America’s Worst Trading Partners

May 17, 2018

Earlier this month, I posted a list of America’s twenty biggest trade deficits in manufactured goods in 2017, and noted that the list was dominated by nations with very dense populations.  But it also included some very large nations, like China, and some very small ones as well.  It’s only natural that any trade imbalance will be exaggerated by the sheer size of a country.  In order to determine which countries are our best and worst trading partners, it’s only fair to express the trade imbalance in per capita terms.  Which countries, on a man-for-man basis, are the worst and best trading partners for the U.S.?  Will these lists also be affected by population density?

In this post, we’ll take a look at the twenty worst trade partners in manufactured goods for 2017.  Why the emphasis on manufactured goods?  Because that’s where the jobs are, and trade in natural resources (food, oil, minerals, lumber products, etc.) has more to do with nations’ geography than anything else.  With that said, here’s the list:  Top 20 Per Capita Deficits, 2017.

With only two exceptions – Finland and Sweden, every other nation on this list is more densely populated than the U.S.  With one exception – Mexico – the remaining eighteen nations are at least twice as densely populated.  Of the remaining seventeen nations, all but Ireland are at least three times as densely populated.  The average population density on this list is 551 people/square mile – more than five times the U.S. population density.

In most cases, our trade deficits with these nations are rapidly getting worse, nearly doubling in ten years.  It’s also very important to note that the average “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP”), a measure of wealth that’s roughly analogous to wages, is $50,700, compare to the U.S. PPP of $59,000.  In other words, for the most part, these are not poor nations with low wages.  In fact, our two worst per capita deficits are with wealthier nations – Ireland and Switzerland.

Speaking of Ireland, with one of the lower population densities on the list, there’s clearly more at play here than population density.  Ireland is essentially a tax haven for companies – creating an unfair trade situation.

Note that China barely makes this list, ranked at 19th.  Our deficit with China is so huge because it holds one fifth of the entire world’s population.  But it’s a big country and so, in terms of the average population density on this list, its population density is fairly unremarkable.  The density of many others who rank higher on the list is much worse.

The fastest growing deficit is with Finland, the least densely populated nation on the list.  It’s an anomaly I can’t explain, except to note that the import of cars from Finland – a nation where there is little to no auto production – has exploded in the past ten years, while the export of American cars to Finland – once robust – has completely collapsed.  Can it be that Germany is funneling exports through Finland’s seaports?  I don’t know.  It’s worth noting that Germany has actually dropped one position on this list in the past year.

The next fastest growing deficit is with Vietnam, a nation more than eight times as densely populated as the U.S., but also the poorest nation on this list.  It’s possible that low wages are playing a role there.  Low wages do play a role in attracting manufacturing but, as wages rise, the trade imbalance levels off and then disappears in nations with low population densities, as they quickly exhaust their labor supply.  But that doesn’t happen with nations that are very densely populated.  China is a good example.  In spite of its wages rising dramatically, our trade deficit with them has only worsened.

Trinidad and Tobago is another anomaly on this list.  It reappeared on this list after a couple of years of not making the list, in spite of the fact that our deficit with them has declined by 81% over the past ten years.  That’s because in spite of the fact that our deficit with them spiked in 2017, putting them back on the list, it’s still far lower than it was ten years ago.

The take-away from this list is that population density is clearly a factor, while low wages aren’t.  Low per capita consumption, fostered by an extreme population density, turns a nation into one that comes to the trade table with a bloated labor force desperate for work, and with nothing but a stunted market to offer in return.  Trade policy that fails to account for this effect by using tariffs to maintain a balance of trade is doomed to failure and virtually guarantees massive job-killing trade deficits.

Next we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum – our twenty biggest per capita trade surpluses.

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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.

 


America’s Worst Trade Deficits in 2017

May 2, 2018

I’ve finished compiling and analyzing America’s trade data for 2017, which was released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in late February.  Why the delay?  Tabulating the results for hundreds of 5-digit end use code products for 165 nations is no small feat.  What we’re looking at here are the deficits in manufactured goods as opposed to services and various categories of natural resources.  Why?  Because manufacturing is where the jobs are.  Yes, there are jobs associated with the harvesting and mining of natural resources but, pound for pound, those jobs pale in comparison to the number generated by manufacturing.

And it should be noted that there are more than 165 nations in the world.  The CIA World Factbook lists 229.  Nearly all of the 64 nations that I left out of this study are tiny island nations with whom combined trade represents only a tiny fraction of America’s total.  Also, their economies tend to be unique in that they rely heavily on tourism and their manufacturing sectors are virtually non-existent, if for no other reason than a lack of space to accommodate manufacturing facilities.

