The Trade Deficit is Bankrupting the U.S.

February 13, 2018

Earlier this past week, the Commerce Department released the trade figures for the month of December.  The news wasn’t good.  The overall deficit jumped to $53.1 billion, the highest since the Great Recession in 2009.  Worse yet, the deficit in manufactured goods soared to a new record of $69.0 billion as a $2.7 billion increase in exports was swamped by a $6.7 billion increase in imports, which rose to $183.2 billion.  Check this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  This is the 3rd month in a row that the deficit in manufactured goods has set a new record.  This is quite the opposite of what Trump promised during the campaign.  To be fair, the increase in the deficit is due to the improved economy, leaving Americans more willing to open their wallets and buy, and is not due to any trade policy blunders by Trump.  But Trump’s dithering on trade is directly responsible for the lack of improvement.  All we’ve gotten is talk, threats and endless (and pointless, I might add) negotiations (primarily on NAFTA) – nothing more than we’ve gotten from previous administrations for decades.

In another story last week, Congress approved (and Trump signed) a spending bill that ended the brief government shutdown – a bill that grows the national debt by an estimated $1.5 trillion over ten years.  This is on top of the $1.5 trillion added by the Republicans’ tax cut legislation.  And all of that is on top of the $1.5 trillion cost of the American Recovery Act implemented under Obama.  Yesterday, Trump introduced a budget plan that would grow the national debt by $7.5 trillion over the next ten years.

So what’s the relationship?  Why do I bring up the trade deficit and the national debt in the same post?  As I explained in Five Short Blasts, the trade deficit is the root cause of our federal budget deficit.  To understand, draw a line around the United States on a map.  Now, draw arrows that represent cash outflows from that circle and cash flowing in.  The money spent on imports – currently running at about $3 trillion per year – is an outflow.  The money we collect from exports that we sell – currently running at about $2.4 trillion per year – is an inflow.  That leaves a deficit of about $600 billion per year.  If that money didn’t come back in some fashion, every penny of U.S. wealth would eventually be gone.  Every American would be flat broke.  It’s exactly the same as your check book.  Keep taking money out without putting any back in and – well- you know what happens.

So the trade deficit puts us in a huge bind.  Fortunately, though, it presents those countries who sold us those imports with an equal but opposite problem.  They’re now collecting a big pile of U.S. dollars that ultimately have value in only one place.  The U.S. is the only place on earth where U.S. dollars are legal tender.  This means that those countries who sold us those imports now have to reinvest those dollars back in the U.S. in some fashion.  For one, they can use them to buy exports from the U.S. – which they do – but obviously not in equal measure.  What to do with the rest?  Invest in American companies?  That makes no sense.  Those are the same companies that their exports are trying to drive out of business.  So they use the money to buy American debt obligations, or “treasuries.”

The federal government then uses the money collected by selling treasuries to finance deficit spending, thus plowing back into the economy the dollars that the trade deficit took out.  In this way, the federal government is able to keep the economy on a positive footing, maintaining an illusion of prosperity in the U.S.  And the biggest way they do this is by collecting less tax revenue from you than it takes to finance their programs.  Essentially, the federal government subsidizes your income.

Check out this chart.  It graphically shows the relationship between the growth in the national debt and the cumulative effect of the trade deficit:  Cumulative Trade Deficit vs Growth in National Debt.  Notice how closely the two parameters track each other.  Also, you’ll notice that any time the growth in the national debt lags the cumulative trade deficit, a recession is the result – the most recent being the “Great Recession” of 2008.  In the run-up to that recession, Congress focused on reining in the deficit and the result was George Bush’s famous “jobless recovery” from the recession that occurred at the turn of the century.  Home ownership was declining and the housing/mortgage industry turned to sham loans to put people into homes – bad loans that nearly collapsed the entire banking industry.  When Obama took office, he correctly blamed global trade imbalances, and world leaders agreed.  What did they do about it?  Not a damn thing.  Like parasites, they could all agree that they were killing the host, but all continued to hungrily feed on it.

