Yesterday’s release of the December and full-year 2017 U.S. trade figures means that there will be lots of detailed data to mine for the next week or two. But the new numbers, and the press coverage, also create a great opportunity to dispel one of the leading myths surrounding the impact of trade – and especially trade deficits – on the U.S. economy.
The myth was nicely stated in the Associated Press coverage of the new trade report – which matters a lot because the AP is one of the leading sources of news for both the nation and the world. According to reporter Paul Wiseman,
“[W]hen it comes to trade, there’s a flip-side to good times [touted by President Trump and others]: ‘A stronger economy will draw in more imports’ as confident consumers seek out foreign products, says Bernard Baumohl, chief economist at the Economic Outlook Group.
“Recent history shows that the trade deficit tends to grow when times are good and shrink when they turn bad. The trade gap hit a record $762 billion in 2006 toward the end of a six-year economic expansion. It dropped to $384 billion in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession as American consumers hunkered down and bought fewer imports.
“‘If the goal is to reduce the trade deficit, we know how to do that — just send our economy crashing and we won’t be able to afford to import as much’ says Bryan Riley, director of the conservative National Taxpayers Union’s Free Trade Initiative.”
This relationship holds more often than not. But the notion unmistakably conveyed by Wiseman and especially by the supposed authorities he cites – that it always holds – just doesn’t bear scrutiny.
The U.S. Census Bureau, which tracks the trade deficit, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (like Census, another division of the Commerce Department), which tracks economic growth, both conveniently provide the historical statistics anyone needs should he or she show some actual curiosity about such claims. And what these figures show is that, for two and half decades – from 1961 till the early 1990s – the U.S. economy regularly managed to grow (and often quite nicely) in years when the trade balance improved. This includes years when a surplus increased, a deficit shrunk, or when a deficit turned into a surplus.
All told, such trade balance improvement took place thirteen times during this period: 1961, 1963, 1964, 1970, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1991
And of these 13 years, the economy grew in nine on an inflation-adjusted basis (the most widely looked at measure): 1961, 1963, 1964, 1970, 1973, 1979, 1981, 1988, and 1990.
Moreover, even though improving trade balances (specifically, falling deficits) have been rarer since, they haven’t been unknown. This development took place in 1995, 2007, 2009, and 2012. And of these years, the economy grew in real terms in all except 2009.
What’s been seen more seldom – though not “never” – is a year-to-year speed-up in growth while the trade balance improves. But this combination has been seen five times since 1960: in 1964, 1973, 1981, 1988, and 2012. For good measure, the trade surplus expanded in 1961, and after-inflation growth remained at its previous-year level of 2.6 percent.
Nor does the picture change much when you look at the annual changes in the inflation-adjusted trade balance. From 1961 through the early 1990s, this trade balance improved in 13 years – the same number as that for the current-dollar trade balances, though the specific list is slightly different. These years were: 1963, 1964, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1979, 1980, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1991
In ten of those years, the economy grew: 1961, 1963, 1964, 1970, 1973, 1979, 1987, 1988, 1989, and 1990
Since the early 1990s, the real trade balance has improved six times: 1995, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013. And it remained roughly the same in 2011. In all of those years – except for 2008 and 2009 – the real economy expanded.
Re the accelerating growth criterion, through the early 1990s, it was met in three of the ten years during which the economy expanded and the trade balance improved. In two other years, the trade balance improved and economic growth held steady (1962 and 1987).
More recently, since the early 1990s, the economic grew in price-adjusted terms in four years when the trade balance improved. In addition, the trade balance barely budged (for the worse) in another growth year: 2011.
A bigger difference comes in terms of accelerating growth – an improving real trade balance has coincided with a growth speed-up only once during this period: 2012.
Now a skeptic could (correctly) observe that during the 1960s and 1970s, trade was considerably less important to the economy. At the same time, this observation also means that American economic policymakers have failed to meet the crucial challenge of helping the economy sustain healthy growth as it’s steadily – and sometimes rapidly – internationalized.
But the paramount point is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, there’s no inherent reason why the economy’s trade position should worsen when it grows. And you can indeed look it up.