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.
In his first week he withdrew from the unratified 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. He prepared to pull out of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Earlier this year he imposed steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, using a little-used national security law, and threatened the same for autos.
Today, Korus and Nafta have been replaced by updated agreements(one not yet ratified) that look much like the originals. South Korea accepted quotas on steel. Mexico and Canada agreed to higher wages, North American content requirements and quotas for autos.
These represent a step back from free trade toward managed trade, but they will have little practical effect: The limits on how many cars Mexico and Canada can ship duty-free to the U.S., for example, exceed current shipments. Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped threatening auto tariffs, but for now his officials have elected instead to seek broader tariff reductions with Japan and the European Union.
.. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit that incenses Mr. Trump has grown during his presidency, especially with China and Mexico, as a strong American economy sucks in imports. His exhortations to manufacturers to bring jobs back to the U.S. have largely fallen on deaf ears.
The “best” outcome of President Donald Trump’s narrow focus on the US trade deficit with China would be improvement in the bilateral balance, matched by an increase of an equal amount in the deficit with some other country (or countries). In fact, significantly reducing the bilateral trade deficit will prove difficult.
.. macroeconomics always prevails:.. if the United States’ domestic investment continues to exceed its savings, it will have to import capital and have a large trade deficit... because of the tax cuts enacted at the end of last year, the US fiscal deficit is reaching new records – recently projected to exceed $1 trillion by 2020 – which means that the trade deficit almost surely will increase, whatever the outcome of the trade war. The only way that won’t happen is if Trump leads the US into a recession, with incomes declining so much that investment and imports plummet... The “best” outcome of Trump’s narrow focus on the trade deficit with China would be improvement in the bilateral balance, matched by an increase of an equal amount in the deficit with some other country (or countries). The US might sell more natural gas to China and buy fewer washing machines; but it will sell less natural gas to other countries and buy washing machines or something else from Thailand or another country that has avoided the irascible Trump’s wrath... But, because the US interfered with the market, it will be paying more for its imports and getting less for its exports than otherwise would have been the case. In short, the best outcome means that the US will be worse off than it is today... The US has a problem, but it’s not with China. It’s at home: America has been saving too little. Trump, like so many of his compatriots, is immensely shortsighted. If he had a whit of understanding of economics and a long-term vision, he would have done what he could to increase national savings. That would have reduced the multilateral trade deficit... There are obvious quick fixes: China could buy more American oil and then sell it on to others. This would not make an iota of difference, beyond perhaps a slight increase in transaction costs. But Trump could trumpet that he had eliminated the bilateral trade deficit... As demand for Chinese goods decreases, the renminbi’s exchange rate will weaken – even without any government intervention. This will partly offset the effect of US tariffs; at the same time, it will increase China’s competitiveness with other countries—and this will be true even if China doesn’t use other instruments in its possession, like wage and price controls, or push strongly for productivity increases. China’s overall trade balance, like that of the US, is determined by its macroeconomics... China has more control of its economy, and has wanted to shift toward a growth model based on domestic demand rather than investment and exports. The US is simply helping China do what it has already been trying to do. On the other hand, US actions come at a time when China is trying to manage excess leverage and excess capacity; at least in some sectors, the US will make these tasks all the more difficult... if Trump’s objective is to stop China from pursuing its “Made in China 2025” policy – adopted in 2015 to further its 40-year goal of narrowing the income gap between China and the advanced countries – he will almost surely fail. On the contrary, Trump’s actions will only strengthen Chinese leaders’ resolve to boost innovation and achieve technological supremacy, as they realize that they can’t rely on others, and that the US is actively hostile... If a country enters a war, trade or otherwise, it should be sure that good generals – with clearly defined objectives, a viable strategy, and popular support – are in charge. It is here that the differences between China and the US appear so great. No country could have a more unqualified economic team than Trump’s, and a majority of Americans are not behind the trade war.Public support will wane even further as Americans realize that they lose doubly from this war: jobs will disappear, not only because of China’s retaliatory measures, but also because US tariffs increase the price of US exports and make them less competitive; and the prices of the goods they buy will rise. This may force the dollar’s exchange rate to fall, increasing inflation in the US even more – giving rise to still more opposition. The Fed is likely then to raise interest rates, leading to weaker investment and growth and more unemployment... Trump has shown how he responds when his lies are exposed or his policies are failing: he doubles down. China has repeatedly offered face-saving ways for Trump to leave the battlefield and declare victory. But he refuses to take them up.Perhaps hope can be found in three of his other traits:
- his focus on appearance over substance,
- his unpredictability, and his
- love of “big man” politics.
.. Perhaps in a grand meeting with President Xi Jinping, he can declare the problem solved, with some minor adjustments of tariffs here and there, and some new gesture toward market opening that China had already planned to announce, and everyone can go home happy.
.. In this scenario, Trump will have “solved,” imperfectly, a problem that he created. But the world following his foolish trade war will still be different: more uncertain, less confident in the international rule of law, and with harder borders. Trump has changed the world, permanently, for the worse.
Even with the best possible outcomes, the only winner is Trump – with his outsize ego pumped up just a little more.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>China, the European Union and others have been manipulating their currencies and interest rates lower, while the U.S. is raising rates while the dollars gets stronger and stronger with each passing day – taking away our big competitive edge. As usual, not a level playing field…</p>— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) <a href=”https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1020287981020729344?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>July 20, 2018</a></blockquote>
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And yet, both his tax cuts and trade war are contributing to these dynamics.
- You juice the economy at full employment with a deficit-financed, $2 trillion tax cut, and the Fed’s naturally going to ramp up their concerns about overheating.
- At the same time, the extra fiscal impulse is leading to stronger U.S. growth, relative to that of our trading partners, and that, too, puts pressure on both the dollar and the trade deficit.
- Meanwhile, tariffs tend to reduce the circulation of dollars in foreign exchange markets, yet another pressuring factor of the value of the greenback.
The figure below, an index of the value of the dollar against a basket of foreign currencies, shows the dollar beginning its most recent appreciation around when the first salvos of the trade war hit. Relatedly, as Trump’s tweet mentions, the Chinese yuan is falling sharply against the dollar, down about 7 percent since April, a movement that directly offsets that same amount of Trump’s tariffs.
In other words, the president has a point. But while part of this is what he gets from inheriting a strong economy — something I suspect he wouldn’t trade — part of it is because of his and his party’s actions.
.. The Fed is different, as its independence from politics is so vital. There are many sad examples of countries whose economies did a lot worse than they should have because their central banks became an arm of the government.
.. That said, I’m not reaching for the vapors. I really wouldn’t want to see Trump ratchet up his Fed critiques to a regular feature of his daily rants.
.. So, if you’re listening, Mr. President, no point in whining about a currency appreciation to which you’re contributing. Whine as you might, you can’t have a “great economy” closing in on full employment, an independent Fed, a big tax cut, a trade war — and a falling dollar.