Time to Leave the World Trade Organization

September 16, 2020

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-wto/wto-finds-washington-broke-trade-rules-by-putting-tariffs-on-china-ruling-angers-u-s-idUSKBN2662FG

As reported in the above-linked article, the World Trade Organization has announced its finding that the U.S. broke its rules when it imposed tariffs on Chinese imports two years ago.

The timing of this announcement is curious.  Of course the U.S. broke the rules.  Everyone knew it at the time.  Trump didn’t care.  It was the only way to make any progress on halting the explosion in the trade deficit with China.  So why wait until now?  Is it because Trump faces re-election in less than two months, running against a candidate who played a big role in the advancement of the globalism that the WTO enforces?

The WTO is the enforcer of the ill-conceived trade scheme hatched in the wake of World War II to bring the world together by employing the unproven concept of “free” trade.  Decades later, the results are in and “free” trade is now a proven failure.  Instead of lifting all economies of the world and bringing the world together through an inter-dependency, the WTO has destabilized the world by establishing a host-parasite relationship between reasonably-populated nations, like the U.S., and the others – like China, so badly overpopulated that they are totally dependent on manufacturing for export and feeding off of America’s market.  The WTO is directly responsible for building up a totalitarian communist regime bent on dominating the rest of the world.

It’s time to put an end to this.  Trump can do it by simply withdrawing from the WTO, a move that would quickly lead to its collapse.  Let’s return to truly free trade, where every nation is free to set its own rules in its own best self-interest.


Trump’s Efforts on Trade a Spectacular Failure

September 9, 2020

I can’t tell you how disheartening it was to sift through the latest trade data, for the month of July, released by the Commerce Department late last week.  There’s just no getting around the fact that the administration’s efforts to cut the trade deficit and bring manufacturing back to the U.S. have failed.  “Failure” would be the word to describe results that haven’t shown any improvement.  But America’s trade picture has deteriorated so badly that the scope of the failure can only be described as “spectacular.”

In his inauguration address, Trump observed:

…  rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation …

Earlier in the address, regarding situations like that noted above, he proclaimed:

… That all changes – starting right here, and right now …

The July trade data comes 3-1/2 years into his administration – plenty of time to implement changes and to see the effects.  It’s hard to find any silver lining.  Consider:

  1. The trade deficit in manufactured goods in July soared to $80.4 billion, a new record that completely blows away the record set under the Obama administration ($63.3 billion in March, 2015).  Check out this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.
  2. During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to quickly tear up the NAFTA deal and replace it with a much better deal.  Most of his term has been wasted negotiating the new “USMCA” trade deal that replaces it.  It finally went into effect on July 1st of this year, but the terms have been known for a long time, so you’d expect that manufacturers would have been busy implementing plans to get in compliance.  The results?  In July, the trade deficit with Mexico soared to $10. 6 billion.  When Trump took office in January, 2017 it was $3.8 billion.  Since then it has nearly tripled.
  3. When Trump took office, the deficit with China was $31.4 billion.  In July of this year it was $31.6 billion.  After Trump took office, the deficit with China continued to grow until, finally fed up with China’s promises to buy more American products, Trump imposed 25% tariffs on half of all Chinese products.  Almost immediately, the deficit with China began to shrink dramatically.  However, all momentum was lost with the signing of the “Phase 1” deal with China, when the U.S. agreed to halt plans to impose tariffs on the remainder of China’s products in exchange for Chinese promises to dramatically increase their purchases of American goods.  The results were predictable; China reneged on the deal.  They haven’t even measured up to the 2017 baseline that was used as a starting point.  Here’s the data, updated through July:  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.  What has Trump done in response?  Nothing.  He continues to insist it’s a good deal, in much the same way that Obama stuck by his trade deal with South Korea while our deficit with them exploded.
  4. What progress was made in at least stagnating the deficit with China didn’t translate into any benefit to American workers.  Instead, it contributed to the tripling of the debt with Mexico and also ballooned the debt with Vietnam.  When Trump took office, the trade deficit with Vietnam, an economic back-water, was $3.3 billion per month.  In July of this year it was more than doubled to $6.8 billion per month.  Why?  Because no tariffs were applied to anyone other than China.  The tariffs motivated manufacturers to begin moving out of China, but there was no disincentive to simply move to secondary suppliers in Mexico, Vietnam and other places.

