Faculty Opinion Article
Deficit at $56.7 billion in June Job
Today, the Commerce Department reported the June deficit on trade in goods and
services was $56.7 billion, down from the $59.2 billion deficit in May. U.S. imports
of consumer goods did ease, as a result of the recession in retail sales, but the
cost of oil imports and the trade deficit with China continued to rise.
U.S. exports have been growing, but the trade deficit remains large because of
high prices for imported crude oil and refined products, subsidized imports from
China, and the continuing woes of the Detroit automakers. At about 4.8 percent of
GDP, those pose a significant drag on the economy and combine to destroy thousands
of high paying U.S. jobs.
Simply, money spent on Middle East oil, Chinese televisions and coffee markers,
Japanese and Korean cars can’t be spent on U.S. made goods and services, unless
offset by a comparable amount of exports. Since U.S. imports exceed exports by 4.8
percent of GDP, the trade deficit creates an enormous drag on demand for U.S.-made
goods and services. Along with the credit crisis and resulting slowdown in new housing
and commercial construction, the trade deficit is driving up unemployment.
Since 2000, the trade deficit has increased $300 billion, and 3.8 million manufacturing
jobs have been lost. China and other major Asian exporters of manufacturers subsidize
their sales in U.S. markets by suppressing the exchange rates for their currencies
against the dollar by intervening in foreign exchange markets. Were this problem
resolved, the trade deficit could likely be cut in half, GDP would rise by $300
billion and about 2 million manufacturing jobs could be restored.
The Bush Administration characterizes critics of China’s mercantilism as protectionists.
Democratic leaders in the Senate and House talk tough, but can never seem to bring
a bill to a vote in either chamber that would bring substantive action.
Presidential candidate John McCain appears aligned with the President Bush on
trade with China. Senator Barack Obama’s positions are in line with those of leading
Congressional Democrats, who express angst but take no action.
Meanwhile, workers across Middle America suffer, and U.S. automakers abandon
their communities for the Middle Kingdom. Wall Street bankers open new branches
in China and lavish campaign contributions on both political parties for their compliance
in America’s policy of appeasement.
Breaking down the Deficit
Together, petroleum, China and automotive products account for nearly the entire
U.S. trade deficit, and no solution to the overall trade imbalance is possible without
addressing these segments.
Petroleum products accounted for $36.4 billion of the monthly trade gap, on a
seasonally adjusted basis. Since December 2001, net petroleum imports have increased
$30.8 billion, as the average price of a barrel of imported oil has risen from $15.46
to $117.13, and monthly imports oil and refined products have increased from 353
million to 383 million barrels.
Retuning conventional gasoline engines and transmissions, hybrid systems, lighter
weight vehicles, nuclear power, and other alternative energy sources could substantially
reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. These solutions require national leadership,
but both Republican and Democratic Party leaders have failed to champion policies
that would reduce dependence on Middle East oil.
In 2007, the Congress managed to push through the first increase in automobile
mileage standards in 32 years but don’t cheer loudly. The 35 mile-per-gallon standard
to be achieved by 2020 is far less than what is possible.
The bill also requires the production of about 2.4 million barrels a day of ethanol.
Along with other conservation measures, the 2007 Energy Act could reduce U.S. petroleum
consumption by 4 million barrels a day by 2030. Over the last 23 years, petroleum
consumption has increased by about 5 million barrels a day, despite improvements
in mileage standards, automobile and appliance technology, and conservation.
Unless U.S. economic growth stagnates, in 2030 the United States will be just
as dependent on imported oil as before without stronger conservation and alternative
fuel policies. Factor in falling production from U.S. oil fields, the situation
China accounted for $21.4 billion of the June trade deficit, up from $21.0 billion
in May and $5.5 billion in December 2001. The bilateral deficit is huge, because
China undervalues the yuan, and this makes Chinese exports artificially inexpensive
and U.S. products too expensive in China. U.S. imports from China exceed exports
to China by a ratio of 4.3 to 1.
China revalued the yuan from 8.28 to 8.11 in July 2005 and since permitted the
yuan to rise less than 5 percent every twelve months. Modernization and productivity
advances raise the implicit value of the yuan much more than 5 percent every 12
months, and the yuan remains undervalued against the dollar by at least 40 percent.
