Trade Deficits Matter

Over the last several years the U.S. trade deficit has persistently set new records, hitting $717 billion in 2005, equal to almost 6 percent of GDP. China, in particular has contributed to the deficit, and now accounts for just shy of one-third of the total. By any historical standard, the economic warning lights are flashing red.

Interestingly, both the economic right and left sometimes give comfort to the status quo with claims that trade deficits do not matter. From the right comes the argument that trade deficits don’t matter because they simply reflect the actions of consenting adults doing what they choose through markets. Indeed, deficits are good, being the way that consenting adults obtain their utility maximizing lifetime consumption outcomes.

From the left comes the argument that the massive U.S. trade deficit with China benefits both countries. U.S. consumers get lots of cheap goods in return for which they give over paper I.O.U.s that are costless to print. Meanwhile, China creates millions of jobs and builds modern factories that are transforming it into an industrial superpower, and it also accumulates billions of dollars in financial claims against the United States. From this perspective, trade deficits don’t matter because there are no limits or consequences to either government or private borrowing, and because manufacturing does not matter either.

According to the logic of left and right, the U.S. would benefit even further if China devalued its exchange rate and ran a larger trade surplus. If the Chinese want to give away their production at artificially low prices, more fool them and we should willingly accept the gift. When something sounds too good to be true, that’s usually because it is not true. Both left and right are wrong. Large persistent trade deficits do matter.

Before turning to why trade deficits matter, it is necessary to dispel a straw man argument. Trade deficit deniers often begin by rhetorically speculating what if the deficit were to disappear over night, and they rightly observe that U.S. inflation would immediately rise owing to lack of industrial capacity. This would force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, and might also compel higher taxes and government spending cuts.

However, this is a straw man. No one is arguing for going “cold turkey” on trade. Instead, there is need to begin a process of adjustment whereby the U.S. trade deficit is gradually reduced over the next few years. This adjustment will be difficult, but the longer it is delayed the more difficult and dangerous it will be. If you are unfit and wish to get fit, it is unwise to go out and immediately run a marathon. Likewise, continuing to smoke and generally over-indulge makes getting fit more difficult and dangerous. These analogies hold for the U.S. economy and its trade deficit.

Why then do persistent large trade deficits matter? The first reason concerns jobs. The current U.S. economic recovery has been the weakest since World War II, and this is significantly due to the trade deficit. In past recoveries, consumer spending created hundreds of thousands of domestic manufacturing jobs. This time round it has leached out of the economy in the form of spending on imports and created jobs in China and elsewhere.

For trade deficit deniers from the right the failure to create jobs is because Americans don’t want to work. If they did they would lower their wage demands and job creation would follow. This glibness ignores the fact that lowering wages would quickly bankrupt most households who would be unable to pay their mortgages. That in turn would cause the financial system to collapse, giving rise to another Great Depression.

For deficit deniers on the left, the job shortage can be remedied by larger budget deficits and more private borrowing. The reasoning is budget deficits have no consequences and there is no limit to the amount of money banks can create or consumers can borrow. That reasoning is false. There are significant adverse consequences to both excessive budget deficits and excessive private sector indebtedness, and the U.S.’s extraordinary trade deficits have resulted in both being higher than would have otherwise been needed to restore U.S. full employment.

Regarding budget deficits, these can pose problems for the future because interest must be paid, which means reduced revenues available for other purposes. With regard to foreign-held U.S government debt, when foreigners spend the interest that will be good for U.S. jobs and incomes. However paying interest will consume available tax revenues so that maintaining government services could require higher taxes that may be politically difficult to accomplish. Moreover, unlike domestic bondholders, interest payments to foreign holders are not taxed, which amplifies their future budget impact.

Regarding private sector debts, accumulated debt burdens promise to be a drag on future U.S. demand growth and economic activity. Individual households have credit limits. Accumulated debts are deflationary because interest must be paid and because they constrain future borrowing. The problem is that U.S. household debts have grown far faster than income, in part due to the trade deficit that has resulted in job creation offshore rather than onshore.

Not only has the trade deficit burdened the demand-side of the U.S. economy, it has also burdened the supply-side. First, the undervalued exchange rate has resulted in many U.S. manufacturing companies closing factories because they cannot compete. Some companies have simply gone out of business, while others have re-located or sub-contracted production to East Asia. Second, many companies have re-directed investment to China rather than building new modern capacity in the United States. This has weakened the U.S. industrial base, and also made the task of trade deficit adjustment more difficult.

To trade deficit deniers on both right and left these effects apparently do not matter because manufacturing jobs can be replaced without consequence by service sector jobs. Boeing is one of the crown jewels of America’s industrial base. According to such reasoning, Boeing could close shop, move to China, and then export aircraft to the United States. Boeing workers could be re-employed as service sector street sweepers with the same pay and America would be better off because it would have cleaner streets.

