Low Wages Play Little Role in Trade Imbalances

July 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


America’s Best Trading Partners in 2016

July 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Trade Deficit in Manufactured Products Hits Record in April

June 2, 2017

The Department of Commerce released the April figures for international trade in goods and services this morning, and the trade deficit rose again to its worst reading since January – $47.6 billion.  Imports were up and exports were down.  But you can’t even find the worst news in the report – the deficit in manufactured goods.  The Commerce Department doesn’t even bother to calculate it.  But I do.  By subtracting from the overall deficit the figures for services, foods, feeds, beverages and petroleum products, you can arrive at a pretty good estimation of trade in manufactured goods.  The news is bad.  The deficit in manufactured products rose to $63.4 billion, beating the previous record set in March, 2015 by $0.1 billion.  Imports rose to a record level and exports fell to their lowest level in five months.  Here’s a chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  As you can see, the deficit in manufactured goods continues to worsen at the same pace that it has since 2010, more than doubling in seven years.

Separately this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a weak employment report for the month of May.  Unemployment dropped, but thanks only to the old “mysteriously vanishing labor force” trick used so often during the Obama administration.  The employment level actually fell by 133,000 workers.  An accurate reading of unemployment would have had it actually worsening by two tenths of a percent.  Manufacturing employment fell yet again by another 1,000 jobs.  No surprise, in light of what’s happening with the trade deficit.  Add this data to the extremely weak first quarter GDP and you have a picture of an economy that’s stalled and might be on the brink of something worse.

So President Trump now owns the worst performance in manufactured goods of any president.  He vowed to “Make America Great Again.” The first step in that process is to stop it from getting worse.  That hasn’t happened yet.  Talk and optimism will only carry you so far.  There’s been little action.  There’s no border tax.  NAFTA still stands.  Jobs are still heading to China and Mexico.

To be fair, it’s still early in his administration, and the Republican congress has done nothing either.  But I fear that the opportunity to “make America great again” is being frittered away.


Apple’s “Advanced Manufacturing Fund” a PR Gimmick

May 4, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-apple-fund-idUSKBN17Z2PI

Today Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, announced plans to set up a $1 billion “advanced manufacturing” fund, making it sound as though it’s going to create manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  (See the above-linked article.)  It’s actually nothing more than a clever public relations ploy – a gimmick designed to polish Apple’s tarnished image.

Ever since Trump’s message about bringing back manufacturing jobs began to resonate with voters, free trade advocates like Cook have begun waging a campaign on two fronts designed to blunt any efforts aimed at reversing globalization.  On the one hand, there has suddenly emerged a lot of talk about how most manufacturing jobs have actually been lost to automation and not trade policy which is, of course, a lie.  If the plant you worked in has just closed, you merely need to ask yourself where that product is now being made.  Is it being made by robots in a new factory, or is it now being made in a sweat shop in China or Mexico?  The answer is obvious.

The other tactic is to make themselves appear to be gung-ho for American manufacturing, lest they risk alienating the growing majority of Americans who now see free trade as a drag on the American economy.  As part of this effort, they’ve advanced the notion of “advanced manufacturing” – something that will somehow create jobs by developing factories so automated that human workers aren’t required.  Sounds like double-talk?  Of course it is.  But they believe you’re too dumb to see through it.

Apple is a perfect case in point.  Their products are considered the epitome of “high tech.”   Such a “high tech” company must be on the cutting edge of “advanced manufacturing,” right?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The manufacture of Apple’s electronic gizmos is about as low-tech as you can get.  Contracted out to companies like China’s Foxconn, Apple’s products are pieced together by hand, utilizing thousands of workers in sweat shop conditions to insert tiny components into circuit boards.  Truth be told, the manufacture of cars in Detroit assembly plants which utilize robots for hundreds of assembly tasks is far more advanced than anything that Apple does.  The manufacturing jobs in those assembly plants are well-paid, high-skilled jobs.  Interfacing with all of that automation is no job for dummies.

Apple could move their manufacturing back to the U.S. today, but they resist for two reasons.  One is the investment that would be required to build proper manufacturing facilities that comply with environmental and labor laws.  More importantly, however, they resist because they need to maintain their manufacturing presence in China in order to have access to the Chinese market.  China’s leaders are smart enough to insist that products sold in China be made in China.

Cook wants you to think of Apple as a good corporate citizen of the United States, interested in creating jobs for Americans.  Give me a break.  They want to sell you an iPhone.  They want you to pay as much as possible (regardless of whether or not you can actually afford it) for something that’s made as cheaply as it can be, and they want you to pay for it with money earned anywhere except at Apple.

Gimmicks like these won’t bring manufacturing jobs back.  Only tariffs (or “border taxes” or whatever you want to call them) will force companies like Apple to manufacture in the U.S. and actually create real jobs for American workers.

 


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.


Week 1 Done

January 28, 2017

The world is slowly awakening to a new reality.  It has profoundly changed.  And that may be an understatement.

Throughout the campaign, Trump’s “populist” rhetoric was dismissed by many – especially by those who stood to lose the most if globalization were dismantled – as exactly that, a play for votes or posturing designed to win concessions in the highly unlikely event that he would actually be elected president.  After all, this is the author of The Art of the Deal, a book about his tactics for winning in the business world.  He’s just  staking out his opening position.  Right?

During the transition, however, he doubled down on his rhetoric and stacked the cabinet mostly with people aligned with his positions.  The world grew a little more nervous.

