America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2020

March 29, 2021

Many people – perhaps most – have little understanding of the economic impact of the balance of foreign trade. The best way I can explain it is to use your own checking account as an example. If more money is drawn out of your account than the income that goes into it, then you’re steadily getting poorer and, if kept up long enough, you’ll eventually be broke. Until you reach that point, you create an illusion of prosperity by buying more than you can afford, but it’s just that – an illusion. Your day of reckoning – of financial ruin – is fast approaching.

The United States, just like every other nation, has a national account that’s very much like your checking account. Influxes of money, like income taxes, other federal taxes, tariffs on imports and the money collected from foreign entities for exported goods make us richer. Conversely, outflows are bad – like money spent by the federal government (for defense, domestic programs, etc.) and money spent on importing goods. Those make us poorer.

Therefore, our balance of trade with the rest of the world makes us either richer or poorer, depending on whether it’s a surplus or a deficit. And we’re not just talking about red numbers on some obscure balance sheet deep within the Department of Treasury. A trade deficit hits you directly in the wallet. For every $50,000 increase in the trade deficit, another American’s job is lost. If it wasn’t your job, you’re still hit in the wallet when an ever-growing number of unemployed compete for your job and put downward pressure on your wages. Do the math. Since our last balance of trade in 1975, the deficit in manufactured goods has grown by $1 trillion. Divided by $50,000, that’s a loss of 20 million high-paying manufacturing jobs. The downward pressure on wages has been enormous.

With all that said, let’s take a look at how we did in 2020. Each year I think to myself that America’s trade picture couldn’t get worse, but each year it does. The year 2020 was no different. If anything, our downward spiral accelerated. Our deficit in manufactured goods came in at $911 billion, blowing past the “old” record of $831 billion set only one year earler. Which countries were our worst trading partners? Here’s the list: America’s 20 worst trade deficits in 2020.

First of all, look at the total deficit for these twenty countries. It was $1.001 trillion. That’s more than America’s trade deficit with the entire world. In fact, our entire trade deficit is due to our deficit with only the top twelve nations on this list. Think about that. Take away those twelve nations, and the U.S. enjoys a balance of trade with the other 216 nations of the world.

Now look more closely at the list. It’s no surprise to see China at the top. They’ve been there for at least the last fifteen years. What is a surprise is that the deficit with China fell precipitously in 2020, from a record high of $416 billion in 2018. Why? Because of the 25% tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on half of all Chinese imports. It’s proof that tariffs work.

Unfortunately, those tariffs on Chinese imports also explain, at least in part, the explosive growth in the deficit with other nations, most notably Vietnam. Companies scrambled to move their manufacturing operations out of China to avoid the tariffs. Trump should have applied the tariffs to these other countries as well, leaving companies no alternative but to bring their manufacturing back to America.

Note that most of the nations on this list are actually quite wealthy, high-wage nations, on a par with the U.S. (Ireland and Switzerland are even wealthier.) This casts doubt on economists’ claim that low wages are the driving force behind trade deficits. So if low wages don’t drive trade imbalances, what does? The list includes nations both very large and very small, and nations from Europe, Asia and Central America. Is there something that these nations have in common – something that should be factored into our trade policy to return us to a balance of trade?

Indeed there is. Look at the population density of the nations on this list and note that all but one (Sweden) are more densely populated than the United States, which has a population density of 94 people per square mile. Most are far more densely populated. The average population density of the nations on this list is six times greater than the U.S. There clearly seems to be a relationship between population density and balance of trade. But why? What is it that makes people who live in more crowded conditions poor trade partners for the United States?

We need to look at this more deeply. We need to factor out other variables, like the sheer size of nations, which puts China at the top of this list with a deficit three times bigger than the next nation on the list – Mexico – which is only one tenth the size of China in terms of population. In my next post, we’ll sort the nations of the world by population density and see how their balance of trade with the U.S. stacks up.


America’s Worst Trading Partners in 2015

May 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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?


U.S. Trade with Finland & Sweden

April 6, 2009

Those of you who have read Five Short Blasts may remember that, of America’s top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods, only two defied my theory by being with nations less densely populated than the U.S.  And strangely, both were with neighboring countries – Finland and Sweden.  (See Table 7-2 on page 128.)  In fact, our 2nd worst per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods in 2006 was with Sweden, a nation with a population density of 53 people/square mile, at $860.  Number thirteen on the list was Finland, a nation with a population density of 40 people/square mile, at $301.  (For reference, the U.S. population density is 85 people/square mile.)  Since both nations are less densely populated than the U.S., my theory predicts that we should actually have something close to a balance of trade with each nation in manufactured goods, or even a surplus. 

So, upon updating my data through 2008, I was excited to discover that the trade deficit in manufactured goods with both nations has shrunk, moving more in line with what my theory predicts.  Here’s the charts depicting the balance of trade with each:

trade-with-finland     trade-with-sweden

In the case of Sweden, our trade deficit in manufactured goods has shrunk from $8.48 billion in 2006 to $6.65 billion in 2008.  This drops our per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods with them to $736; not a big move, but a move in the right direction. 

In the case of Finland, our trade deficit in manufactured goods shrank by over half, from $1.71 billion in 2006 to $0.75 billion in 2008, dropping the per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods to $143 which, if other nations stay about the same, would drop Finland completely out of the top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods. 

Our trade results with these two nations were an anomaly that I couldn’t explain when I wrote Five Short Blasts, other than to say that, when dealing with nations of roughly equal population density, we will naturally have some surpluses and some deficits.  So it’s exciting to me to see that trade results with both of these nations are moving in the right direction, and I wanted to share that with you.

It’s also a good time to reiterate that, because Finland and Sweden are less densely populated than the U.S., I believe in free trade with both nations, regardless of whether or not we have a trade deficit with them.  Free trade in natural resources and free trade between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed very beneficial.  It is only badly overpopulated nations who should have their manufactured goods subjected to the population density-indexed tariff structure that I proposed in Five Short Blasts.