An interesting economic tidbit – trade deficit

A relatively small economic news item is worth noting given the amount of attention given by the president. In an article by the AP’s Martin Crutsinger entitled “US trade deficit surges in July to 12-year high,” the US trade deficit “surged in July to $63.6 billion, the highest levrl in 12 years…”

Per the article, “the Commerce department reported…the gap between what America buys and sells to foreigners, was 18.9% higher than the June deficit of $53.5 billion. It was the largest monthly deficit since July 2008 during the 2007 – 2009 recession.” The increase was “driven by a record 10.9% increase in imports” with a corresponding “8.1%” fall in exports.

Let that sink in. We are living in unique times with the pandemic. But, the whole world is exposed, not just the US. There are two points to be made.

First, the president has placed tariffs on major trading partners, who responded in kind. As economists have long noted, no one wins a trade war. Buyers just find less costly sources.

Second, America has so woefully handled the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is aghast. With around 4% of the world’s population, the US has around 22% of the global COVID-19 deaths. And, sadly the deaths continue. This truism runs in direct contrast to what the president touted at the RNC.

With other countries less impacted than we are, they can get closer to normal than we can. But, our folks can still buy from home. So, these numbers are not a surprise. As with any issue, the only way to solve a problem is to admit it exists.

The biggest lie – “I created this economy”

The incumbent president likes to take credit for all things good and blame others for all things bad. This is true regardless of the extent of his role in the outcome. He boasts that he created this great economy before the pandemic and will help us get back to it. Although the economy continued to do well, to say he created it is not truthful. Given his loud chest beating on this one issue, it qualifies as his biggest lie, although other lies are further afield from the truth.

When he took the oath to his office in January, 2017, the US was on its third longest economic growth period in its history at 91 consecutive months of GDP growth. That translates into just longer than 7 1/2 years. It should also be noted for the six previous years, we had 2 million plus in annual job growth and the stock market more than doubled under his predecessor. To Donald Trump’s credit, the economy continued to grow for 36 more months, the stock market continued to climb and job growth continued until it fell with the pandemic. The recession officially started in February of this year.

Now, I wrote during Barack Obama’s presidency that presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. They can provide headwinds and tailwinds, but that is about it. The “headwinds and tailwinds” remark is courtesy of conservative pundit David Brooks. The same goes with the current president. But, if people want to lay wreaths at Trump’s feet for the economy before the pandemic, they must also do the same for Obama. Obama actually inherited an economy in recession due to the housing crisis in late 2007 through mid 2009. He was sworn in January, 2009.

The incumbent president has provided some headwinds and tailwinds to help keep it going, sometimes at the same time. Here is a look at a few of these wind currents:

Tailwinds

The economy got a temporary boost from the December, 2017 tax cut that increased the debt by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. At a time when we should have been decreasing the deficit, we increased it. So, in essence, we borrowed from our future to make our economy a little better for a little while. One economist referred to it as a sugar rush. Before the pandemic, we fell back to growth at the same level as before the election. Overall, this growth period has been the longest, but the rate of growth under both presidents has lagged other periods. It has been a slow and steady climb, again before the recession caused by the pandemic.

Cutting through some regulations also provided some stimulus for businesses, but as noted below, these will cause future headwinds. People often mix bureaucracy with regulations. We need to constantly review regulations to see if they are working and how they can be improved or rescinded, if need be. So, regulations are not necessarily bad. Bloating bureaucracy is what we must guard against. I recall a story of Erskine Bowles, who eventually became Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. When Bowles headed the Small Business Administration, he reduced the application from 42 pages to one.