Some might say that such conclusions are unfair in the midst of the pandemic.  Not so.  The effect of the pandemic has been to cut economic activity to a depression-like level, and the effect of an economic slow-down has always been to shrink the trade deficit, not grow it.  That makes the enormous deficit in manufactured goods in July even more troubling.

Speaking of the pandemic, at least people are beginning to realize that being dependent on foreign suppliers for critical goods like ventilators and face masks is a threat to national security.  It’d be nice if that realization extended to other products that would just as easily be cut off during war time.  Better yet, wouldn’t it be nice if people realized that an economy that needs to stand on agriculture, construction, manufacturing and services is hollowed out and unstable if one of those legs is gone?

I don’t doubt Trump’s desire to truly “make America great again” by bringing back our manufacturing sector.  But he sees himself as a “deal-maker” and believes he can deal his way out of the trade deficit.  That’s where the problem lies.  For America, at least, there’s no such thing as a good trade deal.  I defy anyone to identify a single trade deal that has ever left America with anything but a growing trade deficit.

And forget about “free trade.”  That centuries-old concept is about as relevant to today’s trade environment as theories about a flat earth and how the sun rotates around it.  Today, trade is war – a war for increasingly scarce jobs in an ever more over-populated world.  Unlike America, the rest of the world understand this.  They know that what they really need is access to America’s market so that they can keep their bloated populations employed manufacturing goods for export.  Americans don’t have a clue.  They think it’s about lower price and more choice.

Had Trump simply applied tariffs everywhere where America was suffering a big trade deficit in manufactured goods, manufacturers would have come running back like refugees fleeing a war.  Instead of improving incrementally, our economy would have exploded.  Manufacturers would have eagerly snapped up any workers who lost their jobs to closures of restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, etc. during the pandemic.  Trump’s re-election would be a foregone conclusion.  Instead, he’s going to be lucky to win.  Forget about the pandemic.  It’s his failure to make progress on truly making America great again that has left him vulnerable.

Don’t interpret this post as an endorsement of Biden.  It’s reported in the news today that Trump has criticized Biden as a “globalist.”  He’s not wrong.  But it’s not just Biden.  Until Trump came along, every politician, Democrat and Republican alike, were and still are globalists.  I’d vote for Biden in a heartbeat if he vowed to use tariffs to restore a balance of trade, but he won’t.  Though the results under Trump have been disappointing, things could and would be much worse under virtually anyone else, at least until more American politicians are willing to engage in the trade war that they don’t even acknowledge today.

 

 

 

 


U.S. Fails to Enforce “Phase 1” China Trade Deal

August 27, 2020

https://www.fidelity.com/news/article/top-news/202008242045RTRSNEWSCOMBINED_KBN25L023-OUSBS_1

As reported in the above-linked article, with six months of results from the “Phase 1” trade deal with China now in, the U.S. has “rolled over” for China yet again, ignoring the Chinese snub of the deal.  The picture that accompanies the article, showing the flag of Red China flying above that of the U.S., is appropriate.  Red China dominates the U.S. in trade because it dominates the U.S. in terms of its willingness to stand up for itself.

In spite of the fact that China has not made one inch of progress toward meeting the goals of the deal – in fact, it’s not even measuring up to the 2017 baseline for purchasing American goods – the U.S. Trade Representative’s office had this to say following a phone discussion with Chinese trade leaders:

“Both sides see progress and are committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure the success of the agreement,”

Red China has won again.  It’s tactic of making trade deals and then completely ignoring them, knowing that the U.S. never follows through on anything, has worked again, just as it has for decades.  The Chinese are once again rolling in the aisles with laughter.

