Harvard Economist Robert Lawrence Asks for an Intro Econ Lesson on Macroeconomics and Trade

Print
Monday, 27 January 2014 20:10

And here at Beat the Press we are happy to oblige, at no charge to Mr. Lawrence. Brad Plumer caught Robert Lawrence claiming that increased oil production in the United States will not reduce the size of the trade deficit.

According to Brad, Lawrence said that the trade deficit is determined by the balance of domestic savings and investment. He then quotes Lawrence:

"Unless you can tell me how the oil boom will change that pattern of savings and investment ... then it's not going to change the trade balance."

Of course we can tell him how the oil boom could change the balance of savings and investment. Let's say that we had $100 billion going out of the country each year to buy oil from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and other foreign countries. This is $100 billion out of the pockets of U.S. consumers. It can be thought as equivalent to $100 billion tax. Consumers will reduce their spending by somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 billion (assume $10 billion of this money would have otherwise been saved) because of this drain from their pocketbooks.

Now suppose that we find some infinite pile of oil underneath Pennsylvania. Instead of sending the $100 billion to foreign countries we send it to oil companies and oil workers in Pennsylvania. While the situation of oil consumers has not changed (we're all still out $100 billion), the money is now in the hands of people who will spend a large portion of it domestically. When they spend this money it will lead to more demand, employment, and output in the United States. (Some of the spending will of course go to imports.)

With higher output, we will also see more savings. If output increases by $100 billion, then savings may increase by around $10 billion. Tax collections will also increase while government spending on programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps will decrease. This will lead to a reduction in the government deficit (i.e. an increase in public savings, on the order of $25-$30 billion). On net, we can expect to see national savings increase in this story by around $35-$40 billion. This would imply a reduction in the trade deficit of roughly this amount.

Since our assignment from Professor Lawrence was simply to show him how increased domestic oil production can increase domestic savings, we have already finished the task. But, it might be helpful to provide him some further education on this topic.

Brad describes Lawrence as saying:

"If we're buying more domestic oil instead of foreign oil, then the dollar will rise and we'll switch to spending on other imported goods."

This is not necessarily true. Many foreign countries, most notably China, have been buying up huge amounts of dollars to hold as reserves. One of their main motivations was to keep the dollar high against their currencies so as to protect their export markets in the United States. If the U.S. is sending fewer dollars abroad to buy oil, then they have to buy fewer dollars to keep a targeted value of their currency against the dollar. This means that other countries may respond to the reduced U.S. purchases of oil by buying up fewer dollars. If this proves to be the case, then there is no reason that the dollar must rise against other currencies.

So there you have it. The United States can reduce its trade deficit through more domestic oil production, as it has to some extent in the last five years. This can be associated with an increase in domestic savings and need not cause a rise in the value of the dollar. One day you may be able to learn these facts at Harvard, but in the meantime, you can get the scoop here at Beat the Press.