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PAGE ONE Economics ® International Trade: Making Sense of the Trade Deficit Scott A. Wolla, Ph.D., Senior Economic Education Specialist GLOSSARY Asset: A resource with economic value that an individual, corporation, or country owns with the expectation that it will provide future income. Balance of trade: The difference in value between a country’s exports and imports. Balance of payments: A summary of all the transactions involving goods and services and investment that all individuals, firms, and the government of one nation makes with all of those in all other nations in a given time period. Budget deficit: Government expenditures exceed revenues. Capital and financial account: The section of a nation’s balance of payments that records debt forgiveness by and to foreigners and foreign purchases of assets in the United States and U.S. purchases of assets abroad. “I think there is a clear winner for the most misunderstood economics statistic, and it’s the balance of trade.” —Timothy Taylor, Managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives International trade is important to our economy, and its importance has increased as countries have become more interconnected. But international trade is not without controversy. Many people are alarmed when they hear the United States has a trade deficit. In fact, the U.S. trade deficit for 2015 was $531.5 billion, which was a $23.2 billion increase over 2014.1 Why the concern? Because people usually equate a deficit with failure and a surplus with success. Specifically, they may think that a deficit means U.S. trade policy is flawed and the Unite States is losing jobs to other nations. The trade deficit, however, is more a function of national saving and invest ment decisions than of the fairness of international trade or the success of U.S. firms. Current account: The section of a nation’s balance of payments that records its exports and imports of goods and services, its net investment income, and its net transfers. Physical capital: Goods that have been produced and are used to produce other goods and services. They are used over and over again in the production process. Also called capital goods and capital resources. Real asset: A tangible item that has intrinsic value due to its substance and properties. Trade deficit: The difference that results when the value of a country’s imports exceeds the value of its exports. Trade surplus: The difference that results when the value of a country’s exports exceeds the value of its imports. Transfer: A one-way payment for which no money, good, or service is given or exchanged. November 2016 -10,000 -20,000 Millions of Dollars Financial asset: A contract that states the conditions under which one party (a person or institution) promises to pay another party cash at some point in the future. Trade Balance: Goods and Services, Balance of Payments Basis 0 -30,000 -40,000 -50,000 -60,000 -70,000 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015 Source: US. Bureau of Economic Analysis, US. Bureau of the Census myf.red/g/7xSj fred.stlouisfed.org NOTE: The goods and services deficit in July 2016 was $39.5 billion. SOURCE: FRED®, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/BOPGSTB; accessed October 3, 2016. Tracking Trade International trade includes all of the buying and selling of goods, ser vices, and assets between persons, businesses, and governments in one country with persons, businesses, and governments in other countries. All Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis | research.stlouisfed.org PAGE ONE Economics® of the individual transactions are added together to cre ate national trade statistics. To understand what causes a trade deficit, it is essential to understand a bit about the accounting of interna tional trade. All of a country’s transactions with the world are summarized in what is called its balance of payments. If we simplify a bit, all of the transactions in the balance of payments can be classified into one of two subaccounts: 1) The current account: The largest part of this account is the country’s trade in goods and services with all other countries. When net exports are posi tive (when exports exceed imports), the country has a trade surplus. When net exports are negative (when imports exceed exports), the country has a trade deficit. 2) The capital and financial account: This account includes all of the country’s trade in assets with all other countries. There are two types of assets: real assets and financial assets. Investment in real assets, for example, might include foreign investment in a factory in the United States or U.S. investment in a foreign factory. Financial assets include stocks, cor porate bonds, and U.S. government bonds. People invest in real and financial assets with the aim of “making money”—they hope to earn interest, divi dends, profits, and/or capital gains in the future. When foreign investors buy more U.S. assets than Americans buy foreign assets, there is a surplus on the capital and financial account. That is, there is a net inflow of funds on the capital and financial account. When Americans buy more foreign assets than foreigners buy U.S. assets, there is a deficit on the capital and financial account. That is, there is a net outflow of funds on the capital and financial account. The Balancing Act The balance of payments must balance—a deficit in one of the accounts must be offset by a surplus in the other account. So, when the current account is added to the capital and financial account, it equals zero. You see, dollars that leave the U.S. to buy foreign goods, services, or assets find their way back to the U.S. economy to pur chase U.S. goods, services, and assets. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis | research.stlouisfed.org 2 Current Account + Capital and Financial Account = 0 For example, suppose a U.S. firm buys $10 million (in U.S. dollars) of Chinese goods to sell to American con sumers. This transaction is recorded on the current account as –$10 million (a negative number) because the money is paid to the Chinese firm. If there were no other transactions, the United States would have a $10 million deficit on the current account. But the Chinese firm now has $10 million to spend. How they spend that money will determine on which account the transaction is recorded. If they purchase U.S. goods and services, the transaction will be recorded on the current account; if they invest in U.S. real or financial assets, the transaction will be recorded on the capital account. So it could go something like this: Case 1: The Chinese firm spends the $10 million on U.S. goods and services. In this case, it is counted as a U.S. export and recorded on the current account as $10 million (a positive number). This transaction offsets the $10 million in imports on the current account and results in balanced trade. (See the boxed insert on page 3.) Case 2: The Chinese firm invests $10 million in U.S. assets. In this case, the firm has decided to save the money (not spend on current consumption) by invest ing it in the United States. This $10 million investment in assets is recorded as $10 million on the capital and financial account and creates a surplus for the United States on that account. (See the boxed insert on page 3.) The surplus on the capital and financial account exactly offsets the deficit on the current account, but the trade deficit remains.2 Focusing on the trade deficit—and thus primarily on goods and services—can be misleading because it ignores the larger balance of payments. Investment in U.S. assets should be considered as well. The U.S. economy benefits from both types of transactions: The foreign purchase of U.S. goods and services generates revenue for American firms and employment for workers. Foreign investment in real and financial assets allow firms to expand; and foreign investment in U.S. government bonds helps to finance the national debt. So, going back to our exam ple, whether the $10 million that was spent on imports returns as current spending to purchase goods and ser vices or as investment in real or financial assets (which PAGE ONE Economics® Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis | research.stlouisfed.org 3 Case 1: Balance of Payments Current Account Capital and Financial Account ($10M exports – $10M imports) + 0 = 0 = 0 Result = Balanced Trade Case 2: Balance of Payments Current Account –$10M imports Capital and Financial Account + $10M U.S. financial assets Result = Trade Deficit NOTE: M, million. In both Case 1 and Case 2, the balance of payments is balanced because when the current account is added to the capital and finance account, the sum is zero. For Case 2, however, in spite of balanced payments, there is a trade deficit. leaves a $10 million trade deficit), the transaction bene fits the U.S. economy.3 What Causes a Trade Deficit? It is tempting to blame the trade deficit on factors that might influence international trade. Some have suggested the current trade deficit is a result of U.S. firms produc ing inferior goods that are not competitive in the global economy. Others have suggested that trade policy is flawed, implying that U.S. firms are the victims of unfair foreign competition. Finally, some suggest currency manipulation by foreign countries has put U.S. exporters at a disadvantage. Economists, however, attribute the trade deficit to national saving and investment decisions. Trade and exchange rate policies can affect these deci sions but not as much as people might think. In practice, they have a minor influence. The Role of National Saving and Investment A growing economy requires investment in (i) physical capital (real assets) to increase worker productivity and (ii) stocks and bonds (financial assets) to finance business expansion. In addition, governments often borrow to finance budget deficits by issuing government bonds. In a closed economy (an economy that doesn’t interact with any other economies), investment can occur only to the extent that the firms and citizens in that economy save. Imagine an economy that needs $100 million of investment to maintain its current level of economic growth. In a closed economy, citizens and firms would have to save $100 million, which would be invested in capital to produce more in the future. That