So how bad is the national debt?  Let’s begin with a little historical perspective.  In 1929, the national debt was $16.9 billion dollars, which was about 16% of GDP (gross domestic product).  By the end of World War II, it had understandably ballooned to $269.4 billion, or 121% of GDP – unacceptably high.  By 1973, it was whittled back down to only 33% of GDP.  Then it began to grow again.  Not coincidentally, in 1975 the U.S. ran its last trade surplus and became a “debtor nation.”  Soon after, the national debt began to explode.

Some economists have used the benchmark of the GDP to gauge the seriousness of the debt.  As long as it doesn’t exceed 100% of GDP, they would claim, the national debt is manageable.  Where do we stand now?  Take a look at this chart of national debt, measured as a percentage of GDP:  National Debt as Percentage of Chained GDP(2).  We’re back over 100%.  It actually declined slightly last year as the budget deficit shrank a little and as the GDP grew more than it has in years.  We’re not likely to see it decline again any time soon as the national debt is now expected to grow by $7 trillion in the next ten years.  Although it took 32 years to climb from 32% of GDP to 100% in 2013, it will hit 200% in much less time if nothing is done about the trade deficit.

However, the situation is actually worse than that.  The “GDP” isn’t the one who is on the hook for the national debt.  It’s taxpayers – you and me.  So let’s take a look at the national debt in per capita terms – that is, how much of it each one of us owes.  Take a look at this chart:  National Debt Per Capita, 1929-2017.  This should scare the hell out of anyone.  Each of us is now on the hook for $50,000 of the national debt, which is 2-1/2 times the burden of each American at the end of World War II!  And look at this chart:  National Debt as Percentage of Total Household Net Worth.  In 1962, the national debt was only 3% of the total household net worth of all Americans.  Today, it’s hovering near 30%.

“Total household net worth” includes some very wealthy households, like those of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other billionaires.  Where does your household’s net worth fit in?  Take a look at this chart of household net worth, as measured by the Federal Reserve in its tri-annual survey of household finances:  Household Net Worth.  While the “mean” (or average) household net worth has grown nicely  from $163,000 in 1962 to $692,000 in 2016, the “median” value remains stuck at about $100,000 where it’s been for two decades.

You need to understand the difference between “mean” and “median.”  If nine people have $1 in their pockets and a tenth person has $100 in his pocket, then the “mean” value of what these ten people have in their pockets is the total divided by the number of people which, in this case, is $10.90.  The “median” represents the value at which half of the people have more and half have less.  In this case, the “median” value of how much these people have in their pockets is only $1.  Half of these ten people have $1 or less, and half have $1 or more.  (One of them has a lot more!)

This means that the household net worth of at least half of all Americans is $100,000 or less.  And, in all likelihood, most of the other half don’t have a whole lot more than $100,000.  The median value is skewed by only a small percentage of households.

On average, a household has 3.2 people.  Remember that each American “owes” $50,000 of the national debt.  That means that each household owes about $160,000 on the national debt.  Compare that to the median household net worth of $100,000.  In all likelihood, if the amount you owe on the national debt were subtracted from your net worth, you’d be completely broke.  You’d actually be “in the hole” by about $60,000!

To be honest, I’ve been hearing warnings about the national debt for all of my nearly seven-decade life.  So far, nothing really bad has happened.  At some point, you have to begin to wonder if those who claim that the national debt doesn’t matter are right.  Who knows how this might actually turn out?  Nobody knows.  Will Americans ever have to pony up the money to pay the debt?  I doubt it.  It’s in no one’s interest to bankrupt Americans.  After all, the rest of the world depends on us continuing to buy their products.  What is likely to happen, in my opinion, is the same thing that has happened in other cases where nations have been unable to repay their debts.  There will be a “debt-forgiveness” program of some sort, perhaps overseen by the World Bank, that will let us off the hook, but will come with some extremely harsh concessions – a Greek-style austerity program as a minimum.  The U.S. will become a slave-state for the rest of the world, never again able to exert any influence over world events or even our own destiny.

