America’s Worst Trade Partners in 2016

July 6, 2017

America’s trade policy is a disaster.  There’s just no other way to describe it.  In 2016, our trade deficit rose to almost $505 billion, beating the old record set in 2015.  We can’t continue on this path.  An economy that has that much money drained from it can only avoid a permanent state of recession through deficit spending, which is exactly what we’ve done for decades, and it’s bankrupting us.  Our infrastructure is crumbling.  The Social Security trust fund is on a path to bankruptcy.  Medicare is already there.  Household incomes and net worth are declining.  And the government can’t come up with a scheme that makes health care affordable.

But what to do?  How did “free trade,” the darling of economists, back-fire so badly for the U.S.?  A quick glance at the balance of trade data, which is broken into “services” and “goods,” reveals a nice surplus in services.  It was in this category that the U.S. economy was really expected to shine, and it has.  But the “goods” part of the equation has run completely off the rails, with the deficit in goods dwarfing the small surplus in services.

What’s the problem with “goods?”  Is it oil?  There was a time, decades ago, when the deficit in goods was due almost entirely to oil imports.  But no more.  It has shrunk dramatically and now accounts for less than 25% of the goods deficit.  The vast majority of our deficit in goods is due to manufactured products.  So let’s focus there.

Let’s begin with a look at which nations account for our biggest trade deficits in manufactured goods.  Here’s a list of the top twenty in 2016:  Top 20 Deficits, 2016.  China is at the top of the list, yielding a trade deficit that’s more than four times as large as the next nation on the list, Japan.  In fact, so large is the trade deficit with China that it is larger than all of the nations of the rest of the world combined.  It would seem that China must be doing something underhanded.  Some say that the problem is low wages in China.  Others claim that China manipulates its currency, keeping it artificially low, thus making its exports cheaper for American consumers and making American imports too expensive for Chinese consumers.  Or maybe it’s just the sheer size of China, a big country with one fifth of the world’s population.

What is it about this list of nations that they have in common?  The list includes nations from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Central America.  It includes some of the wealthiest nations on earth – like Germany, Switzerland and Ireland – casting doubt on the “low wage” theory.

I mentioned China’s size.  But geographic size can’t be much of a factor.  Without any people, we wouldn’t even have trade with any particular country or region.  Take Antarctica.  It’s bigger than China, but we have no trade with that continent at all.  People are what’s important.  It’s their consumption of products that drives trade.  So maybe that’s where we should start looking.  Perhaps the number of people in a country – or their population density – is a factor.  So let’s take a look.  Let’s express the trade deficit with each one of those countries in per capita terms.  Now look at the list:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2016.

The median population density of the 165 nations* included in this study is 184 people per square mile.  The population density of the U.S. is apprximately 90 people per square mile.  Seventeen of the twenty nations on this list have population densities above the median.  The odds against that happening are 128:1.  Conversely, the chances of that happening are only 0.7%.  Clearly, population density is a factor.  The average population density of these nations is 522 people per square mile – almost three times the world median and more than five times the density of the U.S.

In per capita terms, China barely even makes the list, ranking 19th out of these twenty nations. Eleven of the twenty nations are European Union nations.

And what about the claim that low wages are to blame for trade deficits?  That’s clearly nonsense.  The average “purchasing power parity” (roughly analogous to wages) is just over $46,000 – on a par with the U.S.

On average, the per capita trade deficit with these nations has risen by 88% in the past ten years.

The fact that America’s deficit with Ireland, with a population density close to the world median, is almost three times that of Switzerland, the number two nation on the list, is an indication that something else is going on that tilts trade in favor of Ireland, and indeed there is.  Ireland is a tax haven and America is a fool to tolerate it.

Why is population density such a dominant factor in determining the balance of trade?  It’s because of the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption.  It’s because people living in crowded conditions consume less but are just as productive.  The result is that they come to the trade table with a bloated labor force and an emaciated market.  To understand more about why this happens, read Five Short Blasts.  It’s also the theme of this blog.

Any trade policy that fails to account for the role of population density in driving trade imbalances and fails to employ tariffs to maintain a balance of trade with overpopulated nations is doomed to failure.  America’s free trade policy is blind to this factor.  The resulting trade deficit is inevitable.

Next we’ll take a look at the list of America’s twenty best trade partners.  If population density is a factor, we should see the opposite results on that list.  It should be dominated by nations with low population densities.  Stay tuned.


  *  There are 229 nations in the world.  Tiny island nations and city-states have been excluded from the study.  Trade with these nations is minuscule, accounting for less than 1% of U.S. trade.  The U.S. tends to have a surplus with such nations, regardless of their population density, since their economies are primarily based on tourism and not manufacturing.

America’s Worst Trading Partners

January 12, 2016

I have finally finished tabulating the trade data for each country for 2014.  (2015 data won’t be released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis until sometime in March.)  What took me so long?  This is no small task.  Since the BEA doesn’t track “manufactured products” as a category, I have to take the data for hundreds of product codes for each of 165 nations and subtract out the categories of raw materials in order to arrive at a figure for manufactured products.  I maintain a massive spreadsheet for each nation and then compile the results for all on an even bigger spreadsheet.

