Trade Deficits and the Dollar

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Tuesday, 14 May 2013 08:48

In prior posts I have often referred to the run-up in the dollar engineered by the Clinton-Rubin-Summers team in the 1990s as being the root of all evils. The point is that their over-valued dollar policy led to a large trade deficit. The only way the demand lost as a result of the trade deficit (people spending their money overseas rather than here) could be offset was with asset bubbles.

To fill this demand gap, the Clinton crew gave us the stock bubble in the 1990s and the Bush team gave us the housing bubble in the last decade. In both cases the bubbles crashed with disastrous consequences, the latter more than the former. (It took us almost 4 years to replace the jobs lost in the 2001 recession, so that downturn was not trivial either.)

Anyhow, my take away from this story is that, using the advanced economics from Econ 101, we need to get the dollar down. I have made this point in the past and readers have often commented that trade does not appear to be responding as would be predicted from a falling dollar. I would argue otherwise. The graph below shows the non-oil trade deficit measured as a share of GDP against the real value of the dollar.

non-oil-trade-deficit-and-dollar

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Federal Reserve Board 

This picture looks pretty much like the textbook story. The dollar has fallen nearly back to its 1995 level and the deficit as a share of GDP has fallen almost back to is 1995-1997 level as well. (There are lags, so trade does not adjust immediately to changes in the dollar's value.) Before anyone starts jumping up and down about pulling oil out of the picture, let me explain.

Oil prices have more than quadrupled over this period causing us to have a much larger deficit from oil imports. (Sorry, I have not deducted oil exports because they were not available from the same table.) Demand for oil is relatively inelastic. This means that when oil prices go up, if nothing else changed, we would expect our trade deficit to rise as the increase in the price of oil more than offsets the decline in quantity.

The textbook response to the increase in oil prices and the rise in the trade deficit would be that the additional outflow of dollars would cause a further decline in the value of the dollar. This decline in the dollar leads to reduction in imports and an increase in exports, which effectively allows the country to pay for higher priced oil.

In other words, if we followed the textbook story, we should expect to see a somewhat lower valued dollar today than in 1995 as a result of higher oil prices. This would cause us to have a reduced deficit, or even trade surplus, on non-oil products. This would mean that the dollar has to fall somewhat more than it already has in order to bring our trade deficit back to its mid-90s level.

It looks to me like the intro textbook story is still doing pretty well.