Is that what we want?  There’s only one escape from this dilemma – the restoration of a balance of trade.  The only way to make that happen is through the use of tariffs.  It’s exactly what Trump proposed during his campaign but now seems unwilling or unable to implement.  Where is the media outrage over this situation?  Instead of the news being dominated by stories of our looming economic demise – which it should be, all we get is stuff that more properly belongs in tabloids or on page 20 of The Times, at best.  It seems that our journalists are either too ill-informed on the subject of economics to probe the issue, or are too lazy to bother looking into it.  The salacious “she said, he said” stuff is easier and sells better.  It’s not exactly “fake news” but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly trivial news.  There are much more important things, like the trade deficit and the national debt, that needs our focus.

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An example of how dumb we’ve gotten about trade

February 1, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-tariffs-jobs/hung-out-to-dry-twice-tennessee-city-stumped-by-trumps-washer-tariffs-idUSKBN1FI0G1

I came across the above-linked article a couple of days ago.  It reports on reaction by officials in Clarksville, TN to Trump’s newly-announced tariffs on washers and parts.  It seems that Clarksville is the site of a new washer manufacturing plant planned by LG Electronics.  It’s a good example of just how dumb Americans have become about trade and tariffs.  It seems that the mayor and others reacted with hand-wringing, fearful that LG would now cancel their plans to build the plant to retaliate against the Trump move.  Here’s what the mayor had to say:

“It’s like déjà vu for Clarksville, to say ‘how can this be happening twice to us,’” the city’s mayor, Kim McMillan, told Reuters.

She said that the city government was scrambling to help the South Korean manufacturer accelerate its production launch by ensuring that utilities and infrastructure are quickly put in place at the factory site and expediting approvals.

“We’ve got to do whatever we can to make sure that LG is able to still open their facility and hire people,” McMillan added.

What’s to stop LG from opening their plant?  The whole purpose of tariffs is to encourage foreign manufacturers to locate their production in the U.S.

Trump’s decision to impose 20 percent to 50 percent tariffs on washer imports and parts has local officials asking what his “America First” stands for: supporting all U.S. manufacturing jobs or just favoring traditional American brands over foreign rivals.

How dumb.  Tariffs favor domestic manufacturing over imports, and have nothing to do with favoring any one brand over another.

LG told U.S. retailers on Wednesday it would raise prices in response to the tariffs. That could dent its market share, reducing initial output and employment, said company spokesman John Taylor.

Of course they’d have to raise prices on imported washers!  That’s the whole point!  If they want to hang onto their market share, they have no choice but to move their manufacturing to the U.S.

It’s probably unfair of me to label the Clarksville mayor as “dumb.”  It’s not a matter of being dumb.  Rather, it’s an example of how effectively the globalists have brain-washed Americans about the supposed benefits of free trade and the supposed dangers of protectionist trade policies like tariffs.  Does no one ever wonder why protectionist policies work so well for the rest of the world but can’t be used just as effectively by the U.S.?

The effect of these tariffs will be to accelerate LG’s plans to move to the U.S., along with Samsung and any other foreign manufacturer.

Before I was able to finish writing this, a follow-up article appeared on Reuters the next day, and it drives home the point I’m trying to make.  Here’s the article:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-samsung/u-s-washer-tariffs-put-samsung-lg-supply-chains-through-the-wringer-idUSKBN1FJ0LZ.  This time, the reporters interviewed officials from LG and Samsung about how they plan to react to these tariffs.  Not only do they plan to accelerate the construction of their washer assembly plants, but the fact that the tariffs also apply to parts has forced them into their “worst case scenario” for their supply chain – they’ll have to manufacture the parts here too.

After committing hundreds of millions of dollars to build the plants and bring jobs to South Carolina and Tennessee, the ruling caught the companies by surprise and was a “worst case” scenario, according to one executive.

Samsung says it will use imported parts until its factory runs at full capacity and becomes ready to produce key parts, expected to be by the end of the year.

