Archive for November, 2010

Nov 11 2010

Okay, a trade deficit is bad, what can we do about it?

In my last post, I outlined the consequences of a nation running a persistent deficit in its current account. In the post below, I will share some thoughts on how a nations can reduce its trade deficit by promoting increased competitiveness in the global economy through the use of expansionary supply-side policies. Earlier in the chapter from which this post is taken, I outlined other deficit reduction strategies, including the use of protectionism, currency devaluation and contractionary demand-side fiscal and monetary policies. In my opinion, each of these methods creates more harm than good for a nation, resulting in a misallocation of society’s scarce resources (in the case of protectionism) and negative effects on output and employment (in the case of contractionary demand-side policies)

Therefore, the following presents the “supply-side” strategies for reducing a deficit in a nation’s current account.

From Chapter 22 of my upcoming textbook: Pearson Baccalaureate Economics

Contractionary fiscal and monetary policies will surely reduce overall demand in an economy and thereby help reduce a current account deficit. But the costs of such policies most likely outweigh the benefits, as domestic employment, output and economic growth suffer due to reduced spending on the nation’s goods and services. A better option for governments worried about their trade deficit is to pursue supply-side policies that increase the competitiveness of domestic producers in the global economy.

In the long-run, the best way for a nation to reduce a current account deficit is to allocate its scarce resources towards the economic activities in which it can most effectively compete in the global economy. In an environment of increasingly free trade between nations, countries like the United States and those of Western Europe will inevitably continue to confront structural shifts in their economies that at first seem devastating, but upon closer inspection will prove to be inexorable.

The auto industry in the United States has been forever changed due to competition from Japan. The textile industry in Europe has long passed its apex of production experienced decades past, and the UK consumer will never again buy a television or computer monitor made in the British Isles. The reality is, much of the world’s manufactured goods can be and should be made more cheaply and efficiently in Asia and Latin America than they could ever be produced in the US or Europe.

The question Europe and the United States should be asking, therefore, is not “how can we get back what we have lost and restore balance in our current account”, but, “what can we provide the world with that no one else can?” By focusing their resources towards providing the goods and services that no Asian or Latin American competitor is capable of providing, the deficit countries of the world should be able to reduce their current account deficits and at the same time stimulate aggregate demand at home, while increasing the productivity of the nation’s resources and promoting long-run economic growth.

Sure, you say, that all sounds great, but how can they achieve this? This is where supply-side policies come in. Smart supply-side policies mean more than tax cuts for corporations and subsidies to domestic producers. Smart supply-side policies that will promote more balanced global trade and long-run economic growth include:

  • Investments in education and health care: Nothing makes a nation more competitive in the global economy than a highly educated and healthy work force. Exports from Europe and the US will lie ever increasingly in the high skilled service sector and less and less in the manufacturing sector; therefore, highly educated and skilled workers are needed for future economic growth and global competitiveness, particularly in scientific fields such as engineering, medicine, finance, economics and business.
  • Public funding for scientific research and development: Exports from the US and Europe have increasingly depended on scientific innovation new technologies. Copyright and patent protection assure that scientific breakthroughs achieved in one country will allow for a period of time over which only that country will enjoy the sales of exports in the new field. Green energy, nano-technology, bio-medical research; these are the field that require sustained commitments from the government sector for dependable funding.
  • Investments in modern transportation and communication infrastructure: To remain competitive in the global economy, the countries of Europe and North America must assure that domestic firms have at their disposal the most modern and efficient transportation and communication infrastructure available. High speed rail, well-maintained inter-state or international highways, modern port facilities, high-speed internet and telecommunications; these investments allow for lower costs of production and more productive capital and labor, making countries goods more competitive in the global marketplace.

Reducing a current account deficit will have many benefits for a nation like the United States, Spain, the UK or Australia. A stronger currency will assure price stability, low interest rates will allow for economic growth, and perhaps most importantly, less taxpayer money will have to be paid in interest to foreign creditors. Governments and central banks may go about reducing a current account deficit in many ways: exchange rate controls, protectionism, contractionary monetary and fiscal policies, or supply-side policies may all be implemented to restore balance in the current account. Only one of these options will promote long-run economic growth and increase the efficiency with which a nation employs its scarce factors of production.

Supply-side policies are clearly the most efficient and economically justifiable method for correcting a current account deficit. Unfortunately, they are also the least politically popular, since the benefits of such policies are not realized in the short-run, but take years, maybe decades, to accrue. For this reason, we see time and time again governments turning to protectionism in response to rising trade deficits.

4 responses so far

Nov 10 2010

Yeah, we have a trade deficit, SO WHAT?!