Is Trump on board with this?  Is this a move calculated to avoid roiling the markets just ahead of the election?  Is he saving a tough response, like imposing the new tariffs that this deal delayed, until just ahead of the election, calculating that it will win him votes before anyone even takes notice of a market decline?

I don’t know, but I do know that the lack of progress in cutting the trade deficit and bringing back American manufacturing jobs is a major reason behind the decline in enthusiasm for his re-election.  Revitalizing the manufacturing sector of the economy is the key ingredient needed to “Make America Great Again” and it’s difficult to see any progress at all on that front.


Verdict is in: “Phase 1” Trade Deal with China is a total failure.

August 6, 2020

Trade data for the month of June was released by the Department of Commerce yesterday, so we now have a full six months of results of the “Phase 1” trade deal with China.  As I predicted when the deal was signed in January, the deal is a total failure.

You may have heard stories in the news, as I did, about how the Chinese were beginning to make progress on catching up to the goals established by this deal.  I had my doubts, so I was anxious to see the real data.  Here it is, year-to-date through June:  Phase 1 China Trade Deal 2020 YTD.

The deal established goals for the Chinese import of American goods in four categories, using 2017 trade results as a baseline:  manufactured goods, energy goods (like oil, gas, coal, etc.), agriculture goods, and total goods.  The goal was for them to increase their imports substantially in 2020, and then even more in 2021.  In the spreadsheet, I broke down those goals into monthly goals, ramping them up at a rate that would meet those goals by the end of the year.

Through May, the results were abysmal.  They failed to meet the goal in any category of product.  In fact, only their import of energy products even exceeded the 2017 baseline.  You’d think that if China were anxious to meet the goals in order to avoid further threatened tariffs, they’d at least make some good faith effort that they could point to as progress.  So what happened in June?  Their imports actually declined in every category.  They didn’t even meet the 2017 baseline in a single category.

A good faith effort to show progress?  The June results are exactly the opposite.  They are a slap in the face.  The Chinese are taunting the Trump administration – betting that they’ll be too distracted with other events to take action.

It’s time to put an end to this stupid trade deal and follow through with the threatened 25% across-the-board tariffs on all Chinese exports to the U.S.  Trump was elected, in large part, to make real progress in cutting America’s trade deficit and bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.  Aside from tariffs on half of Chinese exports and a new trade deal to replace NAFTA, little has been accomplished.  All momentum on the trade front was killed when Trump signed the “Phase 1” deal with China.  Three-and-a-half years have been frittered away.  His supporters are getting disillusioned by the lack of progress.  If Trump loses the election, it will be due in large part to his failure to fix our trade mess.

There’s no more time to waste.  It’s time to declare this deal a failure and impose the tariffs that were put on hold.  In addition, it’s time for Trump to get serious with other Asian nations and the European Union as well.  Slap all of them with tariffs and start making real progress in bringing our manufacturing jobs back.


How Population Density Drives Trade Imbalances

June 15, 2020

Now that an analysis of America’s 2019 trade results has revealed that population density is the biggest factor in driving our trade imbalance – just as we’ve seen in every year previous – it’s time for an explanation of how that happens.  How is it that something that seems so unrelated to the economy and trade can have such a dramatic effect, dwarfing the effect of other parameters that would seem to be more influential – things like wages, currency exchange rates, productivity and so on?

Population density is, by far and away, the single most dominant parameter in the field of economics, but one that goes unrecognized by economists because of their cowardly refusal to give any consideration to the subject.  The reason for that dates back to the mocking of economists by other academics in the wake of the seeming failure of the theories of economist Malthus regarding population growth.