…  LG was set to start production at its new plant in the third quarter at the earliest and is now working to accelerate its launch with officials in Clarksville, Tennessee who are eager for the jobs the new factory will bring.

“We had several scenarios… this safeguard measure turned out to be the worst case one,” Kim Gun-tai, head of LG’s home appliance division told a conference call last week.

LG, which announced a plan to raise prices on its washing machines sold in the United States last week, said in a separate statement to Reuters it was absorbing a significant portion of the tariff on parts. Once its U.S. plant’s operation began it would produce key parts on site, it added.

So there you have it.  Both LG Electronics and Samsung are now working feverishly to not only finish their assembly plants but to also ramp up production of the washer components in the U.S., something they hadn’t planned to do until they learned that the tariffs would apply to parts as well as assembled washers.

Tariffs work.  They force companies – both domestic and foreign – to manufacture in the U.S. in order to remain profitable.  Just imagine if similar tariffs were applied to every product.  Our economy would absolutely explode in a way that few ever dreamed possible.

 


Another Month, Another Record Trade Deficit

January 6, 2018

Yesterday the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released the international trade data for the month of November:

https://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/international/trade/2018/pdf/trad1117.pdf

The overall deficit rose to $50.5 billion, the worst reading since January of 2012, but not quite a record, thanks to steady, dramatic improvement in the balance of trade in petroleum products which, at one time, used to be the driving force behind the trade deficit.  But no more.  What drives the deficit now is manufactured products, and the deficit in that category hit a new record in November of $65.1 billion, topping the previous record of $64.7 billion set only one month earlier.  Check out this chart:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  Exports of manufactured goods rose to their highest level since December of 2014, but that rise was swamped by a jump in imports to a new record of $176.8 billion.  Here’s a chart of imports and exports that also shows the goal that Obama had set in January of 2010 to double exports within five years:  Manf’d exports vs. goal.  It never happened.  It never will.

Scrapping existing trade deals and returning to the use of tariffs to restore a balance of trade, bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., was the centerpiece of Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.”  So far, all we’ve gotten is the same dithering on trade that we’ve gotten from previous administrations for decades.  This trade data shows that instead of becoming great again – at least in the manufacturing sector of the economy – America is getting worse.  This isn’t what Americans voted for a year ago.

 


Trade Deficit in Manufactured Goods At Record High

December 7, 2017

The trade deficit in manufactured products* rose to a record high of $64.6 billion in October, surpassing the previous record of $63.3 billion set in March of 2015.  Take a look at this chart of our monthly deficit in manufactured goods:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade. Exports of manufactured goods haven’t risen since September of 2011 (in spite of Obama’s laughable proclamation in 2010 that we would double exports in five years).  In the meantime, imports have soared by almost $30 billion.  It’s a dubious distinction for President Trump who, during his inaugural address in January, spoke of “…rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…” and proclaimed that “This American carnage stops right here and right now.”

To be fair, Trump didn’t mean that it would happen on the spot.  His administration has been taking steps to address our trade problem, trying to renegotiate NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada), imposing tariffs on some products and, most recently, blocking China from rising to “market economy” status with the World Trade Organization.  Aside from the work on NAFTA, which may conclude soon with the U.S. walking away from that ill-conceived agreement, the rest amounts to little more than the token steps taken by previous administrations.  The net result is that the plight of the manufacturing sector of our economy grows steadily worse.

Enough is enough.  It’s time to walk away from both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and begin implementing tariffs.  Any tariffs would be better than our current trade policy, but smart tariffs that address the real cause of our trade deficit – attempting to trade freely with badly overpopulated nations characterized by bloated labor forces and anemic markets – would be much more effective.  As an example, it was reported yesterday that Canada, angered by their treatment in the NAFTA negotiations, has canceled an order for Boeing-made fighter planes.  Why are we treating Canada this way?  Sure, we have a trade deficit with Canada, but it’s due entirely to oil.  In 2016, our biggest trade surplus in manufactured goods, by far, was with Canada – $44 billion, more than double any other country.  Canada is our best trading partner.  Why anger them?  Why not tell Canada that our beef is with Mexico, with whom we had a trade deficit in manufactured goods of almost $68 billion in 2016 – our third worst behind China and Japan – and that they’ll get just as good a deal from the U.S. without NAFTA?  Slap the tariffs on Mexico, not Canada.

