Tuesday, December 12, 2017

US Deficits in Goods Trade

Trade and protectionism are hot topics. At the root of the discussion is what has happened to the US as a trading partner. There is much to this debate and I won’t handle it all here today. Instead I focus on something that I think is central to the issue – the performance of US trade in goods.

International trade goes well beyond trade in goods. But as it turns out, a key part of what we consider to be problematic for the US is trade in goods. We trade services (like entertainment, transportation, shipping, and tourism) and we engage in a lot of international exchange with respect to financial and real assets (bonds, stocks, bank accounts) but we generally run surpluses in those trades. If we have a large and persistent trade deficit, it is mainly with respect to goods.

So I am back to playing with the data again this week. With trade figures there are choices to make. Much of what we refer to as trade is measured and captured in our balance of payments (BOP) account. There we find the Current Account and the Financial & Capital Accounts that contain information about exports, imports, and so on. These figures are always presented in nominal terms and thus measure changes in both quantity and price. Export and imports of goods and services are also published in our National Income Accounts (NIA) and those measures of trade are very compatible with the way Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is measured. The NIA accounts are presented in both real and nominal terms.

Yikes – too much information. Anyway, I decided to use the NIA measures since they are compatible with the way GDP is measured. I am using the nominal versions because they are somewhat more compatible with the BOP figures. I did a quick comparison of the real and nominal NIA measures and it didn’t change my overall conclusions. Whew. Where’s that JD?

The table at the bottom shows nominal NIA measures of US exports and imports of goods starting in 1964, the year I began studying Industrial Management at Georgia Tech and was introduced to chili dogs at the V in Atlanta. I present data for five years that are separated by 13 year-intervals because 13 is my favorite number (1964, 1977, 1990, 2003, and 2016). These 5 years bracket 1990 which is a demarcation point for the rise of globalization. This allows me to compare 26 pre-globalization years to 26 post-globalization years. Is this fun or what?

The top of the table presents US imports and exports in billions of dollars. Nominal GDP, also in the table, went from about $6 trillion in 1990 to almost $19 trillion in 2016. Some of that increase is because of price increases – with the rest from quantities. But GDP is not the point today – though it gives you a benchmark as to how much the size of the overall economy changed over those 52 years. Goods exports went from $403 billion in 1990 to almost $1.5 trillion in 2016. Imports increased too – from $508 billion to about $2.2 trillion. The net imports (imports minus exports) was $105 billion in 1990 and increased to $778 billion in 2016.

If I stopped right now many of you would have an aha moment. What you would see is the following post-globalization experience: US imports of goods outran our exports of goods and the trade deficit in goods increased dramatically. There are no smoke or mirrors here. This is the kind of information that supports the popular idea that globalization has not been good for the US and that there might be unfairness working against us – be it so-called free trade agreements or cheating or whatever.

But let’s not stop there. In the second part of the chart we display trade in goods as a percent of GDP. In 1964 goods exports were 3.9% of GDP. By 2016 goods exports accounted for twice the share of the economy at 7.8%. But notice that the pre-globalization gain of 2.8 percentage points (from 3.9% to 6.7% of GDP) compared to the 1.1 percentage point gain in the post-globalization years. That is, exports gained as a share of the economy much more before- compared to after-globalization. What about imports? Imports of goods increased 2.7 points before globalization and then 3.4 points post-globalization.

It is true that imports of goods picked up its pace after globalization while exports did the opposite. But notice also that much of those changes came in the 13 years after 1990. During the time from 1990 to 2003, exports fell as a share of GDP while imports rose dramatically. But then in the most recent 13 years we see that reversing as the share of exports increased at more that twice the pace of goods imports.

What can we say?

First, goods trade – both exports and imports were rising as a share of the economy for 52 years – both before and after globalization began accelerating in 1990.

Second, when we compare the data before 1990 with what happened afterward you can see much bigger increases in imports of goods relative to exports.

Third, if we look closer at the data since 1990 we see that most of the advantage of imported goods peaked by 2003 and has reversed since.

What does all this mean? For one thing it means that this is a pretty rich stew with a lot of vegetables. If we combine these numbers with the numbers from last week’s blog post we wonder if some of these trade results have something to do with the fact that so many countries have been narrowing the economic gaps between them and the US.

The 1990s were a time when many countries decided to open-up and use trade as a development tool. These countries wanted to rebuild and become more competitive and many were very successful as we saw in this blog last week. As incomes across the world grew, so did their appetites for goods and the growth of US exports of goods verifies this. But as their incomes grew they also became stronger competitors to the US and our goods imports rose as well.

Since so many countries were starting from very low incomes and poor productivity it made sense for the US to make special compensations or to ignore remaining protections in these countries. US citizens gained many of the benefits as more goods were available to them at lower prices. Lower prices gave US residents more dollars to spend and these people redirected some of these surpluses to US companies and created millions of jobs. The GDP data below show remarkable growth in our economy as some jobs declined while other expanded. 

There are some who think that the US can use its own arsenal of protectionist policies to preserve and restore jobs in the US. But that thinking is short-sighted. Despite catching up many countries still retain much lower incomes and a distinct price advantage that goes with it. Protecting US citizens from low prices on low-skilled goods makes no sense. It’s like sticking a finger in the dyke. What makes more sense is to recognize that the world has changed and that developing countries need to protect their own industries and workers less. Let’s not raise the worldwide level of protection – let’s lower it. 

But what about all those US workers in firms and industries that cannot compete? The answer is pretty simple in principle. Protecting these workers is only a temporary measure so long as the American worker makes $50k per year and foreign competitors make half or less. What makes sense is to encourage other countries to keep catching up with our incomes – and to find ways to better train and retrain our workers to fit better into US advantages in education, science, technology, entertainment, communications, and so on. The data below suggest that the export/import issue started turning in 2003. Perhaps we can keep that alive in the next 13 years following 2016.

Billions of Dollars
Nominal GDP
    Exports of Goods
    Imports of Goods
    Net Imports
As  Percent of GDP
    Exports of Goods
    Imports of  Goods
    Net Imports
Source BEA.gov

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