America’s Biggest Trade Surpluses in 2017

May 4, 2018

In my last post, we looked at a list of America’s twenty worst trade deficits in manufactured goods in 2017 and saw that the list was dominated by nations much more densely populated than the U.S.  We also saw that, contrary to conventional wisdom, low wages don’t seem to be a factor in driving these deficits.

Now let’s examine the other end of the spectrum – America’s twenty biggest trade surpluses in manufactured goods in 2017.  Here’s the list:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2017

There are actually a couple of factors that jump out on this list.  Most importantly, notice that this list is peppered with nations with low population densities.  The average population density of the twenty nations on this list is 209 people per square mile, compared to 734 people per square mile on the list of our twenty worst deficits.  However, the difference is actually much more dramatic when you account for the fact that four of the nations on the list of surpluses are very tiny nations with small (but dense) populations – the Netherlands, Belgium, Kuwait and Qatar.  If we calculate the population density of the twenty nations on this list as a composite – the total population divided by the total land area – we arrive at a population density of only 34 people per square mile.  Doing the same with the twenty nations on the deficit list yields a population density of 509 people per square mile.  Thus, the nations with whom we have our largest trade deficits are fifteen times more densely populated than the nations with whom we have our largest trade surpluses.

Why do the aforementioned nations – the Netherlands, Belgium, Kuwait and Qatar – seem to buck the trend?  The first two nations are tiny European nations who take advantage of their deep sea port – the only one on the Atlantic coast of the European Union – to build their economies around trade, importing goods from the U.S. for distribution throughout Europe.  These surpluses offset somewhat the much larger trade deficit that the U.S. has with other European nations.  Even with the Netherlands and Belgium included, the trade deficit with the European Union is still enormous – second only to China.

The presence of Kuwait and Qatar on the list of trade surpluses, in spite of their dense populations, illustrates the other factor that drives trade surpluses.  Both of these nations, along with the other nations highlighted in yellow on the list, are net oil exporters.  Since all oil is priced in U.S. dollars, it leaves these nations flush with U.S. dollars that can only be used to buy things from the U.S.  It makes a trade surplus with an oil exporter almost automatic.

Now, look at the “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP,” roughly analogous to wages) for the nations on this list.  The average is just under $40,000, compared to an average PPP on the deficit list of $35,000.  However, that average is skewed significantly by tiny Qatar, who has a PPP of $124,900.  Take Qatar out of the equation and the average drops to $35,500 – almost exactly the same as the nations on the list of our biggest deficits.

So, of these two factors – population density and wages – which do you now think is the real driver of trade imbalances?  Is it the one that differs by a factor of fifteen between the two lists, or the factor that is virtually the same on both lists?  Clearly, population density seems to be a much more likely factor in driving trade imbalaces, at least from what we’ve seen from these two lists.

But both lists contain nations that are very large and very small.  It seems only natural that, if we’re going to have a trade imbalance with any particular nation, it will be a much bigger imbalance if that nation is very large.  We need to factor the sheer size of nations out of the equation.  That’s what we’ll do next in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned.

 

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America’s Best Trading Partners

April 24, 2014

Earlier this month, we examined the list of America’s twenty worst trading partners – those with whom the U.S. has the largest trade deficits in manufactured goods on a per capita basis.  We saw that the list was dominated by nations with very high population densities.  Eighteen of the twenty were more densely populated than the U.S.  The average population density of the group was five times that of the U.S.  And they were wealthy nations, with an average purchasing power parity of $35,000 per person, debunking the myth that trade deficits are due to low wages.

What about the other end of the scale?  Who are America’s best trading partners – those with whom the U.S. has the largest trade surpluses in manufactured goods on a per capita basis?  Here’s the list:  Top 20 Surpluses, 2012.  This list looks very different.  Thirteen of these twenty nations are less densely populated than the U.S.  Of the remaining seven who are more densely populated, there is a very simple explanation why four of them – United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Brunei – are big buyers of American manufactured exports:  they are tiny nations literally afloat on large seas of oil.  They are flush with American petro-dollars which, ultimately, can only be used for purchase of American goods, services and investments.

Of the remaining three that are more densely populated than the U.S. – Panama, the Netherlands and Belgium – Panama is only a bit more densely populated than the U.S.  But Belgium and the Netherlands are each more than ten times as densely populated, seeming to defy the population density theory for trade deficits.  But both are very small nations, and both are the only nations on the European continent with deep water ports on the Atlantic coast.  Perhaps they are merely distributors of American products to other European countries.  If rolled into the Euro zone, the U.S. still has a large trade deficit with the Euro zone.

In contrast to the list of our twenty worst trade partners, whose average population density was almost 500 people per square mile, the average population density of America’s twenty best trade partners is only 188 per square mile.  But that’s a figure that’s skewed by a few very tiny but very densely populated nations.  If we divide the total population of these twenty nations by their total land area, the population density is only 19 people per square mile.  (This figure is 344 people per square mile for our twenty worst trade partners.)

It’s also interesting to note that the average purchasing power parity (a good measure of the wages paid in those nations) for our twenty best trading partners is almost exactly the same as our twenty worst trading partners – about $35,000 per person.  Clearly, wages have absolutely no role in determining trade imbalances.

The data is clear.  This is absolute, undeniable proof that population density plays a dominant role in determining whether free trade with any given nation will yield a trade deficit or surplus.  It’s irresponsible to apply free trade in a manner that’s blind to this reality.  When trading with badly overpopulated nations, tariffs must be employed to maintain a balance of trade, to offset those nations’ inability to provide us with access to a market that’s equivalent to ours in terms of its citizens’ ability to utilize products.

 

 


A Glimpse into the Future?

February 16, 2008

Last night I tuned into a PBS broadcast about a development in the Netherlands called “Borneo Schorenberg.”  (Not positive I’ve got the spelling correct.)  The point of this piece seemed to be that The Netherlands, concerned about protecting what little rural area they have remaining (The Netherlands is the most densely populated nation in Europe with over 1,000 people per square mile), wanted to construct a dense residential area close to the center of Amsterdam to prevent further urban sprawl.  “Borneo Schorenberg” is a region of docks along the waterfront that had fallen into disuse because Amsterdam’s seaport is too small and constrictive for large, modern ships.  (Rotterdam is The Netherlands’ major seaport, the only significant port on the entire Atlantic coast of Europe.)  So it was decided to turn it into a residential area.  The goal was to pack in as many people as possible without resorting to high-rises that are generally perceived as undesirable places to live.

The planners and developers spoke proudly of their results.  To my eye, it was horrifying.  It appeared very much like a vast prison complex, dominated primarily by sprawling, 3-story structures consisting of tiny apartments with tiny balcony areas.  But it also included a modernistic structure, approximately 20 stories high, with flat sides clad in zinc (in other words, the exterior was galvanized sheet metal), and the sides were checkered with identical windows.  The kind of future that I envisioned in “Scenario 1″ in Chapter 12 of “Five Short Blasts” immediately came to mind.  This huge, galvanized sheet metal box structure had a court-yard and the view inside the courtyard was very much like that of a courtyard in a prison.  The streets between these “prison complexes” were choked with people.  The only redeeming quality of the whole thing was that people had a waterfront view. 

One of the planners remarked toward the end of the piece, “It took the people who lived here a while to realize how nice it was.”  Translation:  People will eventually resign themselves to their fate.  (Kind of like the way Americans have resigned themselves to “globalization?”)

There are beautiful things to see in The Netherlands, but this isn’t one of them.  It’s a shame to see such a quaint, pretty country being devoured by population growth run amok. 

Pete