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As RealityChek regulars know, my biggest fear about the U.S. and global economies concerns the likelihood that rebounding, trade-centered current account imbalances around the world will lead to an international financial and economic crisis just as they did in the previous decade. The big difference next time, of course, would be that major central banks would not have already poured trillions of dollars and yen and euros worth into major economies in a vain attempt to promote historically adequate growth.

So it’s great to see these concerns coming from a new source. As reported by Bloomberg last week, on top of the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. Treasury, and, as I’ve reported, leading academic economists) a leading analyst from the HSBC bank is expressing comparable worries.

To review quickly, the idea is that the record trade and broader payments shortfalls run by the United States in the “aughts” sent so much foreign capital flooding into the country that most incentives to use these funds prudently vanished. And with years of deregulation and lax regulation freeing American finance companies to concoct ever more reckless schemes to deliver acceptable returns in the face of this yield-depressing glut, much of the economy turned into a gigantic, housing- and consumption-fueled Ponzi Scheme.

I’d add three extra points. First, the offshored U.S. manufacturing production behind so much of the nation’s trade deficits greatly reduced the number of genuinely productive investments that the American financial sector could contemplate. Meanwhile, the burgeoning narrative that manufacturing was increasingly passe for an advanced economy like the United States kneecapped any expectations that adequate productive investment opportunities would return any time soon.

Second, the neglect of productive domestic sectors like manufacturing played a major role in plunging the United States into the secular stagnation trap so cogently described by former Treasury Secretary and Harvard economist Larry Summers. For an economy lacking adequate productive ways to foster growth – and especially a democracy – will be continually and sorely tempted to spur short-term growth by inflating dangerous credit bubbles.

Third, America’s proposed new trade deals, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are likeliest to boost U.S. trade deficits further. Their most economically dynamic signatories depend heavily on net exporting for growth. Their foreign market-opening measures are either inherently difficult to enforce or subject to dispute-resolution processes stacked in favor of export-dependent defendants. And America’s remaining trade barriers are easy to identify and will be much easier for the other signatories to eviscerate. Indeed, TPP is modeled on the bilateral U.S. trade agreement with Korea, under which the American merchandise deficit has skyrocketed.

The analysis by HSBC’s Janet Henry doesn’t apparently go into this degree of trade policy detail. But it makes two especially disturbing points of its own. First, as made clear by this chart, the global imbalances in toto are back to their bubble-decade levels – and then some.

True, the American shortfall is down since peak bubble bloat. But it’s up since the current economic recovery began. Moreover, the historic sluggishness of the current expansion is undoubtedly keeping the current account and trade gaps down.

Second, the chart shows that the biggest source of resurgent current account surpluses is “Other Asia” – which of course includes Japan and other important TPP members. China’s chronic surplus hasn’t recovered quite as fast, but TPP could change that as well, since its inadequate rules of origin give outside countries a wide open backdoor into the new trade zone.

As strongly suggested by his renewed TPP push, President Obama either doesn’t know about these developments and relationships, or doesn’t care. If he succeeds in a lame duck session of Congress, or if his successor fails to heed the glaringly obvious trade policy lessons, Americans may look back on their current secular stagnation as an economic golden age.

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