The density of the population in which you live has an enormous impact on your ability to consume products.  That impact varies depending on the product in question.  In the case of food, there’s no impact at all.  Everyone needs to consume a certain amount of calories each day to survive.   At the other end of the spectrum, the impact on the consumption of housing, or dwelling space, is huge.  For example, the average citizen in Japan – a nation ten times more densely populated than the U.S. – lives in a dwelling space that’s less than one third the size of the average American.  When people are packed together so tightly, there’s simply no room for anything else.  So the average Japanese citizen’s consumption of everything used in building, furnishing and maintaining a home is less than one third of the average American’s.  Actually, it’s even worse than that when you realize that a much greater percentage of Japanese families occupy multi-family housing, like apartments.  In those cases, walls and foundations are shared, ceilings become floors for the apartment above, etc.

The effect on every single product you can imagine is to reduce its per capita consumption.  Cars?  There’s no room to drive or park them for most people in Japan.  You’ve all seen news stories of Japanese trains carrying commuters literally packed together so tightly that they can barely breathe.

Boats?  In spite of the fact that Japan is an island nation, their per capita consumption of boats is close to zero.  The same is true for Denmark, a nation consisting of one large peninsula and many islands, but which is also very densely populated.

Lawn care and gardening equipment?  On a per capita basis, lawns and gardens virtually don’t exist in Japan.  Sporting goods?  There’s little room for golf or tennis or anything else that requires much real estate.  Even things like electronics are affected, since such cramped quarters as you find in places like Japan force people to share them.

So you get the idea.  A dense population absolutely strangles per capita consumption.  On the other hand, when someone in Japan (or China, or Germany, or South Korea, or any densely populated nation) goes to work, they are every bit as productive as an American worker.  It takes no more or less labor to manufacture something, like a car, for example, in Japan than it does in America.

People make things and people buy things and that, in a nutshell, is what makes an economy tick.  But what happens if people aren’t able to buy as much as they’re able to make?  Now you have a situation where the supply and demand for labor are out-of-balance.  Less demand for labor translates into higher unemployment.  Higher unemployment means lower wages for everyone, and it necessitates greater government spending to provide a safety net for the unemployed.  It’s a recipe for disaster for any nation’s economy.

However, there’s an escape mechanism for nations that find themselves in this fix.  They can put their excess labor capacity to work making products for export.  Of course, that requires a trading partner who’s willing to share their market.  If that partner has a shortage of labor – perhaps because they are very sparsely populated and lack the labor force needed to manufacture everything they need – then it can be a beneficial situation, one that is likely financed by the sparsely populated nation selling natural resources like food, oil, lumber, minerals, etc. to the densely populated partner.

But what if that trading partner isn’t sparsely populated and has no shortage of labor?  To welcome imports from that densely populated nation will inevitably put its own people out of work and create a big trade deficit.  It’s absolutely inescapable.  The densely populated nation won’t buy products from the less densely populated nation in equal measure because they can’t even consume their own domestic manufacturing capacity, much less take in more from other countries.

Either a densely populated nation sustains its economy by manufacturing for export, or it lapses into abject poverty because of extreme unemployment.  Look around the world and you’ll see that this is true, although I should point out that there are a couple of exceptions.  Many small island nations, though they tend to be densely populated, maintain vibrant economies that are based on tourism.  And some small but densely populated nations have oceans of oil beneath their feet and trade that oil for all the other products its citizens require.  But these are the exceptions.  Any densely populated nation of any size is either dirt poor or is totally dependent on manufacturing for export.   Attempting to trade freely with such nations is economic suicide.  A big trade deficit and a loss of manufacturing jobs is inevitable.

What is the point of trade policy that only serves to erode our economy?  The purpose of trade is to make available products that can’t be obtained domestically.  For a nation like the U.S. – big and rich in resources – there isn’t much we need.  Tropical fruits, out-of-season produce, and a few rare minerals are examples.  But manufactured products?  There are none that we can’t make domestically and more efficiently, especially when you factor in the five billion barrels of oil burned annually by ships bringing in products from half-way around the world.  It makes absolutely no sense.

