After spending gobs of electrons on this post about the US trade deficit explaining why it is not a debt, and is not even necessarily bad, I got a depressing number of comments and emails like this one:
The trade deficit is a debt. We cannot get the dollars back we have
spendt unless we export to get them back. It is called an external debt
for a reason. It is called a current account debto for a reason.
Aaaaargh. It is depressing that we can get such economic ignorance, particularly in a self-righteous way. The crappy media coverage of these issues has people convinced that it just has to be this big old debt out there someone is going to have to repay someday.
OK, I will try again. But in response to this specific post, it is only called "external debt" or "current account debt" rather than "deficit" by really, really sloppy media people who have no idea what they are talking about (unfortunately, there are a lot of these). And a deficit is not a debt, though it can sometimes create a debt.
I try to be very respectful of my readers. I never delete a comment, unless it is spam/bot stuff or in a few cases where commenters have asked me to. So it is only with the deepest respect that I say the following: Please do not bother to comment on this post if a) you do not understand the difference between the federal government deficit and the trade deficit and/or b) you do not understand the difference between an account deficit and a debt. Seriously. Just take my word for it that you need to educate yourself a bit first, and then feel free to leap into the debate. (Update: This was a poor tone to adopt, see here).
First, A Thought Experiment
This is not meant to constitute proof, but for those who are concerned that the trade deficit is potentially disastrous for our economy, I can only ask, When? Because we have been running a substantial trade deficit as a nation for over a quarter of a century, and by all accounts, over that same time period, we have had just about the strongest economy in the world. In fact, I would propose that the causation is more likely just the reverse. Because we have had a strong economy, with extraordinary wealth creation, we have taken some of that wealth and spent it on goods from other nations. And because we have the safest nation in the world in which to invest, demand for our local investments tends to shift exchange rates in a way that increase the trade deficit.
In the late 80's and early 90's, everyone was in a panic about Japan. We were running a massive trade imbalance with Japan. They were going to buy all of our real estate. Their government was tipping the scales in their own favor. They were purposefully depressing the yen to encourage exports. Blah, blah, etc, etc. And you know what happened? They subsequently went into a decade and a half long recession they are only just now climbing out of, and we had one of the strongest economies in history.
How do the Dollars Get Back?
With a couple of exceptions that don't really change our conclusions, dollars do follow a closed loop. In other words, if we send them to China or India, they generally eventually come back. The question is how. To understand this, it is first important to understand that the balance of trade deficit only measures some monetary flows. In particular, it looks at the balance between manufactured goods traveling between two countries. If the US has a $20 billion trade deficit with China, it means that they shipped $20 billion more of manufactured goods to us than we shipped back to them. It includes some but not all services. It does not include goods or securities or investments purchased by foreigners that remain on US soil.
To understand how the dollars come back from China in a closed loop is to, in a sense, ask the question of what monetary flows are not included in the trade deficit. If we have a trade deficit with China, there are a number of things it can do with its extra dollars:
- It can do nothing with them - just hold them in a big pile
- It can lend the money to people buying their products
- It can buy certain US services
- It can buy US goods, but not take them out of the US
- It can buy US public and private securities and real estate
Lets look at each in turn
1. China can do nothing with them - just hold them in a big pile
Two words: In-Sane. By just holding them, they would effectively be sticking them in a mattress and foregoing any interest or investment income. It's just not going to happen. And don't say, well they could just put the dollars in a Chinese bank. Fine, but the only way the Chinese bank is going to pay interest on dollars in the bank is if they turn around and invest the dollars in dollar-denominated investments. One way or the other, the money, if it does not buy anything else, will get invested, which we will deal with in point 5.
I know there are paranoiacs that worry that the Chinese, despite the financial disincentives, will hold these dollars anyway in a big vault or something out of spite. Gee, hurt me, hurt me. Holding our dollars in a big mattress in Peking does nothing to hurt us. And dumping them all on the market simultaneously may sound scary to conspiracy theorists, but in practice it would hurt them worse than it would hurt us, and the pain would be relatively short-lived (just ask the Hunt brothers about this strategy).
