely drive it to a level that no one wants.

 


Manufactured Exports Fall in February, Lag President’s Goal by Record Margin

April 3, 2014

http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/international/trade/2014/pdf/trad0214.pdf

As announced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) this morning, the nation’s trade deficit rose in February to $42.3 billion.  Not mentioned in the report (because the BEA doesn’t even track it, but can be derived through some simple math) is the fact that a $0.7 billion decline in manufactured exports contributed to the rise in the deficit. 

Exports of manufactured goods, at $108.7 billion in February,  have not risen in two years, actually falling by $0.1 billion from February, 2012.  In January, 2010 the president set a goal of doubling exports in five years, the implication being that the growth would occur in manufactured goods as a cornerstone of his economic “plan” to grow manufacturing jobs.  February’s exports lagged the president’s goal by $42.6 billion – a record margin which, once again, exceeds the entire trade deficit.  Here’s a chart of the balance of trade in manufactured goods, followed by a chart of the deficit in manufactured goods:  Manf’d exports vs. goal      Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.

The point is that the president’s failure was inevitable because neither he nor anyone in the U.S. has any control whatsoever over exports, which are determined solely by foreign demand for U.S. goods.  Cajoling our trade partners into buying more U.S. goods has been a strategy tried and failed by presidents for decades.  Federal programs designed to help manufacturers improve efficiency and to fund research don’t work either, since foreign manufacturers are working just as hard to improve efficiency. 

And it’s equally predictable that the trade deficit isn’t just magically curing itself as other nations develop into more western-style consumers, as economists have long predicted.  Global trade imbalances have nothing to do with any of these things.  They are driven almost entirely by differences in population density, as badly overpopulated nations, crippled by endemic low per capita consumption, rely ever more heavily on manufacturing for export to employ their bloated labor forces.  And American workers pay the price for their overpopulation – a problem they had no role in causing and are powerless to remedy. 

Applied in appropriate situations, like between reasonably populated nations, free trade works just fine.  But U.S. trade policy fails to account for the limitations of free trade, and applies it blindly to situations where it’s guaranteed to fail.  In the final analysis, globalization and free trade, as they are currently applied, constitute nothing more than a poverty-sharing program, conceived in the wake of World War II as a means of heading off the kind of social unrest that arises from high unemployment in overpopulated nations like Germany and Japan.


America’s Worst Trading “Partners”

April 2, 2014

The word “trade” implies a mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services.  I buy stuff from you and, in return, you buy stuff from me.  A good trading partner is a nation that buys (imports) as much as it sells (exports).  A bad trade relationship is one in which a nation sells (or exports) while buying little in return.  Such a relationship isn’t mutually beneficial.  In such a relationship, one nation creates jobs at the other’s expense and drains funds away from the other’s economy.

America’s free trade policy has resulted in both good and bad trade relationships.  On balance, its many beneficial trade relationships have been more than offset by a minority of really bad ones.  But what’s the best way to judge?  Some differences in trade imbalances are due to a huge disparity in the size of nations.  Is a big nation that maintains a large trade surplus with the U.S. any better than a tiny nation with a proportionately large imbalance?  The only way to judge such imbalances fairly is to express them in per capita terms.  That is, how much does each person in that nation buy from the U.S. vs. how much they manufacture and sell to us? 

When expressed in per capita terms, the results are surprising.  Here’s the list:  Top 20 Deficits, 2012.  The key take-aways from this list are as follows:

  • Note the population density of the nations on this list.  By comparison, the population density of the U.S. is approximately 86 people per square mile.  Eighteen of these twenty nations are more densely populated than the U.S.  Eight are more than five times as densely populated.  In fact, the average population density of the nations on this list is 493 people per square mile – more than five times the density of the U.S.  Only two are less densely populated – Sweden and Finland.  When I first published this list in 2006 in Five Short Blasts, Sweden ranked number two.  By 2012, they have fallen to number eleven.  And their surplus with the U.S. has been reduced by half. 
  • Note the “per capita purchasing power parity (PPP)” of the nations on this list.  By comparison, U.S. PPP is approximately $48,500.  Most of the nations on this list are relatively wealthy nations, debunking the myth that trade deficits are caused by low wages.  If low wages are to blame, how do you explain the presence of Ireland, Switzerland, Taiwan, Denmark, Germany, Japan and Austria (among others) in the top ten of this list?  Also, the PPP of this list has risen dramatically in the past six years.  (More on this topic in a later post.)
  • Though China gets all of the attention for its massive trade deficit with the U.S., it barely makes the top 20 list, coming in at number 18.  It has risen only one place on this list since 2006.  In per capita terms, its trade imbalance with the U.S. is rather unremarkable relative to the other nations on this list.  In fact, when you understand the role that population density plays in driving trade imbalances, the huge trade deficit with China, given its sheer size and enormous population, is exactly what should have been expected. 

People who live in overcrowded conditions buy fewer products because they have no room to utilize them.  They buy or rent smaller homes because there is no room for larger homes.  They own fewer cars because their roads are choked with traffic and they choose mass transit instead.  Because their homes are smaller, they buy less furniture, far less lawn and gardening equipment and smaller appliances.  They buy less sporting equipment like boats, golf equipment, tennis equipment – you name it – simply because of the scarcity of resources for using such.

When two nations grossly disparate in population density atttempt to trade freely with each other, the work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force, but the disparity in per capita consumption remains.  They buy less from us than we buy from them.  The result is inescapable – a trade deficit and loss of jobs for the less densely populated nation.  In effect, a host-parasite relationship is established in which the more densely populated nation feeds on the market of the other nation.  The less densely populated nation pays the price for the other nation’s overpopulation.  It hardly seems fair, does it?


Rice for Vehicles

February 21, 2014

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/21/us-usa-asia-tpp-idUSBREA1K0A320140221

This epitomizes what’s wrong with American trade policy and the American economy as a whole.  As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, President Obama is running around the world selling meat and produce and is willing to surrender manufacturing jobs as payment.  In the case of Japan, he wants them to lower their tariffs on American farm products and, in return, is considering giving up our small tariffs on their cars and our big tariffs on imported trucks.  (By the way, in case you wonder whether tariffs work, take a look around at how few imported trucks are on the road compared to cars.)

At the same time that he’s marketing the U.S. as some rural, agrarian society – something we haven’t been for a century, he’s desperate to liberalize immigration policy to turn us into even more of an urban jungle than we’ve already become. 

Is the condition of our economy any wonder, when our president considers rice for vehicles an even exchange?  Does he not understand the difference in the labor involved in producing these products?  Can’t he acknowledge what a disaster the same trade deal with South Korea has been for American jobs? 

God help us.  Obama won’t.


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