Tariffs are the only remedy available to maintain a balance of trade.  Trade deals don’t work, because there is no motivation for a nation dependent on manufacturing for export to abide by them.  The reduction in the trade deficit with China is proof that they work.  Those tariffs need to be expanded to include all Chinese imports, not just half of them like we have now.  Beyond that, their implementation needs to be spread to other densely populated nations that prey on the American market to sustain their bloated labor forces – Germany, South Korea, Ireland, Vietnam and other Asian and European nations.

Virtually every problem in America, beyond unemployment and low wages, in which a lack of funding is a factor, can ultimately be traced back to our trade deficit – inadequate funding of schools, neglected infrastructure maintenance and improvements, inner city blight, health care – the list can go on and on.  Ultimately, the federal budget deficit and national debt can be attributed to the federal spending needed to offset the financial drain of the trade deficit.

And still economists keep their heads in the sand and insist that population growth plays no role in economics.


Trade Deficits Not Caused by Low Wages

May 19, 2020

In my previous posts, we’ve seen that trade imbalances are caused by disparities in population density, and that low wages don’t appear to be a factor at all.  To prove the point, let’s now look at America’s trade with the 20 poorest nations on earth and contrast that with it’s trade with the 20 wealthiest nations.  Surely, if low wages cause trade imbalances, we’ll have big trade deficits with the poorest nations where wages are the lowest.  Here’s the list:  trade with 20 poorest nations, 2019.

As you can see, if anything, the U.S. tends to have a very tiny surplus of trade with such nations, not a deficit.  The reason for the surplus is foreign aid.  All aid is booked as exports.  The fact is that the U.S. essentially engages in no trade whatsoever with these poor nations.

Now look at U.S. trade with the 20 wealthiest nations:  trade with 20 richest nations, 2019.  Now we do see some trade deficits – some big ones – with Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Taiwan, Sweden, Germany and Austria, in that order.  Ireland and Switzerland – the two nations on this list with whom the U.S. has the biggest trade deficits per capita – are actually wealthier than the U.S.  The others aren’t far behind.

How can this be?  If companies move manufacturing offshore in search of the lowest cost of labor, why do we have virtually no trade at all with the poorest nations, and have massive trade deficits with some of the richest?  Look again at the list of the wealthiest nations.  The average population density of those nations with whom we have deficits is 565 people/square mile – six times more densely populated than the U.S.  The rest of the list is a mish-mash of oil exporters, low population density countries, and a couple – the Netherlands and Belgium – that, as we previously established, are anomalies because of how imports and exports are booked for those countries.

If anything, these two lists prove that there is a relationship between wages and trade imbalance, but the cause and effect is exactly the opposite of what you’ve been told.  Low wages don’t cause trade deficits.  Trade deficits cause high wages.  It only makes sense.  Manufacturing creates a high demand for labor which drives wages up.  Any nation whose economy has a strong manufacturing sector is going to be a wealthy nation.  It may start out as a poor nation, but quickly grows in wealth as its manufacturing sector grows.

Trade imbalances are determined by whether or not a nation’s manufacturing output is absorbed by its domestic economy, or whether it is dependent on growing its manufacturing sector beyond that point in order to gainfully employ its labor force.  We’ll more fully explore what causes that situation in an upcoming post.

 


America’s Best Trading Partners in 2019

May 15, 2020

We saw in my previous post that the list of America’s twenty worst trading partners in 2019, in terms of per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods, was dominated by very densely populated countries.  Only three of the twenty were less densely populated than the U.S.  Now we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum.  Man-for-man (or person-for-person), which countries buy the most American-made products?  Here they are:  Top 20 Per Capita Surpluses, 2019.

While the average population density of our worst trading partners is 524 people/square mile, the average population density of our best trading partners is 208 people/square mile.  The list includes some very large and very small countries.  The combined population density, the total population of these countries divided by their total land mass, is only 20 people/square mile.  The list also include seven net oil exporters.  As discussed in an earlier post, it’s almost automatic that the U.S. has a trade surplus with oil exporters because all oil world-wide is priced in U.S. dollars.  It leaves those countries with no choice but to buy American products in order to use those dollars.  America’s biggest source of imported oil is Canada, so that factors into their position high up on this list, but the bigger factor is their very low population density – only eleven people/square mile.