This is false. Manufacturing is key to prosperity, being a major center of productivity growth and innovation. When manufacturing moves offshore, associated research and development activities often go too. Additionally, international trade remains concentrated in goods, which means that over the long haul countries need goods to sell to finance imports. Behind the arguments of the trade deficit deniers is a tacit assumption that should the U.S. ever exhaust its international credit, it can quickly and simply reconstruct its industrial base. Unfortunately, that is not how real world manufacturing operates. Individual manufacturing firms are clusters of knowledge, skills, and capital, themselves clustered in industries. Once firms and industries are destroyed it is costly and difficult to reassemble them.

Lastly, both left and right also ignore the fact that persistent trade deficits raise financial stability and strategic concerns, which are particularly acute regarding China given uncertainty about whether it will become a geo-political friend or rival. The concern is that countries could start selling their holdings of U.S. financial assets, triggering financial disruption and higher interest rates. However, this concern should not be overstated, and xenophobic appeals of right-wing nationalists and left-wing populists should be resisted. The history of capital flight episodes shows that it is domestic investors who have tended to trigger panics, as they are better informed and therefore head for the exits first. That suggests Wall Street rather than foreigners will trigger any run on the dollar.

A modified version of this article first appeared at:

Copyright Thomas I. Palley

5 Responses to “Trade Deficits Matter”

  1. Henry Says:

    Simply fantastic writing. Very clear and superbly argued.

    I wish more people were listening to you.

    Thanks for your good work.

  2. jmk Says:

    Net investment payment s from US to China in 2006 will likely total 30 billion dollars according to Dr. Charles McMillion. This payout will increase going forward since China will continue to run large trade surplus with US in the future.

  3. zak Says:

    Very good article. What I’d like to know is if Mr. Palley has any predictions for the future state of the US economy should its trade policies (continuing trade and government deficits) continue. Will US policy makers truly be compelled to correct these imbalances? Or will they continue along on their current trajectory and be taken off guard when the market forces a painful realignment?? My bet is on the latter.

  4. C Vanella Says:

    Professor Palley,
    Pat Buchanan has just proposed in an article in the 10/23 American Conservative Mag the suggestion we can level the international trade playing field by imposing an equalization fee on foreign imports to offset the Vat rebates and VAT equivalents imposed on American exports by our trading partners. What is your opinion of such a policy?
    C Vanella

  5. John Konop Says:

    Bush Administration, Dying at the Border

    This is from “Skeptical Economist”. This is the one of the best articles I have ever read on economics and illegal immigration.

    It is no secret that the Bush administration is failing and failing badly. The woes of the administration are legion, Iraq, immigration, the economy, Katrina, health care, gasoline prices, etc. The impact on public opinion is profound. Bush is well on his way to being one of the least popular presidents in U.S. history. His current popularity rating of 31% may be a high water mark. The twenties and perhaps teens are not that far off. Increasingly he has lost, not just liberals and mainstream Americans, but conservatives as well. The key question is why? Why has this once promising administration gone downhill so far and so fast? Is it just bad luck or is their a deeper force at work? In my view, the ideology and practice of Open Borders has condemned this president to complete failure. Could the Bush administration turn itself around by changing its stance on immigration? Yes, but it is exceedingly unlikely to happen. Bush is doomed and may not finish his term in office.

    It is clear that the immigration polices of this administration are deeply unpopular and contrary to what the public wants. Clearly, immigration is contributing mightily to the low standing of this president. However, immigration is also directly responsible for the economic failings of this president and is (one step removed) also responsible for the debacle in Iraq. Immigration is also partially responsible for all of the other problems (Kartrina, gasoline prices, health care, Dubai ports, etc.). The links between immigration and what ails Bush (and America) are explained in more detail below. What should be clear by the end, is that immigration is either directly or partially for everything (and there is a lot) that is weighing down this president.

    The immigration failures of this administration are obvious. The border is totally out of control and Bush completely refuses to even try to control it. Ordinary Americans are demanding immigration control and Bush has abandoned even the pretense of enforcing our laws (by some measures enforcement has declined by 95% at least, but other measures 100%). Ordinary Americans fiercely resent illegal aliens taking over their neighborhoods, jobs, and schools. Bush actually proposed legislation to replace every American worked with a foreigner who would do the same job for less (the “willing worker” program).

    To call the administration out of touch on immigration would be an injustice to the language. Polls show strong support for greatly intensified enforcement. Bush is still trying to have the Kennedy Amnesty bill passed. Why the administration is so committed to policies that the American people regard as toxic is another matter. However, the reality of a president at war with his own people on this issue, should not be in doubt. Astoundingly, Zogby finds that only 17% of Americans approve of Bush’s immigration policies (7). On border security, Bush gets a 16% approval rating.