Then came inauguration day and, I have to admit, that even I was taken aback by his speech.  It was as though he picked up a rhetorical two-by-four and began swinging at everyone who’d had a role in America’s trade mess and economic decline, and any who doubted his intentions or who stood in his way.

Now his first week in office is history, and what a week it was.  TPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal) is dead.  NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Deal) is as good as dead.  The wall on the southern border will be built.  Tariffs on Mexican imports will pay for it.  Immigration from many Middle Eastern countries has been brought to a halt.  And, in stark contrast to Obama’s visit to Mexico in the early days of presidency to discuss renegotiating NAFTA, a humiliating experience that yielded only more Mexican tariffs on American goods, Trump has put Mexico on notice.  If you can’t accept the new reality of American tariffs on Mexican imports and an all-out effort to halt illegal immigration from your country, then too bad – we have nothing to talk about.

Some seem to get it.  Some American companies have begun hedging their bets with announcements of plans to invest in American manufacturing.  Still, the world is largely in a state of denial.  Markets around the world continue to rally on optimism over the aspects of the Trump agenda that it likes – corporate tax breaks and infrastructure spending – while shrugging off the possibility that Trump means business about imposing tariffs on imports.

The world is made up of only two economies, really.  One is the economy of the more sparsely populated countries, able to gainfully employ their workers, which is dominated by the United States.  The other is the rest of the world, badly overpopulated and heavily dependent on manufacturing for export to the aforementioned countries – again, most notably, the United States.  Tariffs on imports into the U.S. will  totally alter the host-parasite relationship that exists between the two.  Those who continue to blindly invest in the economies of the latter may be making a serious mistake.

Americans have finally gotten fed up with playing the role of enabler to ever-worsening overpopulation, using immigration as a relief valve and trade to prop it up.  Trump has hastened the day when the rest of the world must face the consequences on their own.


Are Americans really ready for what’s to come?

November 16, 2016

Some have described the election of Donald Trump as a “political earthquake.”  That doesn’t begin to describe it.  A more fitting analogy would be the asteroid that struck the earth millions of years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and most other living species.  The world was forever changed.

Sure, the sun came up the morning after Trump’s election and normal life resumed.  People living off the grid would never know that anything had happened. But fasten your seat belts, folks.  You haven’t felt it yet, but the blast wave from that asteroid strike is on its way.  If Trump implements the trade policy he promised during the campaign, we’re in for a very rough ride.  I’m afraid that few people really comprehend what’s coming.

Don’t get me wrong.  It needs to be done.  If Trump doesn’t do it, America will continue to be sucked into the vortex of the poverty-sharing scheme of globalization until we have nothing left.  Incomes will continue to decline.  Health care and college educations will become even less affordable.  Forget any dreams of a secure retirement.  Infrastructure will crumble further while the national debt soars.

So it has to be done, but entire economies – big ones – have been built on manufacturing for export to the U.S.  Globalization won’t go down without a fight.  It’ll begin with sniping from every corner of a vast network of globalization cheer-leaders that support their special interests, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, national leaders, CEOs of global corporations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its local chapters, and economists who can’t come to grips with the notion that everything they’ve learned, taught and fought for was wrong.  Based on past experience with presidents over the past several decades, it’s hard to imagine one that could withstand such withering criticism.

But that’s nothing compared to what will follow.  It seems that Mexico is the first one that Trump has in his cross-hairs.  They may try retaliatory trade sanctions, like big tariffs on food exports.  But they don’t have the wherewithal to present real problems.  China, however – who the Trump administration will turn its sights on next – is another story.  They’ll try retaliatory trade sanctions first but, when you’re the nation with the huge trade surplus, it’s impossible for China to win a trade war.  The thing that Chinese leaders fear the most is not the U.S., but civil unrest among its own people.  Big tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S. would shift the now-booming Chinese economy into reverse.  Conceivably, it could collapse their economy.

The Chinese people have become conditioned to feel entitled to a booming economy and to preying on the U.S. market.  They’ll be angry as hell and will demand action from their government.  Rioting may break out.  In its death throes and desperate to placate their demands, the Chinese regime may turn to military action.  It’s impossible to predict how something like that might unfold.

There are those already saying that tariffs against Mexico can’t work – that forcing the manufacturing of American cars and parts back into the U.S. will only make them uncompetitive with other auto imports.  And they are right.  In order to succeed, Trump will need to expand the use of tariffs to include other countries like Japan, South Korea, Germany and others.  Now we’ll have more unhappy campers who may be willing to form a new alliance against the U.S.  Are Americans prepared for this?

And are they prepared for some gut-wrenching changes in our own economy?  It’s true that tariffs will drive up prices for U.S. consumers and, in many cases, there are no American manufacturers ready to fill the void.  It’s going to take some time to design, build and start up new plants.  Will Americans have the patience to endure a burst of inflation and very likely a recession until wages catch up and offset the higher cost of goods, or have we become too spoiled for that?

I wonder if even the most strident Trump supporters have anticipated these ramifications and whether they’re willing to endure the pain.  It’s easy to say “make American great again” but making it happen is going to be a long and very difficult process.    It’s going to take a virtual war-footing mentality among Americans.

And what about Trump?  Will he be a strong enough leader to maintain the support of the people through all of this?  Based on what we’ve seen from Trump, we can expect that, when foreign leaders lash out at him, he’ll hit back just as hard.  No one should doubt his ability to win.  It’s the American people I’m more worried about.  Will they be ready to jump ship at the first sign of adversity, or are they tough enough to stand by Trump and see this through?