2. China can lend the money to people buying their products
I suppose that for those who don't get the federal deficit and the trade deficit mixed up, this is what they assume is happening, that Americans are borrowing from the Chinese to finance manufactured goods purchases. The only problem is that it is not happening, at least to a greater extent than any normal purchase-financing arrangements. Take corporations such as Wal-mart, a huge buyer of Chinese stuff. Is Wal-Mart going into debt to buy Chinese stuff? No, and certainly not to the Chinese.
Well, are individual Americans going into debt to buy Chinese. Maybe, but the key point is that they are not going into debt because what they are buying is Chinese. They are going into debt because Americans, for whatever reason good or bad, are saving less and choosing to buy more on credit. This would be happening if what they were buying was Chinese or American made. In other words, American consumers may have debt, but that debt would exist even if we had no trade deficit with China. It is a personal choice people are making that has no relation to the source of goods.
3. China can buy certain US services
Note that many US services are not included in the trade deficit calculations. If Chinese companies engage McKinsey & Co. consultants in the US to figure out how to sell more stuff to Wal-mart, those payments for services are probably bringing dollars back to the US from China, but aren't included in the trade calculations. This really is just a subset of point four:
4. China can buy US goods, but not take them out of the US
Many, many of the dollars the Chinese end up with come back to us in this way. As did many of the dollars the Japanese had in the eighties. If a Chinese company uses dollars not to buy US goods and take them back to China, but buy them and consume them in the US, then this does not show up in the trade numbers. Chinese and Japanese companies bring their US dollars to the US to build factories and infrastructure. This is sometimes why it is said that the trade deficit is not a measure of differences in cash flows, but of a difference in where goods are consumed.
If you flip the equation around, the Chinese have a wicked balance of stuff deficit. They are sending a lot more manufactured goods to the US than they get back. I could argue that Chinese workers are getting hosed, since they only get to enjoy a fraction of the goods they produce for themselves, since a large portion of the product of their labor is sent overseas for others to enjoy. Hmmm, doesn't sound so bad that way.
5. China can buy US public and private securities and real estate
Of course, what happens with a lot of the US dollars the Chinese find themselves with is that these dollars get invested in US investment vehicles, from real estate to government bonds to private equities. There are several points that need to be made here:
a. Just Because Chinese invest in US Government Bonds does not make them or the balance of trade responsible for this debt
As I intimated above, a lot of people get the US federal budget deficit confused with the trade deficit. Making this confusion worse, the Chinese use a lot of the dollars they earn in trade to buy US Government Bonds that help finance the federal budget deficit. Now, by buying a lot of government bonds, one might argue that the Chinese lower interest rates and make government borrowing easier, thus making the federal budget deficit worse since there is a ready source of debt financing.
While there may be a link here, it is tenuous at best. If the government was a private company, then its borrowing level might rationally fluctuate up and down based on interest rates and capital availability. But the US Government is not this rational. It runs a budget deficit primarily because legislators and bureaucrats alike have the incentive to spend other people's money to protect their jobs and power base. This happens equally at 3% interest rates and 9% interest rates. It happens equally if guys from Peking or Omaha are buying government bonds. In fact, one could argue that Chinese reinvestment of their trade dollars in US securities actually marginally reduces the government debt by reducing interest costs.
This same argument holds equally true for Chinese investments in private debt. Chinese dollars may increase borrowing slightly, but only because the influx of their cash reduces borrowing costs.
b. Chinese Ownership of US Assets is GOOD
In the Japanese scare of the 1980's, everyone was freaked out that the Japanese were buying up American assets and real estate. During that time, while I almost never play the race card, it was almost impossible not to come to the conclusion that some racism had to be involved in this fear. America had welcomed, in fact, had prospered, via foreign investment for years. For a century, the US has been the safest place for foreigners to put their money,something we should be proud of -- A sign of strength, not weakness.
But suddenly, everything was different because the new buyers were Japanese. Note the following:
Despite the notoriety of
Japanese investors, the British have the largest U.S. direct investment
holding"”with the Dutch not far behind"”as has been the case since
colonial times. In 1990 the United Kingdom held about 27 percent of
foreign direct investment in the United States, significantly greater
than Japan's 21 percent. The European Economic Community (EC)
collectively holds about 57 percent. Moreover, according to research by
Eric Rosengren, between 1978 and 1987, Japanese investors acquired only
94 U.S. companies, putting them fifth behind the British (640),
Canadians (435), Germans (150), and French (113).