Once again, The Netherlands and Belgium appear on this list in spite of their very high population density, but that’s an anomaly caused by their position as the only port on the Atlantic-side of Europe and how exports from and imports into that port are booked.

The average increase in our trade surplus with these nations over the past ten years is only 36%.  That barely keeps pace with the rate of inflation, meaning that our trade surpluses have been stagnant, while the trade deficits with our worst trading partners has risen by 148% over the same time period.

The average purchasing power parity (or “PPP”) of the nations on this list is $43,900.  Take away tiny Oman, the wealthiest nation on earth (and one of the smallest), and the average drops to $39,600 – almost exactly the same as the average for our twenty worst trade partners.  Clearly, how rich or poor a nation is (or how high or low their workers’ wages) has no bearing on the balance of trade.  Whether we have a trade surplus or trade deficit with any given nation is determined almost solely by population density (and also whether a nation is an oil exporter).  To drive home that point, in my next post we’ll look at our balance of trade with the poorest, lowest-wage nations vs. the wealthiest, highest-wage nations.  The results are an eye-opener.

 


America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2019

May 11, 2020

In a previous post, we looked at a list of America’s biggest trade deficits and China was at the top.  But China is a very big country with one fifth of the world’s population – more than four times the population of the U.S.  Sheer size alone accounts for much of that deficit.  But which countries, man-for-man (or person for person, if you prefer) do the most damage to the U.S. economy by siphoning away manufacturing jobs through a big trade imbalance?  To determine that, we need a list of our worst trade deficits in per capita terms.  So here is a list of our twenty worst per capita trade deficits in 2019:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2019.

Little Ireland is at the very top of list, with a $9,615 per capita surplus in manufactured goods with the U.S. that is nearly three times the size of the next worst on the list – Switzerland.  If we assume that an average manufacturing job pays $50,000 per year, and that two thirds of the cost to manufacture something is labor, then the math tells us that for every eight citizens of Ireland an American citizen has lost his/her job.  Thankfully, there are only 5.2 million people in Ireland, so the damage done to the American economy’s manufacturing sector by Ireland is limited to “only” 650,000 jobs.  But think of that.  America has lost 650,000 manufacturing jobs to tiny Ireland.  No wonder Ireland is the wealthiest nation on the list – significantly more wealthy than the U.S. in terms of purchasing power parity (or “PPP”).

The list is noteworthy for other reasons.

  1.  This list is dominated by wealthy countries.  The average PPP of the nations on this list was almost $38,000 in 2018.  The average of the top ten on this list is almost $47,000 – on a par with the U.S.  It’s the same phenomenon we saw on the list of our biggest deficits in absolute dollar terms.  Clearly, low wages play no role at all in driving our trade deficit.
  2. Exactly half of the nations on this list are members of the European Union.  Another, Switzerland, is a European country, though not a member of the EU.
  3. On average, America’s per capita trade deficit with these twenty nations has grown by 148% over the past ten years, led by Vietnam and Slovakia.  Only one has declined – Israel.  (All of that decline has happened in the past two years.)
  4. Noteworthy for its absence from the list is China.  China has been on the list every year since I began publishing this list in 2010, though near the bottom of the list.  But this year they’re gone, falling to number 25.  Why?  Because of the effect that Trump’s tariffs on China have had on reducing the trade deficit with them.

The most noteworthy takeaway from this list, however, is this:  with only three exceptions, the nations on this list are very densely populated.  The average population density of these twenty nations is 524 people/square mile – more than 5-1/2 times as densely populated as the United States.  Regardless of whether we look at the balance of trade in absolute dollar terms or in per capita terms – no matter how we look at it – population density pops out as the overriding factor in driving trade imbalances.