China’s huge trade surplus creates an excess demand for yuan on global currency
markets; however, to limit appreciation of the yuan against the dollar and euro,
the Peoples Bank of China sells yuan and buys dollars, euro and other currencies
on foreign exchange markets.
In 2007, the Chinese government purchased $462 billion in U.S. and other foreign
currency and securities, and in 2008 it is on track to purchase about $640 billion
in foreign currencies. This comes to about 17 percent of China’s GDP and about 43
percent of its exports of goods and services. These purchases provide foreign consumers
with 4.4 trillion yuan to purchase Chinese exports, and create a 43 percent “off
budget” subsidy on foreign sales of Chinese products, and an even larger implicit
tariff on Chinese imports.
In addition, China provides numerous tax incentives and rebates, and low interest
loans, to encourage exports and replace imports with domestic products. These practices
clearly violate China’s obligations in the WTO, and it agreed to remove those when
it joined the trade body.
In recent weeks, China has begun pushing down the value of the yuan, and if this
continues, this will likely have major repercussions for global trade and financial
stability in the months ahead.
Automotive products account for about $9.0 billion of the monthly trade deficit.
Japanese and Korean manufacturers have captured a larger market and are expanding
their U.S. production. However, Asian manufacturers tend to use more imported components
than domestic companies, and GM and Ford are pushing their parts suppliers to move
GM, Ford and Chrysler still carry significant cost disadvantages against Toyota
plants located in the United States, thanks to clumsy management and unrealistic
wages, excessive fringe benefits and arcane work rules imposed by United Autoworker
contracts. Recent negotiations have improved the Detroit Three’s cost position but
did not wholly close the labor cost gap with Toyota and other Asian transplants.
Recently negotiated labor agreements should reduce, but not eliminate, these
cost disadvantages. Even with retiree health care benefits moved off the books and
a two tier wage structure, the cost disadvantage will remain at least $1000 per
Deficits, Debt and Growth
Trade deficits must be financed by foreigners investing in the U.S. economy or
Americans borrowing money abroad. Direct investments in the United States provide
only about a tenth of the needed funds, and Americans borrow about $50 billion each
month. The total debt is about $6.5 trillion, and at five percent interest, the
debt service comes to about $2000 per U.S. worker each year.
High and rising trade deficits tax economic growth. Each dollar spent on imports,
not matched by a dollar of exports, shifts workers into activities in non-trade
competing industries like department stores and restaurants.
Manufacturers are particularly hard hit by this subsidized competition. Through
recession and recovery, the manufacturing sector has lost 3.8 million jobs since
2000. Following the pattern of past business cycles, the manufacturing sector should
have regained more than 2 million of those jobs, especially given the very strong
productivity growth accomplished in technology-intensive durable goods industries.
Productivity is at least 50 percent higher in industries that export and compete
with imports. By reducing the demand for high-skill and technology-intensive products,
and U.S. made goods and services, the deficit reduces GDP by at least $300 billion
a year or about $2000 for each worker.
Longer-term, persistent U.S. trade deficits are a substantial drag on growth.
U.S. import-competing and export industries spend at least three-times the national
average on industrial R&D, and encourage more investments in skills and education
than other sectors of the economy. By shifting employment away from trade-competing
industries, the trade deficit reduces U.S. investments in new methods and products,
and skilled labor.
Cutting the trade deficit in half would boost U.S. GDP growth by one percentage
point a year, and the trade deficits of the last two decades have reduced U.S. growth
by one percentage point a year. That would raise the potential trend rate of growth
from 3 percent to 4 percent, and the additional taxes raised would be enough to
resolve critical issues like social security and health care for the 45 million
Lost growth is cumulative. Thanks to the record trade deficits accumulated over
the last 10 years, the U.S. economy is about $1.5 trillion smaller. This comes
to about $10000 per worker.
The damage grows larger each month, as the Bush Administration and Democratic
Congress dally and ignore the corrosive consequences of the trade deficit.
Peter Morici is a professor at the
University of Maryland School of
Business and former Chief Economist at
the U.S. International Trade Commission.