Headwinds

We must guard against debt. Dipping into debt to stimulate the economy dragging from COVID-19 is one thing, but the 2017 tax cut needed not be so severe that it increased debt. Note, many said this before it was passed, not just now. By the end of this decade, we should be beyond $40 trillion in debt on an annual revenue budget (during 10/18 – 9/19 FY) that is currently just less than $3.5 trillion, with expenses around $4.5 trillion. With the pandemic stimulus, the annual 2019-20 deficit will be around $3.7 trillion. Eventually, interest cost will rival the biggest budget items if we do not remedy this growing problem. Some poor president and congress will have to make some hard decisions as revenue is too low and costs are too high.

Letting polluting industries skate on fewer regulations will come back to haunt us. Chemical spills, polluted water and nuclear waste causes major environment concerns to people, animals, carbon eating trees/ plants and food crops. Even the best of developers and manufacturers would like someone else to pay for their shortcuts. Industries go to great pains to hide their dirty laundry. The laundry is there, it just needs to be more cleaned up. Relying on a company’s altruism is not an effective means of controlling pollution.

Tariffs on all partners cause echo tariffs from our trading partners. And, no one wins a tariff war, regardless of what the president might say. As we have become harder to deal with, buyers and sellers find other markets. The increase in farmer bankruptcies has been significant since the tariff wars started, increasing dramatically over previous levels. One farmer said, other countries sought out other sources of farm goods, so we lost a future pipeline for sales. And, just today, I read in conservative George Will’s editorial that trust in America to do the right thing has fallen to 24% and preference to America as a trading partner has fallen.

One of the business lessons I learned over the years, is if you become difficult to work with, your customers and clients will be forced to find other providers of services and products. It does not get any plainer than that. One of the best things a president can do is create new markets – Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, and Obama all were good at creating new avenues for trade. It is not surprising that Clinton had the most jobs created on his watch, with Reagan having the most jobs as a Republican president. And, Nixon for all his corruption, should be remembered well for opening up relationships with China. Trump should get credit for renewing a refined NAFTA agreement, but he hindered his efforts to compete with China when he pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership which went on without us and backtracking on deals with Cuba, Iran and the Paris Climate Change Accord, has placed the US at odds with others.

Global trade builds revenue. A country cannot shrink to greatness. And, what we are seeing today is other countries not wanting the hassles of dealing with the US as much as before. And, this is before the mishandling of the pandemic that has left the world aghast.

Fiddling with Tinkertoys

George Will, a long-time conservative voice, penned an editorial called “Trade war shows the reality of ‘America First’ in action” that should be required reading. Three quotes from the article will give the gist of his concerns. The title of this post will reveal itself in the final quote.

“The Wall Street Journal reports that US farmers are purchasing fewer farm machines – (John) Deere’s profits from this business are down 24% from a year ago – partly because farmers’ incomes have suffered as a result of the tit-for-tat trade spat that Trump started with China…Some good news for John Deere might be ominous news for US farmers: Equipment sales to Brazil and Argentina are up, perhaps partly because China has increased purchases from those nations’ farmers, who are American farmers’ competitors.”

“The Financial Times recalls that ‘hundreds of US companies and trade associations said in a joint communique in June that the proposed duties would cause the loss of two million jobs and reduce US economic output by 1%.’ ….Hence, Trump’s tariffs make US goods more expensive, thereby dampening US consumer activity.”

The final quote contrasts the up and down tariffs to a similar fiddling in 1937-38 which caused a “recession within (the) Depression.” During that period, capital went on strike flinching from the unknown. Will notes the similarity to Trump’s trade war, “They fiddle with global supply chains, as though the world economy is a Tinkertoy that they can pull apart and reassemble with impunity.”

In short, when the supply and sales chains ¬†are unsettled, companies find other avenues. Using the first quote as an example, China started buying product from farmers in other countries like Brazil and Argentina while “cancelling the purchase of almost 500,000 metric tons of soybeans from US farmers.”

Tariffs are unwieldy tools that have much greater consequences than intended. Using a tennis analogy, they are an unforced error. The tariffs have forced companies to find other options. And, when the tariffs are waived at some point, it is hard to put those Tinkertoys back in the same slots.