In the case of Ireland, it must be recognized that there is another factor.  Ireland is a tax haven for companies.  They get a free ride in Ireland.  It’s a grossly unfair trade practice designed to siphon companies away from the U.S.  It’s unbelievable that the U.S. continues to turn a blind eye to this shake-down.  Ireland is growing rich at America’s expense.

Before we explore exactly why population density is such a huge factor, we’ll take a look at the other end of the spectrum – our best trade partners in 2019 – the nations who, man-for-man, are the best customers for American-made products.  That’ll be the subject of the next post.  Stay tuned.


U.S. Balance of Trade in 2019 vs. Population Density

May 1, 2020

So far we’ve looked at the two ends of the spectrum of America’s 2019 balance of trade – our worst trade deficits and our best trade surpluses.  We found that the list of our worst trade deficits is heavily dominated by nations with a high population density.  Conversely, we found the list of trade surpluses is dominated by two groups of nations – low population densities and net oil exporters.  Now let’s look at the whole 2019 trade picture, which includes 165 nations.  (The CIA World Fact Book lists a total of 229 nations in the world.  Not included in my study are tiny island nations and city-states which, combined, account for less than 1% of trade.)  Here’s a chart of America’s balance of trade with all nations that are more densely populated than the U.S. vs. all nations that are less densely populated, from 2005 through 2019:  Balance of Trade Above & Below U.S. Pop Density.

The difference in the results couldn’t be more stark.  With those nations that are less densely populated than the U.S., we enjoyed a small surplus of $111 billion in 2019 – down slightly from $119 billion in 2018 and essentially flat for the past ten years.  With those nations that are more densely populated than the U.S., we suffered an enormous deficit of $941 billion in 2019 – a deficit that has exploded over the past decade, more than doubling from $428 billion in 2009.

There are 114 nations more densely populated than the U.S., and 51 nations that are less densely populated.  So, you might think, maybe the uneven distribution of countries was a factor in skewing the results.  Fine.  Let’s divide the countries evenly – 82 nations that are more densely populated vs. 83 that are less densely populated.  The results are little different.  With the half of nations more densely populated, the U.S. suffers an enormous trade deficit of $842 billion, vs. a trade surplus of $129 billion with the 83 nations that are less densely populated.  By the way, the median population density is 193 people/square mile – about double that of the U.S.

I should point out that, divided around the median population density, the half of nations that are above the median account for 5.6 billion people, while the half of nations below the median population density account for only 1.7 billion people.  One might argue that, to be a fair analysis, there should be an equal number of people on each side, and not an equal number of nations.  OK, let’s look at it that way.  In order to do that, because it has such a large population, China has to be divided, allocating 59% of its population to the more densely populated half, and 41% of its population to the less densely populated half.  The deficit with China will be divided proportionately.  If we do that, the U.S. has a trade deficit of $557 billion with the half of the world’s population that lives in more densely populated conditions vs. a trade surplus of $273 billion with the half of the population living in less densely populated conditions.

But splitting the population evenly, as we did above, results in a huge discrepancy in the land surface area of the world in one half of the analysis vs. the other – 5.2 million square miles vs. only 0.7 million square miles.  If we divide the world evenly in terms of surface area, the U.S. has a trade deficit of $924 billion vs. a trade surplus of $94 billion with the more densely populated half of the world’s surface area vs. the less densely populated half.

No matter how you look at it, population density is consistently the biggest driving force in determining the balance of trade.  So if the U.S. wants to achieve a balance of trade with the rest of the world, it’s only logical to employ a mechanism aimed at population density – a tariff structure, for example, that’s indexed to a nation’s population density.  Applying tariffs on any other basis isn’t fair.  Should a nation be punished because it’s big instead of little?  Developed vs. undeveloped?  “Free trade” is an example of an unfair tariff system – unfair to the U.S.  It applies a tariff of zero to everyone on no basis whatsoever – without any justification – and the results speak for themselves.  The U.S. is being killed with a huge trade imbalance that has destroyed its manufacturing sector.

Who would (or should) be hit hardest by a population density-indexed tariff structure?  We’ll look at that next.

