WASHINGTON—The U.S. posted its widest monthly trade gap since 2008 in December and a record annual deficit in goods as sturdy economic growth underpinned higher spending by American consumers and businesses.
.. Over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump imposed tariffs on a range of goods that the U.S. imports from other countries, particularly China, in hopes of giving American producers a competitive edge. He publicly lambasted companies that outsourced jobs, renegotiated pacts with major U.S. trade partners like Mexico, Canada and South Korea, and rankled longtime European allies by deeming their steel and aluminum exports a threat to national security.
Still, the trade gap swelled 12% from 2017 to $621 billion. Excluding services that the U.S. sells to foreigners, such as tourism, intellectual property and banking, the deficit grew 10% to $891.3 billion, the largest level on record.
Economists say the shortfall was fueled, ironically, by another Trump administration policy: tax cuts and spending increases that juiced demand from U.S. consumers and businesses at a time when growth in the rest of the world was slowing. Concern that the U.S. economy could overheat prompted the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates four times in 2018, contributing to a strong dollar in the second half of the year that made foreign goods relatively cheap for Americans
As a result, U.S. imports grew 7.5%, while exports increased just 6.3%.
“Higher take-home incomes for households have definitely proven to be very conducive to imports,” said Pooja Sriram, an economist at Barclays. “The outcome has been in almost the opposite direction of what the administration has wanted.”
U.S. imports of consumer goods last year jumped 7.7% to $647.9 billion, fueled in part by a 22% rise in inbound shipments of drugs. Industrial supplies like fuel and crude oil were another driver of the trade gap, with imports rising 13% from 2017 to $575.7 billion.
Highlighting the limitations of Mr. Trump’s trade policies, the goods deficit widened most with China, the U.S.’s largest commercial partner and the main focus of White House efforts. That is partly because Chinese authorities responded to tariffs by drastically scaling back their country’s purchases of key U.S. exports like soybeans, cars and metals, production of which is concentrated in states that Mr. Trump won in the 2016 election.
U.S. goods exports to China fell 7.4% in 2018 to $120.3 billion, while imports from China grew 6.7% to $539.5 billion as Americans increased their purchases of electronics, furniture, toys and other products... But deficits do subtract from gross domestic product, and the widening of the trade shortfall at the end of 2018 was a factor in slower U.S. growth in the fourth quarter... “Trade now looks set to be a more serious drag in the first quarter,” Mr. Hunter said in a note to clients. He estimates annualized GDP growth will slow to just 1.5% in the first three months of 2019, down from 2.6% in the fourth quarter.
Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, noted in a CNN interview that first-quarter growth tends to be relatively weak because of measurement issues and said it could be “very close to zero” if the shutdown persists through March.
“It is true that if we get a typically weak first quarter and then have an extended shutdown, that we could end up with a number that’s very, very low,” Mr. Hassett said. He added that when the government reopens, the economy should recover any lost ground.
.. Mr. Hassett also said he sees the odds of a recession in 2020 at “very, very close to zero.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow told reporters at the White House he’s “not at all concerned” about the shutdown having a negative impact on the economy.
“No one likes the hardship that people are having to shoulder, including myself,” he said. “But I will also say, we are predominantly not a government-run economy. We’re a free-market economy. So when the government reopens…you will see an immediate snapback.”
.. But in an economy powered by spending and investment, which boil down to little more than consumers’ and businesses’ confidence in their future job and growth prospects, an extended shutdown could threaten broader collateral damage. A troubling sign that this risk may be materializing: The University of Michigan’s consumer-sentiment index plunged 7.7% this month from December to the lowest level since Mr. Trump was elected.
“Federal employees will receive their back pay, but that doesn’t mean that the businesses they patronize will be made whole by extra spending after the shutdown,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a note to clients Tuesday.
At first glance, it may not seem that China is really engaged in an arms race with the US. After all, China’s official defense budget for this year – at roughly $175 billion – amounts to just one-quarter of the $700 billion budget approved by the US Congress. But China’s actual military spending is estimated to be much higher than the official budget: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.
In any case, the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.
If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.
On the macro level, China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to
- rapid population aging,
- high debt levels,
- maturity mismatches, and the
- escalating trade war
that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.
Moreover, while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.1
.. The problem for the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.
Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.
The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”
Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries. Despite early signs of trouble – which, together with the Soviet Union’s experience, should give the CPC pause – China seems to be determined to push ahead with the BRI, which the country’s leaders have established as a pillar of their new “grand strategy.”
An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return. According to AidData at the College of William and Mary, from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.1
Now, China has pledged to provide $62 billion in loans for the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” That program will help Pakistan confront its looming balance-of-payments crisis; but it will also drain the Chinese government’s coffers at a time when trade protectionism threatens their replenishment.
Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.
(2014) In “Capital,” French economist Thomas Piketty explores how wealth and the income derived from it magnifies the problems of inequality. Gwen Ifill gets debate on his data and conclusions from Heather Boushey of Washington Center for Equitable Growth and Kevin Hassett of American Enterprise Institute.