It should also be noted that I’ve “rolled” the results for tiny city-states into their larger surrounding nations – states like Hong Kong, Singapore, San Marino, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco and others.  They too tend to have unique economies, heavily dependent on services like financial services, and mostly devoid of manufacturing for the same reason as small island nations – a lack of space.  There is no room for sprawling manufacturing complexes.

So, with that said, let’s begin with a look at America’s biggest trade deficits.  Here are the top twenty:  Top 20 Deficits, 2017

It comes as no surprise that China once again has topped the list with a whopping $384.7 billion deficit.  But there are many interesting observations that can be made about this list:

  1. There’s a lot of variety on this list – nations big and small, rich and poor, Asian, European and Middle Eastern nations.  But there’s one thing that all except one have in common – a high population density.  The average population density of this list is 734 people per square mile.  Compare that to the population density of the U.S. at 91 people per square mile.  On average, the nations on this list are eight times more densely populated than the U.S.
  2. With a few exceptions, these are not poor countries where wages are low.  Half of the top ten nations have a “purchasing power parity” (or “PPP,” a measure of wealth that is roughly analogous to wages) near or, in one case (Ireland), above that of the U.S. ($59,500).  Only one nation in the top ten – Vietnam – has a PPP of less than $10,000.  So, the claim that low wages cause trade deficits isn’t supported by this list.
  3. Two nations on this list – China and India – represent 40% of the world’s population.  On the other hand, there are others that, combined, make up less than 1% of the world’s total.  Naturally, if we have a trade deficit with a big nation, it tends to be really big.  In order to identify the factors that influence trade, we need to factor sheer size out of the equation.
  4. On average, the U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods has risen by 81% with this group of nations over the past ten years.  Whatever it is that drives trade deficits has a very potent effect.  The fastest growing deficit is with Vietnam, rising by 335% in ten years.  Vietnam is the 2nd poorest nation on the list.  Perhaps low wages do play a role here?  On the other hand, the 2nd fastest growing deficit is with Switzerland, the 2nd wealthiest nation on the list – wealthier than the U.S. – debunking the low wage theory.
  5. It’s often said that America needs to be more productive in order to compete in the global economy.  Yet we see nations like France and Italy on this list – nations notorious for long vacations, short work weeks, etc. – not exactly bastions of productivity.
  6. In 2017, the U.S. had a total trade deficit of $724 billion in manufactured goods.  Of these 165 nations in this study, the top eight deficits on this list account for more than that entire total.  The U.S. actually has a small surplus of trade with the other 157 nations of the world.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at the other end of the spectrum – America’s top twenty trade surpluses in manufactured goods.  If population density is a factor, then we should see that list comprised of nations with low population densities.  And if low wages aren’t a factor, we shouldn’t see anything much different than what we saw on this list presented here.  So stay tuned.


Red China Runnin’ Scared

April 18, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-eu-exclusive/exclusive-china-seeks-trade-firewall-with-u-s-allies-in-rush-of-ambassador-meetings-sources-idUSKBN1HO1Y0

It all began with Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.  Red China responded with tariffs on about $3 billion of American exports.  Trump upped the ante with a proposal for tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese imports.  Red China responded in kind, including tariffs on American soybeans, and they promptly began buying their soybeans from Brazil.  No dummies, the Brazilians.  They raised their prices.  And the EU, now unable to buy from Brazil, placed big orders for American soybeans.  No skin off the noses of American soybean farmers.

Trump then responded with a proposal for tariffs on another $100 billion of imports from Red China, whose tit-for-tat strategy was now exhausted since they import so little from the U.S.  Instead, they threatened severe retaliation in some form that remains unspecified.  But their rhetoric was threatening.  Not Islamist “rivers of blood running through your cities” threatening, but scary enough to those who don’t really understand international trade.

Now it’s looking a whole lot like a bluff.  As reported in the above-linked article, the Chinese are now running scared, trying to drum up support for “free trade” (their version of it) with the EU (European Union).

Some of the western diplomats involved in the meetings with Fu Ziying, who is also a vice-commerce minister, have viewed the approaches as a sign of how anxious Beijing is getting about the expanding conflict with Washington, the sources said.

The rush of meetings last Thursday and Friday with ambassadors from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and the European Union, may be a signal that China is trying to build a firewall against Trump’s aggressive trade measures, the severity of which some foreign diplomats said Beijing had miscalculated.