    Immigration is also responsible for Bush’s economic woes. Superficially the economy should be a source of considerable strength for Bush. The high level numbers are actually rather good. Unemployment is down to 4.6% from a peak of 6.3% in June of 2003. GDP growth in Q1 2006 was 4.8%. The economy grew by 2.7% in 2003, 4.2% in 2004, and 3.5% in 2005. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has rallied from a low of 7286 on October 9th, 2002 to a recent high of 11,643 on May 10, 2006. That a gain of 59.8% in less than four years. The S&P is up 57.25% in the same period. Definitely a lot for investors to cheer about, particularly in the aftermath of the Tech Bubble and corporate scandals (Enron, Tyco, Health South, etc.).

    The zooming stock market has reflected fast rising corporate profits. Pretax profits bottomed out at $714 billion (annual rate) in 3Q2001 and have since risen to $1,293 billion in 3Q2005 (not adjusted for inflation) (11). As a percent of GDP profits have grown from 7.0% of GDP (3Q2001) to a peak of 10.9% of GDP in 2Q2005 (down to 10.3% in 3Q2005). At 10.9% of GDP, corporate profits were higher than any year since 1968.

    The productivity numbers have also been very, very good. Nonfarm productivity has risen by 17% or more since 2001. What the BLS calls multifactor productivity is up almost 8% since 2000. Per-worker/GDP is perhaps the broadest measure of productivity growth. In chained 2000 dollars, per-worker GDP is up by 8.73%. CPI-U adjusted, per-worker GDP has grown by 7.95%. The strong growth in productivity has almost completely offset nominal wage growth. Unit labor costs have only risen by 4.3% since 2001 (9).

    Of course, Americans haven’t been shy about spending under Bush. Indeed, it’s been party time for several years as anyone who travels or frequents upscale restaurants can attest. The number tell the same happy story. Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) rose by 15.64% from 1Q2001 to 4Q2005. Not bad given that GDP only rose by 13.9% in the same five years (13).

    As you can see it is easy to come up with a whole panoply of good economic news. But still… The American people just don’t agree. Poll after poll give gloomy views on the economy. Indeed 59% of Americans rate the economy as only “fair” or “poor” (8). Is the public wrong? Deluded? Confused by liberals? Where it only so. The sad truth is that the economic boom has passed the American people by. Indeed, they are suffering more from the backwash of inflated prices than enjoying any of the fruits. Why? As is all too frequently the case, Open Borders is killing the American Dream by making sure that only immigrants (legal and illegal) and the elites get richer while ordinary Americans get poorer.

    This is not some liberal/left-wing fantasy. Indeed the left goes to great pains to avoid using the “I” word when they are talking about jobs/wages/incomes. The sad reality is that from the standpoint of ordinary working Americans, the economy is weak, at best. Some of the facts are downright scary. For example, only 9% of the new jobs created from 2000 to 2005 when to the American people even though Americans accounted for 61% of adult population growth (1). Worse, labor force participation has been falling since Bush took office (10). In January of 2001, it was 67.2%. Now it is 66.1%. You have to go back to the first days of the Clinton administration to find numbers this low (actually 66.2% in January of 1993). Labor force participation does not normally fall in an expanding economy… (12). Indeed, this appears to be the first recovery with declining labor force participation.

    Sadly, the minority data is worse. Black male labor force participation has fallen from 69.4% in January of 2001 to 67.7% in May of 2006. Black female labor force participation declined from 60.1% to 59.1% in the same time period. Hispanic labor force participation (both sexes) has also declined, from 69.9% in January of 2001 to 68.7% in May of 2005.

    The jobs growth numbers all point in the same direction. This is, by far, the worst recovery in modern history for employment. The last recession ended in November of 2001. Since then (actually the next 48 months) employment has grown by 4.7%. The worst prior recovery enjoyed jobs growth of 6.2%. The average recovery since the 1960s has produced 9.5% growth in jobs. Sadly, the payroll employment data is much worse (14) showing only 2.6% growth over 4 years.

    Average weekly earnings peaked back in November of 2003 and have since declined. Amazingly, weekly wages are now back where they were in 1959 and 17% below the high in 1972. Forty six years without a raise. Something to be proud of. Not surprisingly the poverty rate has risen steadily since Bush took office. Back in 2000 the poverty rate was 11.3%. By 2004 it reach 12.7%. The poverty rate always rises in recessions. This may be the first boom with rising poverty (3).

    Median household income tells the same tale of woe. Median incomes have declined every year Bush has been in office and are now 3.8% ($1740) below the 1999 level (4). Quite an accomplishment for a president who thinks tax cuts for the wealthy will make us rich.

