US current account trade deficit drops 19.2 percent in Q3

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Let me begin by thanking Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen and members of the subcommittee for inviting me to testify on the growing U. No aspect of American trade is talked about more and understood less than the trade deficit. It has been cited as conclusive proof of unfair trade barriers abroad and a lack of competitiveness among U.

It has been blamed for destroying jobs and dragging down economic growth. None of these charges are true. The most important economic truth to grasp about the U. And those flows are determined by how much the people of a nation save and invest - two variables that are only marginally affected by trade policy.

By definition, the balance of payments always equals zero - that is, what a country buys or gives away in the global market must equal what it sells or receives - because of the exchange nature of trade. People, whether trading across a street or across an ocean, will generally not give up something without receiving something of comparable value in return. The double-entry nature of international bookkeeping means that, for a nation as a whole, the value of what it gives to the rest of the world will be matched by the value of what it receives.

The balance of payments accounts capture two sides of an equation: The current account side of the ledger covers the flow of goods, services, investment income, and uncompensated transfers such as foreign aid and remittances across borders by private citizens. Within the current account, the trade balance includes goods and services only, and the merchandise trade balance reflects goods only. On the other side, the capital account includes the buying and selling of investment assets such as real estate, stocks, bonds, and government securities.

The necessary balance between the current account and the capital account implies a direct connection between the trade balance on the one hand and the savings and investment balance on the other. That relationship is captured in the simple formula:. Thus, a nation that saves more than it invests, such as Japan, will export its excess savings in the form of net foreign investment.

In other words, it must run a capital account deficit. The money sent abroad as investment will return to the country as payments for its exports, which will be in excess of what the country imports, creating a corresponding trade surplus. A nation that invests more than it saves - the United States, for example - must import capital from abroad.

In other words, it must run a capital account surplus. The transmission belt that links the capital and current accounts is the exchange rate. As more net investment flows into the United States, demand rises for the dollars needed to buy U. As the dollar grows stronger relative to other currencies, U. Falling exports and rising imports adjust the trade balance until it matches the net inflow of capital. In effect, foreign investors will outbid foreign consumers for limited U.

Of course, most day-to-day currency transactions are not directly related to trade, but demand for U. Germany in the early s offers a case study of how this mechanism works. What caused the switch was the huge increase in domestic investment needed to rebuild formerly communist eastern Germany. An increase in domestic investment repatriated a huge amount of German savings that had been flowing abroad, thus reducing the amount of German marks in the foreign currency markets and raising their value relative to other currencies.

The causal link between investment flows, exchange rates, and the balance of trade explains why protectionism cannot cure a trade deficit. If Congress were to implement that awful idea, American imports would probably decline as intended. But fewer imports would mean fewer dollars flowing into the international currency markets, raising the value of the dollar relative to other currencies. The stronger dollar would make U. Exports would fall and imports would rise until the trade balance matched the savings and investment balance.

Without a change in aggregate levels of savings and investment, the trade deficit would remain largely unaffected. All the new tariff barriers would accomplish would be to reduce the volume of both imports and exports, leaving Americans poorer by depriving them of additional gains from the specialization that accompanies expanding international trade.

Government export subsidies would be equally ineffective in reducing the trade deficit. Partly in response to the Asian financial crisis, President Clinton proposed in his federal budget an increase in subsidies to U. By allowing certain exporters to lower their prices on sales abroad, the subsidies would stimulate foreign demand, but the greater demand for dollars needed to buy U.

The stronger dollar, in turn, would raise the effective price of U. Total exports, and hence the trade deficit, would remain unchanged.

Subsidies only divert exports from less favored to more favored sectors. For example, a higher tariff would presumably raise government revenue through additional customs duties, thus reducing the budget deficit or increasing the surplus and reducing the need to borrow from abroad - resulting in a smaller trade deficit. But a tariff can also stimulate investment in the protected industry, increasing demand for foreign capital and leading to a larger trade deficit.

After surveying the various theories, Labor Department economist Robert C. Another temptation is to intervene by intentionally devaluing the national currency in the foreign exchange market.

A falling currency can stimulate exports and dampen demand for imports, thus reducing a trade deficit. However, a cheaper currency also means that asset values in that country drop in foreign currency terms, attracting foreign investment flows that increase the capital account and the corresponding current account deficit.

And eventually the weaker currency feeds back into the domestic economy in the form of higher overall prices, that is, inflation. One way to reduce the trade deficit would be for Americans to save more. A larger pool of national savings would reduce demand for foreign capital; with less foreign capital flowing into the country, the gap between what we buy from abroad and what we sell would shrink.

A related way to cut the trade deficit is for the government to borrow less. The inflow of foreign capital prompted by the budget deficit allowed Americans to buy even more goods and services than they sold in the international marketplace. Another, less appealing way to reduce the trade deficit is to reduce investment.

That occurs more or less naturally during times of recession, when business confidence falls and companies cut back on expansion plans. As Americans consume and invest less, demand for imports and foreign capital falls along with the trade deficit. That explains why the smallest U. In fact, the U. That is exactly what happened to Mexico in Perhaps NAFTA critics who believe our bilateral trade deficit with Mexico is such a terrible development would have preferred that the U. Of course, American workers would have suffered, but it would have done wonders for our bilateral trade balance.