Anyway, the results are in and over the next couple of weeks or so, beginning with this post, we’ll break down and analyze the results.  I like to begin by listing America’s 20 worst per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods.  In essence, this is a list of America’s 20 worst trade partners.  These trade deficits are expressed in per capita terms in order to put the citizens of all nations on an equal footing.  For example, our trade deficit with China, when expressed in dollars, dwarfs that of every other nation because they represent one fifth of the world’s entire population.  But when it comes to trade, borders are meaningless and China could just as easily be 100 smaller nations instead of one.  It would have no effect on our total trade deficit whether we draw a line on a map around 1.3 billion people, or draw 100 lines around clusters of 13 million people each.  Expressing the deficits in per capita terms eliminates the sheer size of nations as a factor.

If you’re new to this web site, you probably expect to see this list populated with poor nations.  You’d be wrong and, by the end of this post, you’ll understand why.  So let’s take a look at the list for 2014:  Top 20 Deficits, 2014.  Some observations are in order:

  1. The key take-away from this list is that 18 of these 20 nations are more densely populated than the U.S.  Most are much more densely populated.  The average population density of this list is 539 people per square mile.  This compares with the U.S. population density of about 87 people per square mile.  This average is up from the average population density of 504 people per square mile on the 2013 list.
  2. Instead of poor, low wage nations, this list is populated by rather wealthy, high wage nations.  The average purchasing power parity (PPP) of the nations on this list is $40,700 per person, up from $35,330 in 2013.  Only one nation on this list has a PPP of less than $10,000 – Vietnam, at $5700 per person.  Only three other nations have a PPP of less than $20,000 – Costa Rica, Mexico and China.  By comparison, U.S. PPP was $54,400 in 2014.
  3. Though our trade deficit with China has exploded since they were first granted “Most Favored Nation” status in 2000, their position on this list has barely budged since I published Five Short Blasts in 2007.  They were 19th on the list in 2006 and have risen only one point to 18th in 2014.  That’s because our trade deficit with nearly all of these nations has grown just as rapidly.  To illustrate this, I’ve included a column on the chart that shows the percent change in our balance of trade with each nation over the past ten years.  Our deficit with China has grown by 82%.  But the results with some other nations have been even worse.  In 2006, Costa Rica didn’t even appear on this list.  In fact, in 2005, we had a trade surplus with Costa Rica.  That has now reversed into a large trade deficit, big enough to move them to number 8 on this list.  The same is true for Vietnam.  In 2005 they were nowhere close to being on this list but, in the past ten years, our deficit with Vietnam has worsened by almost 500%.  Our deficit with Switzerland has worsened by over 200% in the last ten years, moving them to 2nd on the list.  It’s worth noting here that Switzerland is the one nation on the list that is even wealthier than the U.S.  But the one thing all of these nations have in common is a high population density.
  4. In case you’re tempted to conclude that Costa Rica, Vietnam, Mexico and China are on this list because of low wages (low PPP), consider this.  In the past ten years, their PPPs have risen by 41%, 136%, 50% and 184% respectively.  If wages are a factor in trade imbalances, then such rapidly rising wages should tend to slow or even reverse our trade deficit with these nations.  Instead, each is accelerating.
  5. It’s also worth noting here than one of the only two nations on the list less densely populated than the U.S. – Sweden – is slowly sliding off of this list.  Our trade deficit with Sweden has actually improved by 44% over the past ten years – the only such improvement on this list.  As a result, they’ve slid from no. 2 on the list in 2006 to no. 12 in 2014.
  6. Another nation that has slid noticeably on this list is Japan.  They were no. 4 on the list in 2006, sliding to no. 10 in 2014.  Why?  Other nations, most notably South Korea and Germany (who have each risen on the list), have cannibalized their auto exports.  This explains why Japan’s economy has been mired in recession for years.

In 2014, the U.S. suffered a total trade deficit in manufactured goods of $539.9 billion.  The trade deficit in manufactured goods with just the twenty nations on this list was $728.3 billion.  In other words, these twenty nations account for our entire trade deficit in manufactured goods, and then some.  It should be clear to anyone that it’s the large disparity in population density between the U.S. and these nations that drives our trade deficit.  It’s just as clear that low wages play no role whatsoever.  Any trade policy that fails to take into account the role of population density in driving trade imbalances is doomed to failure, just as U.S. trade policy has been for decades.

Those who blame trade imbalances on low wages either don’t understand trade or are simply lying.  So too are those who blame currency valuations – something we’ll examine later.  And those who tell you that we simply need to be more competitive are playing you for fools.  The only way to restore a balance of trade is by applying tariffs to counteract the effect of population density.

Not enough proof?  Stay tuned.  In my next post we’ll take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum – America’s twenty best trade partners – and see if population density is a factor there too.



“It’s not a matter of race, but of space.”

February 12, 2014

If you haven’t heard, Swiss  voters recently voted in favor of putting strict curbs on immigration.  The above-linked opinion piece from Reuters begins with a good summary of what has taken place in Switzerland – a true democracy where the voters actually have a direct say over how their country is run.  It seems that the people of Switzerland – a land more densley populated than China where a quarter of the population are immigrants (much like the U.S.) – are increasingly concerned about rising unemployment and the downward pressure on wages.

But I was especially intrigued by the response from the leader of the UK’s Independence Party who said that the Swiss opposition to immigration is “not a matter of race but of space.”  It’s heartening to see that there are others out there who “get it” when it comes to immigration – that the real problem is overpopulation and the erosion of the economy that accompanies it. 

It’s also interesting to read readers’ comments on stories about immigration.  They seem to run opposed to immigration by about a 3-1 margin.  Yet, if our own politicians and media are to be believed, virtually everyone in the U.S. is clamoring for more immigration.  It’s simply not true.  The American people are just as fed up with the effects of immigration-driven population growth as are the Swiss.  Sadly, we don’t have the same ability to do anything about it.