 

 


America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2019

April 19, 2020

I’ve just finished the long, tedious process of analyzing the international trade data for 2019, which was posted by the Commerce Department in late February this year, instead of the mid-summer release caused by the government shutdown last year.  We’re going to look at this data in a lot of different ways in this and upcoming posts, so let’s begin with the basics.  The biggest problem with international trade is that the U.S. has been running a massive, ever-growing trade deficit for the past forty-five years.  All of the deficit is due to imports – and very weak exports – of manufactured products, and this category of products is where it hurts the most.  A deficit in manufactured products hurts the most because that’s where the most – and the highest-paying jobs – are lost.

So let’s begin this analysis with a list of our worst trade deficits in manufactured goods:  Top 20 Deficits, 2019.  The deficit with these 20 nations is almost $1 trillion!  It’s no great surprise that our deficit with China leads the list, by a wide margin.  And it would be worse by $20 billion if I hadn’t included Hong Kong with China.  (The Commerce Department tracks them separately, but we’re kidding ourselves to think that Hong Kong is an independent city-state.)  What’s new and interesting however is that the deficit with China is actually down substantially – by $73 billion – from 2018.  This is thanks to the Trump administration’s program of imposing tariffs on Chinese imports.  Look at how much the deficit with China has changed over the past ten years.  Though it grew rapidly for the first nine years of this period, it fell enough last year to yield only a 24% growth in the last ten.  That’s the 2nd slowest growth among the twenty nations on this list.

The deficit with Mexico has grown rapidly – 154% over the past ten years – to become our 2nd worst trade deficit.  However, if we are to believe the President, this should begin to change as the new USMCA agreement with Mexico and Canada – which replaces the now-defunct NAFTA agreement – begins to take effect this summer.  We’ll see.

Note that, contrary to the belief that low wages cause trade deficits, this list of our worst trade deficits is actually dominated by wealthy, developed nations, including many European nations.  In fact, if we add up the EU nations on this list, the combined deficit is $187 billion.  (The UK and Switzerland are not in the EU.)  By the way, the growth in the deficit with the U.K. – 3,125% in ten years – isn’t a typo.  When I first wrote Five Short Blasts in 2007, the U.K. was one of a few anomalies where, in spite of the high population density, we actually enjoyed a trade surplus with them.  But that trade surplus evaporated and, in 2010, the U.S. actually had a very small trade deficit with the U.K.  The deficit of $9.6 billion in 2019 is more than thirty times larger than the small deficit in 2010.  It’s growing rapidly.

As we’ve seen every year, it’s not low wages that cause our trade deficit.  So what does cause it?  I just gave you a hint.  Look at the population density of the nations on this list and compare it to the population density of the U.S. – 93 people/square mile.  The average population density of the nations on this list is almost seven times greater.  The combined population density of the nations on this list – the total number of people divided by the total land mass – is more than five times greater.  Only Sweden, near the bottom of the list, is less densely populated.  Nineteen of these twenty nations are more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are more than four times as densely populated.  Now that’s a powerful correlation to our balance of trade!

But why?  Why does something so seemingly unrelated have such a powerful effect on the balance of trade?  It’s because people who live in over-crowded conditions are incapable of using as many products as people who enjoy living in more wide open spaces.  They have no place to store them and no place to use them.  (Think cars.  the average Japanese person doesn’t have a garage and the roads are too crowded to drive anyway.)  Yet, they are every bit as productive.  The inescapable consequence is that, in order to be gainfully employed, they must produce far more than they consume, and there’s ony one thing that can be done with their excess production:  export it.  Unless the nation that those excess products are exported to takes some kind of action to keep those products out, their own citizens are now doomed to be put out of work by the market share they’ve lost.  Trading freely with badly overpopulated nations causes a massive shift of manufacturing jobs to the more densely populated nation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Trade deficits are just one end of the trade spectrum.  What about surpluses?  Will we find that those nations are less densely populated, which the population density theory would predict?  Stay tuned.