We could completely wipe out our trade deficit in manufactured goods by applying tariffs to only ten countries – China, Japan, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, Vietnam, South Korea, Italy, India and Malaysia.  These ten countries, all more densely populated than the U.S. (all but Ireland are many times more densely populated), account for all of our trade deficit in manufactured goods.  While we have defiicts with others, they are much smaller and are offset by surpluses with the rest of the world.  The point is, we don’t have to anger the entire world with tariffs – just ten out of the more than 220 countries in the world.  So let’s be smart about how we do it, but the time has come, Mr. President.  Stop delaying the inevitable.  Do what you know needs to be done.

* The trade deficit in manufactured products is calculated by subtracting services, trade in petroleum products, and trade in foods, feeds and beverages from total trade, as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in its monthly reporting of international trade.


Ending NAFTA Would Hurt U.S.?

December 1, 2017

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nafta-economy/ending-nafta-would-hurt-growth-competitiveness-of-united-states-canada-report-idUSKBN1DR1D4

The above-linked story appeared a few days ago, warning of a 0.2% “hit” on U.S. GDP (gross domestic product) if the U.S. walked away from NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has resulted in a huge trade deficit with Mexico.  The argument is that the U.S. will be less competitive with the rest of the world without access to the cheap labor in Mexico.  Making autos and parts in the U.S. will raise costs, making American autos more expensive relative to imports from Japan, South Korea and Europe.

That’s probably true, but the answer to that is fairly simple.  Raise tariffs on products from those regions as well.  The trade deficit has never been about “competitiveness.”  Rather, it’s the result of attempting to trade freely with badly overpopulated nations who come to the trade table with a gross over-supply of labor and markets plagued by low per capita consumption.  I’ve always maintained that a piece-meal approach to addressing this problem can never work.  Tariffs need to be applied universally to every country whose emaciated markets are out of balance with their over-supply of labor.

One might question whether this will result in higher prices for American consumers.  Sure it will.  But the explosion in the demand for labor to make all these products in the U.S. once again, as we did decades ago, would drive wages higher even faster, making products more affordable in spite of higher prices.

President Trump has long promised to “put America first” in trade by withdrawing from NAFTA and even the World Trade Organization, and by then levying tariffs as necessary to restore a balance of trade.  During his recent trip to Asia, he made it clear once again that that will be our approach to trade from now on.  This is exactly what’s needed to halt the parasitic drain of the life blood from our economy.  The time has come, Mr. Trump.  Do it.

 


Trump on Trade with China: Media Misses the Point

November 10, 2017

http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/08/politics/donald-trump-xi-jinping-statement/index.html

As was widely reported yesterday morning, Trump emerged from two hours of a meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping and had this to say:

I don’t blame China. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
The above-linked article goes on:
Instead of pointing the finger at Beijing for exacerbating trade disputes, Trump blamed past US administrations “for allowing this trade deficit to take place and to grow.”  It was a notable shift in tone from a President who was elected to office partly for his tough talk on holding other countries accountable for practices that disadvantage US workers.
Trump went on:
We want a vibrant trade relationship with China.  We also want a fair and reciprocal one. Today, I discussed with President Xi the chronic imbalance in our relationship as it pertains to trade and the concrete steps it will take to solve the problem of massive trade distortion.
A “notable shift in tone?”  Maybe a shift in tone, but the media is completely missing the not-so-subtle and huge shift in U.S. trade policy that this represents.  Previous presidents have chided China for unfair trade practices like currency manipulation, theft of intellectual property, subsidizing their exports, and manufacturing in sweat shops that also pollute with reckless abandon.  They used to put all of the onus on China for helping to correct our enormous trade imbalance.  The Chinese must have been rolling in the aisles with laughter when our trade negotiators left.
Not this time.  What Trump is saying is that the time has come for the U.S. to take the matter of restoring a balance of trade with China into our own hands.  Trump has been itching to begin levying tariffs on imports from countries that have large trade surpluses with the U.S. and, though he made no mention of tariffs in this speech, his vow to take matters into our own hands should send chills down the spine of Xi.  Restoring balance with China by slowing their exports with the use of tariffs would practically collapse the Chinese economy.
But so far it’s just talk.  What is Trump waiting for?  It seems clear that he’s biding his time with China in the hope that their help with reining in “Little Rocket Man” in North Korea will lead to his demise.  Probably a smart move but, if it doesn’t work by the time North Korea has the ability to put a nuke on an ICBM, the U.S. will have to act and the Chinese will lose whatever leverage holding the North Korean attack dog at bay has afforded them.
In the meantime, our trade deficit in manufactured goods grows worse.  Here’s the latest chart, gleaned from the trade data for September that was released on last Friday:  Manf’d Goods Balance of Trade.  Nothing has changed since Trump took office, and nothing will until he stops dithering with pointless negotiations and begins applying tariffs to these countries with bloated labor forces and emaciated markets.  My sense is that that time is growing nearer, but time will tell.

Auto Industry: “We’re winning with NAFTA.” Seriously?

October 25, 2017

http://www.reuters.com/article/trade-nafta-autos/auto-industry-tells-trump-were-winning-with-nafta-idUSL2N1MZ028

The above-linked article reports on an effort to generate opposition to the Trump administration’s tough stance on the renegotiation of NAFTA.

Auto trade associations representing General Motors Co Toyota Motor Corp, Volkswagen AG, Hyundai Motor Co, Ford Motor Co and nearly every other major automaker, are part of the coalition dubbed “Driving American Jobs” and backing an advertising campaign to convince the White House and voters that the agreement has been crucial in boosting U.S. automotive sector production and jobs.

“We need you to tell your elected officials that you don’t change the game in the middle of a comeback. We’re winning with NAFTA,” the group said on its website.

OK, wait a minute, domestic auto manufacturers, especially GM and Chrysler.  First of all, you’re not “winning.”  You’re barely hanging on, thanks to a taxpayer-funded government bail-out a few years ago, made necessary by the fact that rotten trade deals drove you into bankruptcy.  What American jobs have come back since then were largely driven by the fact that the United Auto Workers, being one of the stakeholders in the bankruptcy process, demanded that it have some say in the location of new plants.  That’s GM.  And Chrysler?  Part of their pathetic “comeback” required them to be sold to Fiat, globally recognized as one of the shoddiest car-makers on earth.

Ford survived without a bailout, a point of pride for that company, but now finds itself struggling with a shortage of capital to modernize its product offerings.  Not a problem for GM and Chrysler who factored that need into the bailout.

No doubt, NAFTA has played a role in propping up the profitability of these companies.  But to suggest that that somehow is a “win” for American workers is ludicrous.

The campaign comes amid rising concern that the Trump administration could opt early next year to withdraw after giving six months notice, a move that could expose automakers to high tariffs who are building trucks in Mexico and impose new tariffs on parts and cars made throughout North America.

This coalition would like you to believe that automakers would have no “plan B” to counteract tariffs.  That they’d have no choice but to continue building in Mexico, forcing consumers to pay the tariffs.  Don’t be ridiculous.  Production would be moved back to the U.S. to avoid the tariffs and the impact on production costs would be largely offset by reductions in shipping an other supply chain costs.  The impact on consumers would be virtually zilch, and the impact on the American labor force would be an upward pressure on wages.

I don’t understand why the Trump administration is even wasting its time with trying to renegotiate this agreement, whose sole purpose was to boost Mexico’s economy, in line with the United Nations’ push to raise living standards in underdeveloped countries.  I suppose to be able to at least say, “we tried.”  But there’s nothing to negotiate.  Just impose the tariffs and watch them work their magic.