Thursday, January 18, 2007

Debunking "trade deficit" myth

Here are two great perspectives to keep in mind whenever you hear anyone (regardless of their political persuasion) lament the country's "trade deficit". The first view is from John Stossel:
I'm told to worry about the trade deficit.

Commentators and populist politicians are wringing their hands. The trade deficit is a "malignant tumor in the intestines of the U.S. economy," says Pat Buchanan. Lou Dobbs is very upset that "We're borrowing about $3 billion a day just to pay for our imports"!

Economists had taught me that the trade deficit is not a big deal. (The budget deficit may be a big one, but that's a different issue.) But with all the pundits and politicians alarmed, I began to wonder if I was out of touch.

Then I thought about my local supermarket. I buy stuff from the Food Emporium every week. I spend thousands of dollars a year there. But the supermarket never buys anything from me. Not one thing.

And yet that is no problem. It's better than no problem -- it's fantastic! Imagine if I could only buy from the store to the extent that it needed my services. I'd starve. That would be barter, and mankind dumped barter for the money economy eons ago precisely because it is so inconvenient.
Foreigners trade cool products (and capital goods) for paper money. They can do only three things with our dollars: buy American goods and services, save them, or invest in the United States (including buying U.S. government debt).

In other words, most of what foreigners don't spend here, they invest here. The trade deficit is mirrored by the capital-account surplus .

Should we be concerned that foreigners see the U.S. economy as a good place to invest their money? I can't see why. I think we should see it as a wonderful thing: They trust America's future enough to invest in it. Investment creates new products and better jobs.

Especially absurd is Dobbs's idea that the trade deficit means we are in debt to foreigners. Except for the T-bills foreigners buy, this just isn't true. As George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux wrote in the December issue of The Freeman magazine, "If Mr. Sony uses the $2,000 he receives from selling computers to Americans to buy $2,000 worth of equity in Exxon, the U.S. current-account deficit rises by $2,000, but no real indebtedness is created. No American owes Mr. Sony anything. ... It just ain't so that the so-called trade deficit is debt!"

Boudreaux adds, "If we applaud when citizens of Wisconsin save and invest in software firms in California or orange groves in Florida, why should we not be equally pleased when citizens of Shanghai save and invest in these same American firms?"

Good point, especially when you consider that the only way to shrink the trade deficit is for the government to prohibit us from buying whatever we want.

What the trade fearmongers don't say is that countries with trade surpluses often don't do very well. Japan had a trade surplus all during its long recession, which began in 1990 and is only now ending. By contrast, countries running trade deficits often experience economic booms. A Cato Institute study shows, "Contrary to prevailing assumptions, 'worsening' trade deficits are associated with faster GDP and manufacturing growth and more rapidly declining unemployment, while 'improving' trade deficits are associated with slower GDP and manufacturing growth and rising unemployment."

Adam Smith was right when he wrote, "Nothing, however, can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade."
The next viewpoint comes from Dr. Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University:
...Since 2001, our economy has created 9.3 million new jobs, compared with 360,000 in Japan and 1.1 million in the euro zone (European Union countries that have adopted the euro), excluding Spain. Japan and euro zone countries had trade surpluses, while we had large and increasing trade deficits. Mr. Malpass says that both Spain and the U.K., like the U.S., ran trade deficits, but they created 3.6 and 1.3 million new jobs, respectively. Moreover, wages rose in the U.S., Spain and the U.K.

Professor Don Boudreaux, chairman of George Mason University's Economics Department, wrote "If Trade Surpluses Are So Great, the 1930s Should Have Been a Booming Decade" ( According to data he found at the National Bureau of Economic Research's "Macrohistory Database", it turns out that the U.S. ran a trade surplus in nine of the 10 years of the Great Depression, with 1936 being the lone exception.

During those 10 years, we had a significant trade surplus, with exports totaling $26.05 billion and imports totaling only $21.13 billion. So what do trade surpluses during a depression and trade deficits during an economic boom prove, considering we've had trade deficits for most of our history? Professor Boudreaux says they prove absolutely nothing. Economies are far too complex to draw simplistic causal connections between trade deficits and surpluses and economic welfare and growth.
Here's a smell test. Pretend you're a man from Mars knowing absolutely nothing about Earth and you're looking for a nice place to land. You find out that there's one country, say, country A, where earthlings from other countries voluntarily invest and entrust trillions of dollars of their hard earnings. There are other countries where they're not nearly as willing to make the same investment. Which one of those countries would you deem the most prosperous and with the greatest growth prospects? You'd pick country A, which turns out to be the United States. As such, you'd be just like most of the world's population who, if free to do so, would invest and live in the U.S.
This point right here, I think, sums up the mindset of most anti-capitalists today:
The late Professor Milton Friedman said, "Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself." Some people justify their calls for protectionism by claiming that they're for free trade but fair trade. That's nonsense. Think about it: When I purchased my Lexus from a Japanese producer, through an intermediary, I received what I wanted. The Japanese producer received what he wanted. In my book, that's a fair trade.

Of course, an American auto producer, from whom I didn't purchase my car, might whine that it was unfair. He would like Congress to impose import tariffs and quotas to make Japanese-produced cars less attractive and available in the hopes that I'd buy an American-produced car. In my book, that would be unfair.
Trade surpluses are prevalent in countries with recessions and depressions, and trade deficits are found in countries with economic booms. While this is not indicative of a causative effect (i.e. "Therefore, the key to a great economy is a trade deficit"), this is certainly a clear counterargument to the notion that a trade deficit is a horrible thing.