The trade deficit is a lot smaller than it was a decade ago: Over the 12 months ending in June, according to data released last week by the Commerce Department, the U.S. imported about $531 billion more in goods and services than it exported. In 2006, the deficit was $762 billion. Those numbers aren’t adjusted for inflation; if they were, the decline would be even more pronounced.
This narrowing of the trade gap does not, however, signal a U.S. manufacturing renaissance—at least not yet. The two main reasons the deficit has declined are that (1) U.S. oil production has boomed and (2) U.S. services exports have continued to outpace imports. There was a time when trade deficits were big news. These days, although President Donald Trump talks about them occasionally, they generally aren’t. That’s got to be partly because they’re not setting records anymore. It also might be fatigue—so many alarms were raised about trade in the U.S. back in the 1980s and 1990s that people got a little tired of hearing about it. According to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, which covers books published through 2000, use of the term “trade deficit” peaked in 1989. Google Trends, which tracks use of search terms since 2004, shows a long decline for “trade deficit” after that and a modest resurgence starting last year. The increasing sophistication (and financialization) of popular discussion of economic matters may also play a role: Use of the search term “current account,” which is the trade balance with cross-border income flows added in, has been on the rise since about 2009.
Still, a lot is lost in economic discussion when we ignore trade flows. People like Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro who argue that every penny of the trade deficit subtracts from U.S. gross domestic product growth are, as my Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith explained last year, mistaking an accounting identity for economic reality. But people like University of Georgia economist Jeffrey Dorfman who argue that the trade deficit simply represents the “relative strength and attractiveness of our country” (because a current account deficit must be financed by an equal amount of foreign capital investment in the U.S.) seem to be ignoring a lot of knock-on effects on employment and financial markets that aren’t so great. So trade deficits matter. I’m not entirely clear on how much they matter and why (and I don’t think anyone is), but I do have a lot of fresh data from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau to make charts with. First, that thing about a boom in U.S. oil production affecting the trade balance:
Not counting petroleum products, the U.S. trade deficit in goods is as big as it has ever been (it was down a bit in June, but the trailing-12-months total is at an all-time record). Counting them, it’s well below the highs of the 2000s and has been pretty much flat since 2012. Then there’s the services trade, in which the U.S. has long run a surplus—a surplus that keeps getting bigger:
What are these services that we export? The largest category is actually performed right here in the U.S.: spending by foreigners on travel, including for education. Other biggies include charges for the use of intellectual property, transport, financial services and other business services.
When it comes to trade in goods in the five main end-use categories tracked by the Census Bureau (I’m ignoring a sixth, “other goods,” because who wouldn’t), there are no long-running surpluses. But there have been surpluses most of the time in foods, feeds and beverages:
Meanwhile, automobiles, engines and parts are a long-running generator of big deficits.
The same goes for consumer goods—a catch-all category that is basically all the tangible things consumers buy other than cars and food.
Trade in industrial supplies, which includes petroleum and petroleum products, has seen a shift from big deficits to modest ones as U.S. oil production has increased.
Then there’s capital goods—the machines used in producing things.
I can remember, back in the 1980s and 1990s when everybody was talking about trade deficits, hearing reassurances that at least the U.S. still ran a trade surplus in the big, complicated stuff that really mattered. Well, that stopped being the case after 2000. And since 2014, a significant capital goods trade deficit has opened up. There could be benign explanations: The dollar and the U.S. economy were relatively strong and the global economy pretty weak from 2014 through 2016, which would depress U.S. exports of capital equipment. And if the U.S. really is in the midst of a “reshoring” wave in which manufacturers move production back closer to consumers, they’ll need to be buying lots of equipment for their factories. Still, as someone who came of age in the worrying-about-trade-deficits era, I cannot help but find this ... worrisome.
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