Has Anyone Heard of the Trade Deficit?

Print
Saturday, 12 January 2013 09:25

It seems not, since neither the NYT nor the Washington Post seemed to think that the $6.6 billion jump in the monthly trade deficit that Census Bureau reported on Friday was worth mentioning. Fans of arithmetic (a tiny minority among DC policy types) like to point out that a large trade deficit implies negative national savings. In other words, if we have a trade deficit then by definition the United States as a whole has a negative saving rate.

This means that we either must have budget deficits (negative public savings) or negative private savings, or both. There is no way around this fact. There is now a holy jihad in progress against the budget deficit in Washington, which means that all right thinking people don't want to our negative national savings to mean negative public saving.

The implication would then be that we want negative private saving. This could come through an investment boom, but only believers in Santa Claus think that investment is likely to expand much as a share of GDP. It is not easy to produce large increases in investment and we never have in the whole post-war period. So even though Serious People in Washington might talk about some huge uptick in investment, serious people don't believe it.

This means that the only way to balance a large trade deficit is with very low household savings, as we had during the years of the stock and housing bubbles when ephemeral wealth lead to a consumption boom. That sounds like a great idea, right?

So that's where the arithmetic gets you if we have a large trade deficit as the Census Bureau reported on Friday. The public should care about this and so should the newspapers that purport to inform us.

 

Addendum: More on Accounting Identities

In the comments and e-mails readers have asked me about accounting identities. The answer is yes, they are incredibly important. If you don't eat, drink and sleep these identities, then you do not understand the economy, end of story. Identities are by definition true, there is no way around them.

I have heard policy types tell me that they don't like accounting identities. That's fine, I may not be very happy that I will be one year older a year from now if I am still alive. Nonetheless, both are inescapably true. If you don't understand how the identities work, then you don't understand the economy. Here's a brief primer that may be helpful. You can find a discussion in every intro textbook as well.

If you find this too complicated or not worth your time, just remember, you do not understand how the economy works. Got it?