is, after pay ing taxes and spending on their current consumption, the country would need $100 million to invest in real and financial assets. If less saving occurred, however, the amount available to invest would shrink by that amount. Thus, in a closed economy, domestic saving is equal to domestic investment. Of course, the U.S. economy is an open economy, which means it trades with other countries. That trading includes goods and services and assets. In this way, the total level of U.S. investment can exceed the savings of U.S. citizens—the difference is made up by foreigners invest ing in the United States. So, for example, $100 million of U.S. investment might include $50 million of domestic investment and $50 million of foreign investment. In the United States, the current account deficit (the trade deficit) is offset by the financial and capital account sur plus, which is made possible by a net inflow of foreign investment. This is what allows total domestic investment to be greater than domestic saving. Of course, when the U.S. borrows money (by selling corporate or government bonds), or sells claims on future output (by selling assets), it is trading off more consumption today for less con sumption in the future. Because international trade includes more than goods and services, when economists are asked about the trade PAGE ONE Economics® deficit, they often discuss national saving and investment rather than only imports of goods and services. By defi nition, if Americans saved more (by spending less), the trade deficit would be smaller. While Americans save little (relatively speaking), foreign savers have found the United States an attractive place to invest. Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke attributed the trade deficit to a “global savings glut” in which foreigners with excess savings are drawn to invest in U.S. assets because the U.S. economy offers appealing investment opportuni ties.4 As such, the low American saving rate, and the inflow of foreign investment seeking opportunity, has pushed up the trade deficit. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis | research.stlouisfed.org 4 Notes 1 U.S. Census Bureau. “Annual Trade Highlights.” Accessed September 28, 2016; https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/highlights/annual.html. 2 It is common to equate the current account balance and the balance of trade, although they are not exactly synonyms. 3 Economists debate the potential effects of running trade deficits over long periods, but in the short-run the transactions provide benefits. 4 Bernanke, Ben S. “The Global Saving Glut and the U.S. Current Account Deficit.” Presented at the Virginia Association of Economists, Richmond, VA, April 14, 2005; http://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/speeches/2005/200503102/. Conclusion In general, the United States imports more goods and services than it exports, resulting in a trade deficit, which is the biggest part of the current account. People often assume that a surplus is good and a deficit is bad, but it is not that simple. The net outflow of funds on the goods and services side of the ledger (the current account) is offset by the net inflow of funds on the assets side of the ledger (the financial and capital account). Because the two accounts must offset each other (as a matter of accounting), if Americans saved more, the trade deficit would be smaller. As such, the U.S. trade deficit says more about U.S. national and global saving than trade policy. n Page One Economics® and Page One Economics®: Focus on Finance provide informative, accessible essays on current events in economics and personal finance as well as accompanying teacher editions and lesson plans for middle school and high school/college. The essays and lesson plans are published January through May and September through December. Please visit our website and archives http://research.stlouisfed.org/pageone-economics/ for more information and resources. © 2016, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve System. PAGE ONE Economics® Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis | research.stlouisfed.org 5 Name___________________________________ Period_______ Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Page One Economics ®: “International Trade: Making Sense of the Trade Deficit” After reading the article, answer the following questions: 1. Explain the difference between the current account and the capital and financial account in the balance of payments. 2. What is a trade deficit? 3. Assume a U.S. firm buys (imports) $5 million (in U.S. dollars) of foreign goods. That transaction by itself increases the trade deficit by $5 million. But, the $5 million will flow back to the United States to purchase either (i) U.S. goods and services or (ii) U.S. assets. • • How does the way the $5 million comes back to the United States determine whether there will be balanced trade or a trade deficit? How does the U.S. economy benefit from either transaction (the foreign purchase of U.S. goods and services [exports] or the purchase of U.S. assets)? 4. How does the “global savings glut” help explain the trade deficit?