A Thought on the Trade Deficit

Most of the time when folks lament about the US's trade deficit, I just yawn.  That is because to a large extent the trade deficit is simply an artifact of an arbitrary accounting definition.  Basically, we define a certain fairly arbitrary subset of total commerce and commercial activity between two countries, and then throw tantrums when that arbitrary account is unbalanced.  At the end of the day, the payments loop has to close - the dollars come back to the US somehow.  Historically, most money from such trade deficits have come back to the US as foreign investments in US assets (think, for the example, Japanese investments in the late 80's in US real estate and high profile companies).

It is amazing that we would complain about such a situation.  First, we should be thrilled that foreigners choose to invest in our productive assets rather than just our manufactured goods.  Second, think about it this way -- if we export a product, we get the foreign money but the product goes overseas.  When foreigners invest in our fixed assets, we get the money and the assets remain here.  It is the outsized political influence of shareholders and workers in a few export-oriented industries  rather than economic rationality that keeps the US Congress so fixated on the "trade deficit."

The one issue I have with the trade deficit is it is in large part tied closely to the budget deficits run by the Feds.   Think about it this way -- let's take the definition of the balance of trade and keep it intact, adding just one single additional export product to the calculation:  US Government debt securities.   Certainly these are products we export, and there is nothing wrong with thinking about them as an alternative way for foreigners to spend dollars vs. buying US exports  (just as we all face the choice of investing for savings or buying consumer goods with our own incremental income).

Last year the US trade deficit was between $400 and $500 billion per year.  In 2009 the US government deficit was something like $1.4 trillion.  Assuming they issued debt securities to fund this deficit (ignore QE for now) and assuming foreigner bought 40-50% of these bods, then we exported as much as $700 billion in US government bonds to foreign buyers.  Now, suddenly, when we consider this one additional export product in the mix, we are running a trade surplus.  This is why currencies like the yuan are not necessarily as undervalued as people (including President Obama) may assume -- the issuance of government bonds creates a huge demand for the dollar, and keeps the value high.  If exporters are truly pissed off about the high value of the dollar vs. the yuan, they should not complain to the Chinese, they should complain to Obama and the US Congress for competing with them in foreign markets.  Though we tend to go through phases where we forget it, saving is a competitive product to consumer goods.

Update: Scott Grannis via Carpe Diem

"The Chinese sell us mountains of cheap goods, then turn around and invest most of the proceeds (equivalent to our trade deficit with China) in U.S. Treasury securities. We get the goods, and we get to keep the money. Then we devalue the dollar, and they lose on their investment. Why we would want them to stop doing this is beyond me, though if I were a Chinese citizen, I would be furious with my government for directing such massive quantities of my country's export earnings to Treasuries.

  • Ben

    I will agree that the decision to include or exclude a particular item from the calculus is arbitrary and political (but I repeat myself).

    But does a poor trade account balance not mean less control over one's own currency? Say a Japanese firm has a huge pile of dollars, and would rather own a tanker of (say) Russian furs. This huge purchase would drive up the price of fur and down the value of the dollar. The fact that the Russian fur purveyor now has to deal with the dollars does not undo the fact that the dollar is suffering vs the fur. And if the Russian fur magnate takes his USD to America to spend it on Pez, this bids up the price of Pez vs the dollar. Is this not ultimately inflationary? How is this wrong?

  • Danny

    Exactly.

  • Henry Bowman
  • Mark

    The money doesn't have to all come back. that is the magic of having a reserve currency. Other countries need to have some of the stuff on hand so they can trade with each other. The only way they can get some is to directly or indirectly sell a United States citizen an item and expect nothing in return.

    Now I do admit some countries with a heavy excess of reserves do invest the excess in US bonds, and repacked fanny mae instruments, but a large portion is kept on hand for the trade.