    The superficially nice consumption numbers (15.64% growth in five years) start looking rather dodgy once you look under the covers. Cleary GDP didn’t grow nearly fast enough to pay the piper. Nor did compensation keep pace. Indeed, compensation of employees rose by only 8.3% in the same period. Something had to give. Indeed, the savings rate fell from 2.4% of disposable income in 1Q2001 to -0.5% in 4Q2005 and -1.3% in 1Q2006. Where is the money coming from? Greenspan found the home equity extraction reached $600 billion in 2004 (15)(16) an immodest 7% of disposable income. Are folks using their homes as ATM machines really thrilled with the economy? Does ever rising debt pave the road to heaven? Or would that be hell?

    Of course, none of this had to be true. Productivity has risen strongly in recent years (see above). Soaring productivity could have brought large wage and salary gains to ordinary Americans. Productivity alone should have increased incomes by 8% since 2000. No one likes paying $3 for gasoline. However, not too many people would be complaining with fast rising wages. This is not a fantasy. In the 1950s and 60s, wages and median incomes rose right along with the economy. Then we abandoned our borders…

    There are other dismal numbers as well (after all economics is the “Dismal Science”). Household inequality has increased under Bush (5). Inequality also went up under Clinton (”no interior enforcement”). Back when we took our borders seriously it declined, from 1947 to 1968. Inequality only started to soar when mass immigration resumed in the 1970s. Predictably, male median earnings fell from 2002 to 2004 and are now lower than they were back in 1973. The percentage of Americans without health insurance has risen from 14.2% in 2000 to 15.7% in 2004. Employment based health insurance fell from 63.6% in 2000 to 59.8% in 2004 (6). Why bother proving benefits when you have illegals?

    If the economic statistics weren’t bad enough for Bush, we have the Iraq debacle. Is Open Borders really responsible for Iraq? At least indirectly, the answer is clearly yes. No we aren’t fighting illegal aliens in Ramadi or Sadr city. However, the connection to Open Borders is far from trivial. The easiest linkage is simply the cast of characters. Almost without exception, the cheerleaders for the Iraq war were Open Borders fanatics. Of course, the WSJ and Senor Bush fall into this category. However, you will also find the likes of Fred Barnes (The Weekly Standard), William Kristol (The Weekly Standard), Ben Wattenberg (AEI), and Michael Barone (US News & World Report) in this group.
    By contrast, the strongest advocates of immigration reform were generally skeptical of the Iraq war or overtly opposed (Michelle Malkin being a rare exception). What is the connection? Both the Iraq war and Open Borders were/are based on a panglossian view of human nature. If you think America can tolerate massive legal/illegal third world immigration, then the idea that Iraq could be transformed into a model Middle Eastern nation with human rights, free elections, a free-market economy, peace with Israel, and U.S. bases might make sense. Saner voices recognized both ideas as deeply crazy. Crushing Saddam’s murderous and ultimately dangerous (sanctions were fading) regime might have made sense. Pouring American blood into the desolate soils of the Middle East to nurture “democracy” was, and is, folly.

    Is immigration responsible for the other problems weighing on the Bush administration? In many cases, the answer is yes, at least to some extent. Only a president deeply wedded to Open Borders would have threatened his very first veto over the Dubai ports deal. A saner administration would have quashed the deal upfront or authorized it only after deep and credible scrutiny. Gasoline prices? The population of the U.S. has risen by 82 million since the mid-1970s when we built our last oil refinery. Most of the growth has been do to immigration. Runaway population growth doesn’t work with highly limited energy development. Something has to give, prices it would seem. A different president would make these choices clear or simply tell the American people that immigration must be stopped until we have a consensus in favor new pipelines, power plants, refineries, offshore drilling, etc. Hard choices in the Pollyanna world of Senor Bush? They don’t exist.

    The immigration sickness infecting U.S. health care has already been mentioned. Of course, as the uninsured population explodes the costs fall on taxpayers and those with private insurance. These burdens make insurance even less affordable, pushing more and more folks into the ranks of those without. Why so-called conservatives would demand an immigration policy than can only end with socialized medicine boggles the mind. Perhaps non compos mentis explains it all.

    Did Open Borders bring Katrina to the Big Easy? Actually, No. Even the most ardent restrictionists don’t suggest an enforceable ban on category 5 hurricanes. However, in a normal economy the reconstruction work would be providing well paid job opportunities for poor and working class Americans. Such a thing will never happen with Bush in office.

    The Bush administration is clearly infected with some kind of “End of History” globalist worldview where mass migration is both inevitable and desirable. In this wonderful future fantasy, borders will disappear and all of mankind will embrace capitalism, free markets, free trade, democracy, etc. Sadly, this Pollyannaish view of the human condition has led to tragedy abroad, and economic failure at home. What should be clear is that the ideology of Open Borders is directly and indirectly responsible for the woes of the Bush administration. As of this late date there is little they can do about it. After 9-11, Bush had a perfect moment in time, to change course and save his presidency and his country. With malice and forethought he threw it away.