“China is showing confidence, but internally they appear quite concerned. They have apparently underestimated Trump’s resolve on trade,” the diplomat said, adding that Beijing is nervous about China’s major trading partners siding with Washington.

It’s not likely they’re getting much sympathy from the EU.  In 2016, the EU had a $175 billion trade deficit with Red China.  If anything, the EU is probably realizing that America’s new get tough policy has Red China running scared and, just maybe, they ought to try a little of that tariff medicine themselves.


First Evidence of Chinese Impotence in Trade War

April 9, 2018

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trade-china-soybeans/as-u-s-and-china-trade-tariff-barbs-others-scoop-up-u-s-soybeans-idUSKBN1HF0FQ

A key component of Red China’s response to America’s initial threat to impose tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods was to impose its own tariffs on one of America’s biggest exports – soybeans.  Their goal was to stir up angst among American farmers in the hope that they would apply pressure on Trump to back off.  In my post titled “A Trade War?  Let’s Get it On!”, I predicted that their strategy was doomed to failure:

“Oh, by the way, the threat of tariffs on American soybeans would hurt the Chinese more than Americans.  Does Chairman Xi think that his people will simply eat less?  Of course not.  He’ll have to get his soybeans somewhere else, like Brazil, and now those countries who imported soybeans from Brazil will turn to the U.S., probably bidding up the cost of soybeans.  No skin off of our noses, Chairman Xi.”

Now comes the first evidence that this exact scenario has already begun to play out.  In the above-linked article, Reuters reports that America has suddenly begun getting huge orders for soybeans from the EU, who now finds the price of American soybeans more attractive than the rising prices in Brazil.

“Escalating tensions between the United States and China have triggered a flurry of U.S. soybean purchases by European buyers … helped to underpin benchmark Chicago Board of Trade soybean prices after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to slap tariffs on an additional $100 billion of Chinese goods.

The USDA said 458,000 tonnes of U.S. soybeans were sold to undisclosed destinations, which traders and grains analysts said included EU soybean processors such as the Netherlands and Germany.

If the entire volume is confirmed to be going to the European Union, it would be the largest one-off sale to the bloc in more than 15 years, according to USDA data. The USDA could not immediately be reached for comment.

“We’re seeing a realignment of trade,” largely because the politics is driving up Brazilian soybean prices, said Jack Scoville, analyst with the Price Futures Group.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again over and over.  There is absolutely nothing to fear from America’s efforts to restore a balance of trade with Red China.  Since we are the ones with the huge trade deficit and they are the ones with a huge trade surplus, it’s impossible for America to lose, and impossible for Red China to win.  They are absolutely impotent in this fight.  China’s goods become too expensive?  No problem!  They’re not the only game in town.  We’ll buy them from someone else.  Better yet, we’ll begin making them ourselves.  China provides us absolutely nothing that we can’t make ourselves more efficiently, using cleaner, more environmentally sound processes, and more ethically in terms of worker rights.  And, truth be told, we can make them cheaper.  The logistics involved in shipping things halfway around the world isn’t cheap, you know.  (Did you know that container ships that move goods all over the world, goods which could just as easily be made locally, consume five billion barrels of oil per year?)

And China buys nothing from us that can’t be sold to other customers around the world.

They’ll stop buying our debt, or sell off what they have?  Go ahead.  U.S treasuries are priced in dollars.  Whoever they sell them to has to pay for them with dollars.  So now they’re stuck with dollars which have probably dropped in value – the very situation that necessitated them buying the bonds in the first place.  And, just as we’re seeing with soybeans, there’ll be other investors eager to snap them up.  Heck, if American households switched just a small part of their savings into U.S. bonds, that demand alone would sop up every single bond that China owns.  I won’t take credit for this quote, but I can’t remember where I read it recently, that Red China’s threat to dump its U.S. treasury holdings is like a man holding a gun to his head and saying, “I have a hostage.”

There is nothing to fear here.  America is going to come out a big winner.  It’s a slam dunk.

 


More Trade War Hysteria

April 7, 2018

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/04/one-of-the-biggest-us-trade-wars-of-the-past-had-a-tragic-consequence–heres-what-happened.html?recirc=taboolainternal

I was hoping to spend some time tallying the U.S.’s global trade results for 2017, but then this popped up and I just can’t let it pass.  Actually, I was wondering when the free trade globalists would dredge up the subject of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, blaming it for the Great Depression, as they usually do.  But the writer of the above linked article, in an apparent attempt to ratchet up fears of a trade war, goes a step further and blames Smoot-Hawley for World War II!