But no one was complaining about the British, Canadians, Germans, or French. Only the Japanese. I have to come to the conclusion that there was some racism involved, with the same primal fears at work that caused us to ship US citizens of Japanese decent off to concentration camps in WWII but we did not do the same of citizens of German or Italian decent. And in this case, it could not have been security concerns. Since 1945, Japan is one of the most pacifistic nations in the world- we probably face a bigger security threat from Belgium than we do from Japan.
I get the same feeling today with the China panic that I did twenty years ago with Japan. Its a race and a culture we don't understand well, so we get xenophobic. People lament that China is a real security threat, and that certainly is true to an extent. But ask yourself this - Is China more or less of a threat to hurt us if their economy, their financial prosperity, and most of their assets are tied to the US? Is China more or less stable now that their people are not starving and they are rapidly developing the largest middle class in the world?
If you are still having trouble understanding, the problem may be that you insist on thinking of economics as zero-sum. This is the fallacy of 18th century mercantilists, who saw the economy as a big fixed tank, and if more flowed overseas than flowed back, the tank level would fall until the country was bankrupt. There are at least two key fallacies here:
- Wealth is not zero-sum. It is created. It is expanded. Some can even be spent frivolously on big ass plasma TV's from China and we are still wealthier than we were decades ago.
- Trading has value in both directions. As mentioned above, looking at only the currency side of trading misses a lot. By definition, in a free trade, both sides believe the trade increases the value to themselves, or they would not have made the trade. So trading per se, no matter what the currency flows, can only lead to wealth creation, not its destruction.
Postscript - New Mercantilism
Lamenting the trade deficit is always a precursor to interfering with free trade. It is important to note that free trade has always led to prosperity, while protectionism has always led to stagnation.
Several protectionists today are trying to make the argument that OK, that might have been true in the past, but today is different, and today, free trade is uniquely bad. Economist Paul Craig Roberts made this argument, that, as Don Boudreaux summarizes it:
the American standard of living is threatened by the world's growing
prosperity, improved education, better governance, and greater fluidity
of capital and resources to move in search of higher returns
Boudreaux, a writer at the fabulous Cafe Hayek, does a good fisking of this argument, but I think I can demolish it even faster. By this logic, California would be better off if the eastern part of the US was suddenly impoverished and made educationally backwards. This is absurd. Sure, the industrial east suffered some temporary dislocations as the south modernized and competed for factories. But this was only temporarily. As the south got richer, it wasn't a contest between regions for a fixed number of factories, the number of factories and jobs grew, so that all parts of the country had more.
Is there anyone who thinks that half of the US would be better off
economically if the other half were turned into a third world nation? Is there any company executive that thinks they could survive if half their market went away? So why is half the world better off if the other half is impoverished? If you are saying, gee, the only reason I can come up with is that zero-sum fallacy Coyote keeps talking about, go to the head of the class.
Update: In comments and emails, my readership educates me that citizens of German and Italian decent were interned in WWII as well. While I knew that Germans and Italian POW's were interned in large numbers in the US in WWII, I was not aware of internship of US citizens with German or Italian blood, though the programs for these nationals do seem more limited than the west coast movement of Americans of Japanese decent. My first and second generation German immigrant family members never reported being harassed in any way, either publicly or privately, during the war and most all served either in the US military or war production industries. I will still stick by my core point that investment in the US by Asian nationals is not treated the same as investment by European or Canadian nationals.
I have also gotten a number of emails and comments on the differences between various trade and current account deficit indicators. I tried to avoid getting into all that, assuming, I think rightly, that it would just clutter up the argument and would not substantially affect the conclusion. Just for the record, though, there are many different metrics, that range from narrow measures of manufactured goods flows to much broader measures of capital and services flow. You can assume that 90% of the time, the media article you are reading about the deficit probably does not correctly describe the metric it is using.