"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
Making Sense of the Trade Deficit
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 United States is losing jobs to other nations. The trade deficit, however, is more a function of national saving and investment decisions than of the fairness of international trade or the success of U.S. firms.
International trade includes all of the buying and selling of goods, services, and assets between persons, businesses, and governments in one country with persons, businesses, and governments in other countries. All of the individual transactions are added together to create national trade statistics.
To understand what causes a trade deficit, it is essential to understand a bit about the accounting of international 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:
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 purchase U.S. goods, services, and assets.
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 consumers. 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.)
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 investing 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 example, whether the $10 million that was spent on imports returns as current spending to purchase goods and services or as investment in real or financial assets (which leaves a $10 million trade deficit), the transaction benefits the U.S. economy.3
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 producing 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 decisions but not as much as people might think. In practice, they have a minor influence.
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 paying 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 investing 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 surplus, 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 consumption in the future.
Because international trade includes more than goods and services, when economists are asked about the trade deficit, they often discuss national saving and investment rather than only imports of goods and services. By definition, 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 opportunities.4 As such, the low American saving rate, and the inflow of foreign investment seeking opportunity, has pushed up the trade deficit.
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.