She begins by creating the impression that Smoot-Hawley was an opening salvo in a trade war in the 1930s.  She either doesn’t have a clue, or is intentionally trying to mislead her readers.  Let’s get some facts straight.  First of all, the use of tariffs was standard trade policy for the United States since its founding.  In fact, until 1913, there was no need for an income tax in the U.S. because all federal revenue was derived from tariffs.  The Smoot Hawley Act was nothing more than a minor tweak of tariff rates that had been in effect since the Fordney-McCumber Act of 1922.  It increased tariffs on average by 2.7%.  It changed the tariff basis from an ad valorem (percentage) basis to a fixed dollar basis which, under normal circumstances, would actually have slowly reduced tariffs as inflation eroded the value of the tariff.  But, of course, the Great Depression resulted in a protracted term of deflation instead of inflation.

Blaming Smoot-Hawley for the Great Depression is bad enough.  Not only was the change in tariff rates minuscule, but it wasn’t enacted until June of 1930, a year-and-a-half after the stock market crash of 1929 which actually precipitated the Great Depression.  And at the height of the Great Depression in 1933 when GDP (gross domestic product) had fallen by 33%, or $33.1 billion from its 1929 level, the total value of imports and exports had declined by only $6.5 billion.  It was actually the Great Depression that caused the drop in trade, and not the other way around, just as the “Great Recession” that began in 2008 resulted in a sharp decline in trade.

To blame Smoot-Hawley or a “trade war” that didn’t even exist for World War II is truly outrageous.  It was actually the aftermath of World War I and the severe war reparations that were imposed on Germany, resulting in soaring inflation and unemployment, that fostered Hitler’s rise to power.  And that just happened to coincide with the growing aggressiveness of imperialist Japan.  Trade had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Sure, the world made a turn toward free trade following the war with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, but it wasn’t because anyone blamed a “trade war” for causing World War II.  It was because economists, eager to try out the concept of free trade, successfully (but disingenuously) blamed tariffs for the Great Depression and made an argument that the interdependence that would come with free trade could preclude any future world wars.

Actually, if one were to be honest, free trade and the enormous global trade imbalances it has fostered is directly responsible for our current trade tensions.  We need to restore balance to global trade through the use of tariffs or quotas before things get any worse.


U.S. Trade Deficit with EU Rises to New Record in 2017

April 5, 2018

The U.S. trade deficit in manufactured goods with the EU (European Union) rose to a new record of $148.2 billion in 2017.  Here’s a chart of that deficit, dating back to 2001:  EU.  After falling slightly in 2016, it rose again to eclipse the record 2015 deficit by $0.3 billion.

This deficit is a lot less than our deficit with Red China, but some perspective is in order.  The population of the EU is 556.6 million people.  The population density of the EU is 327 people per square mile.  The population of Red China is 1.38 billion people and their population density is 383 people per square mile.  Our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Red China in 2017 was $405 billion.  In per capita terms, our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Red China was $294.  In per capita terms, our trade deficit in manufactured goods with the EU was $246.

So the only reason that our deficit with the EU is that much less than our deficit with Red China is that the EU is that much smaller.  If the EU were the same size as China, our deficit with the EU (in manufactured goods) would have been $367.4 billion – only 9% less than our deficit with Red China.  The reason for this is that the EU is nearly as densely populated as Red China – only 14.6% less densely populated.

Some say that our huge trade deficit with Red China is due to low wages.  Then how do you explain that, in per capita terms (which factors out the sheer size of a country), the trade deficit with EU, where wages are about 2-1/2 times higher than Red China,  is nearly as bad as the deficit with Red China?  In fact, almost half of our trade deficit with the EU is with Germany, where wages are nearly on a par with those in the U.S.   How do you explain that?  It’s because trade imbalances are caused not by low wages, but by disparities in population density.  The EU is more than three times as densely populated as the U.S.  China is four times as densely populated.  Germany is six times.  Trade deficits with such nations are virtually assured because their over-crowded conditions drive down their consumption while they produce just as much.  They can’t absorb their own output, much less consume imports from America.

Trade negotiations with nations that are so badly overpopulated are utterly futile because it’s impossible to negotiate down the disparity in population density.  The only thing the less densely populated nation (the U.S., in these circumstances) can do to restore a balance of trade is to levy tariffs or set quotas.  It’s the only way.

If still not convinced, my next posts will take a broader look at U.S. trade results with the world as a whole, and you’ll see that the population density effect is absolutely undeniable.