Our new President rails against it, unions denigrate it, and unemployed blame it. And not without reason. On trade, jobs and economic growth, the US has performed less than stellar.
Let’s look at the data, but then drill down a bit to the nuances. Undirected bluster to reduce trade deficits and grow jobs will likely stumble on those nuances. Rather, an appreciation of economic intricacies must go hand-in-hand with bold action.
So let’s dive in.
The US Performance – Trade, Jobs and Growth
For authenticity, we turn to (by all appearances) unbiased and authoritative sources. For trade balances, we use the ITC, International Trade Commission, in Switzerland; for US employment, we use the US BLS, Bureau of Labor Statistics; and for overall economic data across countries we drawn on the World Bank.
Per the ITC, the United State amassed a merchandise trade deficit of $802 billion in 2015, the largest such deficit of any country. This deficit exceeds the sum of the deficits for the next 18 countries. The deficit does not represent an aberration; the US merchandise trade deficit averaged $780 billion over the last 5 years, and we have run a deficit for all the last 15 years.
The merchandise trade deficit hits key sectors. In 2015, consumer electronics ran a deficit of $167 billion; apparel $115 billion; appliances and furniture $74 billion; and autos $153 billion. Some of these deficits have increased noticeably since 2001: Consumer electronics up 427%, furniture and appliances up 311%. In terms of imports to exports, apparel imports run 10 times exports, consumer electronics 3 times; furniture and appliances 4 times.
Autos has a small silver lining, the deficit up a relatively moderate 56% in 15 years, about equal to inflation plus growth. Imports exceed exports by a disturbing but, in relative terms, modest 2.3 times.
On jobs, the BLS reports a loss of 5.4 million US manufacturing jobs from 1990 to 2015, a 30% drop. No other major employment category lost jobs. Four states, in the “Belt” region, dropped 1.3 million jobs collectively.
The US economy has only stumbled forward. Real growth for the past 25 years has averaged only just above two percent. Income and wealth gains in that period have landed mostly in the upper income groups, leaving the larger swath of America feeling stagnant and anguished.
The data paint a distressing picture: the US economy, beset by persistent trade deficits, hemorrhages manufacturing jobs and flounders in low growth. This picture points – at least at first look – to one element of the solution. Fight back against the flood of imports.
The Added Perspectives – Unfortunate Complexity
Unfortunately, economics rarely succumbs to simple explanations; complex interactions often underlie the dynamics.
So let’s take some added perspectives.
While the US amasses the largest merchandise trade deficit, that deficit does not rank the largest as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP.) Our country hits about 4.5% on that basis. The United Kingdom hits a 5.7% merchandise trade deficit as a percent of GDP; India a 6.1%, Hong Kong a 15% and United Arab Emirates an 18%. India has grown over 6% per year on average over the last quarter century, and Hong Kong and UAE a bit better than 4%. Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, Pakistan, in all about 50 countries run merchandise trade deficits as a group averaging 9% of GDP, but grow 3.5% a year or better.
Note the term “merchandise” trade deficit. Merchandise involves tangible goods – autos, Smartphones, apparel, steel. Services – legal, financial, copyright, patent, computing – represent a different group of goods, intangible, i.e. hard to hold or touch. The US achieves here a trade surplus, $220 billion, the largest of any country, a notable partial offset to the merchandise trade deficit.
The trade deficit also masks the gross dollar value of trade. The trade balance equals exports minus imports. Certainly imports represent goods not produced in a country, and to some extent lost employment. On the other hand, exports represent the dollar value of what must be produced or offered, and thus employment which occurs. In exports, the US ranks first in services and second in merchandise, with a combined export value of $2.25 trillion per year.
Now, we seek here not to prove our trade deficit benevolent, or without adverse impact. But the data do temper our perspective.
First, with India as one example, we see that trade deficits do not inherently restrict growth. Countries with deficits on a GDP basis larger than the US have grown faster than the US. And further below, we will see examples of countries with trade surpluses, but which did not grow rapidly, again tempering a conclusion that growth depends directly on trade balances.