I still get a lot of email and
commentary on my posts explaining why a trade deficit does not
necessarily result in a build up of debt. Its a mistake that
protectionists like Lou Dobbs make, either accidentally or on
purpose, to confuse the trade deficit with a debt (Dobbs, in the linked article, claimed that we had $5 Trillion in accumulated trade debt). In another
attempt to explain this, I want to present a thought experiment.
In our hypothetical, a regular old
American guy named Joe walks into a Wal-Mart to buy new Plasma TV.
Lets assume that Joe is presented with two choices, a Chinese-made TV
and an American-made TV. The American TV is $2000 and carries a
brand Joe recognizes; the Chinese TV is $1800 and is a brand Joe
does not recognize. As far as he can tell, both are featured
Joe may choose to take a chance with an
unknown brand to save $200, or he may not. Let's see what happens
either way. If Joe picks the Chinese TV over the American TV, the US
trade deficit will likely be worse, by whatever Wal-Mart has to pay
to restock the shelves. But, while the trade deficit may be worse if
Joe buys Chinese, is there any additional debt created by buying
Chinese rather than American?
Well, Joe doesn't have more or less
personal debt either way. Whether he is paying with cash or
financing the TV, this decision is unaffected by whether he buys
Chinese or American. He may happen to buy Chinese and take on debt
to purchase the TV, but the decision to take on debt has nothing to
do with the fact that it is an import. If he had bought the American
TV, he presumably would have taken on debt for that purchase as well.
In fact, if anything, since the Chinese TV is cheaper, Joe's
personal debt is reduced by buying Chinese over American.
In fact, the only way in which Joe's
personal debt could be said to be increased by Chinese imports is if
the $200 price differential was enough to change his mind from
not-buying a TV to buying one, and he then financed the purchase.
But this is only going to occur in a small percentage of
transactions, and besides, it would be unfair to call something so
empowering "“ ie giving Joe the power to get something he really
wants that he would otherwise been unable to "“ as a negative.
(Update: I do think this is sortof the logic trade opponents
use. They argue that "rampant consumerism"is causing an increase
in consumer debt which is kindof sortof tied up in some way with this
whole cheap Chinese goods at Wal-Mart thing, so therefore trade
causes debt. This may sound good rhetorically at an
anti-globalization rally but makes no sense scientifically).
Now let's take Wal-mart. Assuming they
know how to price items, they will make a gross margin on either the
Chinese or the American TV. How, then, can having to restock the TV
Joe bought by buying one from an American factory for say $1400
affect Wal-Mart any differently than paying the same (or less) money
to a Chinese company? The answer is that it has no effect. Buying
Chinese vs. American has no effect on Wal-Mart's debt.
So let's say Joe bought the Chinese TV,
and the Chinese end up with $1400 (the factory price) in US currency
courtesy of Wal-Mart. If they don't need anything in the US, they
will trade this currency for yuan to someone in China who does want
to buy something in the US. Let's assume that these dollars are all
incremental, so none go to buying exports from the US or goods to be
consumed in the US. Let's assume that it all gets invested as
profits, and further, let's assume that it gets invested 100% in US
Aha! People want to say to me. There
is the debt! Chinese are buying up US bonds. And so they are. But
trade did not cause or create the debt. Just because Chinese trade
dollars are reinvested in debt securities does not mean trade cause
the debt. In fact, the US government debt would exist with or
without Chinese trade, courtesy of the tax and spend whores of both
parties in the US Congress. If the Chinese had not bought the debt,
someone else would have, and the debt still would have existed. In
fact, the US debt would likely have just been a bit larger and a bit
costlier without Chinese buyers to bring down interest rates.
So, to review, an average American
makes an incremental decision to buy Chinese rather than American,
the trade deficit gets worse, but no debt is created. So I renew my
challenge to Lou Dobbs, who claims America has $5 trillion in trade
debt by asking a simple question: Where?