An understanding of the all-important role of investment flows should liberate trade policy from its obsessive focus on the current account balance. The trade deficit is not a function of trade policy, and therefore trade policy cannot be a tool for reducing the trade deficit.

Misunderstanding of the U. The following are among the most common and harmful myths surrounding the trade deficit. Countries with which the United States runs large deficits are not characteristically more protectionist toward U.

Canada and Mexico, two countries that are very open to U. Americans face a common external tariff when exporting to members of the European Union, yet some EU members the Netherlands and Belgium are among the top surplus trade partners, and others Germany and Italy are among the top deficit partners. Trade policy cannot explain those differences.

Blaming bilateral deficits exclusively on differences in trade policy once again misses the reality of investment flows. In Japan, high domestic savings rates provide a pool of capital that far exceeds domestic investment opportunities. That allowed a tsunami of Japanese savings to flow across the Pacific to the United States, where it could draw a more favorable rate of return. Despite the common perception, Japan was actually more open to U. The same cannot be said for our bilateral deficit with China.

Despite substantial progress in the last 10 years, its barriers to imports remain relatively high. Those barriers partly explain the bilateral surplus China runs with the United States, but the primary explanation is more benign: We like to consume the products China sells. China similarly runs bilateral surpluses with Japan and Europe for this reason. A rising dollar caused by increased demand for U. If the United States were to impose higher tariffs aimed at imports from China say, by revoking its Normal Trade Relations statusthat too might reduce the bilateral deficit, but not the overall U.

Higher tariffs against Chinese imports would merely shift some of the bilateral trade deficit to other countries while raising prices for American consumers. Since the Cuomo Commission report, the United States has enjoyed seven consecutive years of healthy, noninflationary growth along with historically large and rising trade deficits. Meanwhile, Japan and Germany, the two export-driven juggernauts that were supposed to eclipse the United States as economic powers in the s, have struggled with slow growth and rising unemployment.

Industrial production in the United States has climbed steadily in the past two decades during a time of historically large U. Between andwhen the U. The same story has repeated itself in the s. Between and the annual U. Meanwhile, since total industrial production in the United States has surged by 24 percent and manufacturing production by 27 percent. In Japan during the same period, industrial production has grown by only 8 percent, and in Germany growth has been less than 1 percent.

America runs substantial bilateral trade deficits with both countries. Between andU. By any definition, the ability of American industry to compete in the world has not suffered because of a rising trade deficit. The experience of the s and s points in quite the opposite direction. A study by the Institute for Policy Studies in January predicts that the larger trade deficit caused by the East Asian financial meltdown will cost the U. Columnist Patrick Buchanan, when running unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination inoffered his own, back-of-the-envelope estimate of jobs lost because of the trade gap: The total number of jobs in the United States is largely determined by fundamental macroeconomic factors such as labor-supply growth and monetary policy.

Trade with other nations does not reduce the number of jobs, but it does quicken the pace at which production shifts from one sector to another.

Trade, like new technology, lowers demand for some jobs while raising demand for others.

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But it was global trade and finance — the key forces shaping the economic outlook and financial market conditions with which central bankers grapple — that took center stage. On the effects of the globalization of trade in goods and services, the discussion emphasized the costs to domestic employment, wages, and inequality. On the finance side, international capital flows and global imbalances were the primary focus.

And here, the old adage applies: For most of the last four decades, the United States has been a net importer of capital from the rest of the world. From the start of the previous century until the early s, the US seldom recorded a deficit on its external current account see chart.

When saving exceeds investment, the result is a current-account surplus, and the economy becomes a lender to the rest of the world. After it emerged as a world power at the end of World War I, the US became a net supplier of capital to the rest of the world.

In , the economist C. Fred Bergsten was among the first to point out that global imbalances had begun to climb toward uncharted territory. Japan, widely viewed as a developing country only a generation ago, has become by far the largest creditor — and its massive buildup of foreign assets will continue expanding rapidly as far ahead as one can predict.

At around the same time, South Korea temporarily emerged as a key culprit behind the US trade deficit. The same charge has dogged China, which, with its spectacular export-led growth, record official purchases of US assets, and fixed or semi-fixed exchange rate, today continues to dominate discussion of global imbalances. And, indeed, there is some evidence to support claims that currency manipulation and unfair trading practices have been key drivers, at least over some sub-periods.

Furthermore, despite some moderation in the first quarter of this year, private capital flight from China continues. While Germany is singled out on account of its size, it is by no means unique among the advanced economies in maintaining a sizable external surplus. So do other Asian economies. The US has run chronic current-account deficits for almost two generations. Pointing the finger at surplus countries is getting old. In the discussion at Jackson Hole, someone asked whether international pressure could be exerted on the surplus countries to spend more and save less.

When the same question was put to the US in its era of surpluses at the end of World War II, when the concern was a global shortage of dollars, it was dismissed unequivocally. The US has recorded external surpluses in only three of the 38 years since Tax policy has favored debt accumulation by households at the expense of saving, and a significant productivity slowdown is affecting US international competitiveness.

But the fact that it is easy does not make it a good idea. Reinhart , Minos A. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

We are using cookies to give you the best experience on our site. By continuing to use our site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Global Agenda Future of Economic Progress Global Economic Imbalances The US, its current-account deficit and the rest of the world For most of the last four decades, the United States has been a net importer of capital from the rest of the world.

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