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 22  – “Balance of Payments” of my soon to be published textbook “Pearson Baccalaureate Economics”

If the total spending by a nation’s residents on goods and services imported from the rest of the world exceeds the revenues earned by the nation’s producers from the sale of exports to the rest of the world, the nation is likely experiencing a current account deficit. The situation is not at all uncommon among many of the world’s trading nations. The map belowmap  represents nations by their cumulative current account balances over the years 1980-2008. The red countries all accumulated current account deficits over the three decades, with the largest by far being the United States with a cumulative deficit of $7.3 trillion. The green countries are ones which have had a cumulative surplus in their current accounts, the largest surplus belonging to Japan at $2.7 trillion, followed by China at $1.5 trillion.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cumulative_Current_Account_Balance.png

The top ten current account deficit nations are represented below. It is obvious from this chart that the United States alone accounts for a larger current account deficit then the next nine countries combined. At $7.3 trillion dollars in deficits over 28 years, the US deficit surpasses Spain’s (at number 2) by 1,000 percent.

The consequences of a nation having a current account deficit are not immediately clear. It should be pointed out that it is debatable whether a trade deficit is necessarily a bad thing, in fact. Below we will examine some of the facts about current account deficits, and we will conclude by evaluating the pros and cons for countries that run deficits in the short-run and in the long-run.

Implications of persistent current account deficits: When a country like like those above experience deficits in the current account for year after year, there are some predictable consequences that may have adverse effects on the nation’s macroeconomy. These include currency depreciation, foreign ownership of domestic assets, higher interest rates and foreign indebtedness.

The effect of a current account deficit on the exchange rate: In the previous chapter you learned about the determinants of the exchange rate of a nation’s currency relative to another currency. One of the primary determinants of a currency’s exchange rate is the demand for the nation’s exports relative to the demand for imports from other countries. With this in mind, we can examine the likely effects of a current account deficit on a nation’s currency’s exchange rate. Additionally, we will see that under a floating exchange rate system, deficits in the current account should be automatically corrected due to adjustments in exchange rates.

When households and firms in one nation demand more of other countries’ output than the rest of the world demands of theirs, there is upward pressure on the value of trading partners’ currencies and downward pressure on the importing nation’s currency. In this way, a movement towards a current account deficit should cause the deficit country’s currency to weaken.

As an illustration, say that New Zealand’s imports from Japan begin to rise due to rising incomes in New Zealand and the corresponding increase in demand for imports. Assuming Japan’s demand for New Zealand’s output does not change, New Zealand will move towards a deficit in its current account and Japan towards a surplus. In the foreign exchange market, demand for Japanese yen will rise while the supply of NZ$ in Japan increases, as seen above, depreciating the NZ$.

The downward pressure on exchange rates resulting from an increase in a nation’s current account deficit should have a self-correcting effect on the trade imbalance. As the NZ$ weakens relative to its trading partners’ currencies, consumers in New Zealand will start to find imports more and more expensive, while consumers abroad will, over time, begin to find products from New Zealand cheaper. In this way, a flexible exchange rate system should, in the long-run, eliminate surpluses and deficits between nations in the current account. The persistence of global trade imbalances illustrated in the map above is evidence that in reality, the ability of flexible exchange rates to maintain balance in nations’ current accounts is quite limited.

Foreign ownership of domestic assets: By definition, the balance of payments must always equal zero. For this reason, a deficit in the current account must be offset by a surplus in the capital and financial accounts. If the money spent by a deficit country on goods from abroad ends up in the does not end up returning to the deficit country for the purchase of goods and services, it will be re-invested into the county through foreign acquisition of domestic real and financial assets, or held in reserve by surplus nations’ central banks.

Essentially, a country with a large current account deficit, since it cannot export enough goods and services to make up for its spending on imports, instead ends up “exporting ownership” of its financial and real assets. This could take the form of foreign direct investment in domestic firms, increased portfolio investment by foreigners in the domestic economy, and foreign ownership of domestic government debt, or the build up of foreign reserves of the deficit nation’s currency.

The effect on interest rates: A persistent deficit in the current account can have adverse effects on the interest rates and investment in the deficit country. As explained above, a current account deficit can put downward pressure on a nation’s exchange rate, which causes inflation in the deficit country as imported goods, services and raw materials become more expensive. In order to prevent massive currency depreciation, the country’s central bank may be forced to tighten the money supply and raise domestic interest rates to attract foreign investors and keep demand for the currency and the exchange rate stable. Additionally, since a current account deficit must be offset by a financial account surplus, the deficit country’s government may need to offer higher interest rates on government bonds to attract foreign investors. Higher borrowing rates for the government and the private sector can slow domestic investment and economic growth in the deficit nation.

Side note: While the interest rate effect of a large current account deficit should be negative (i.e. causing interest rates to rise in the deficit country), in recent years the country with the largest trade deficit, the United States, has actually experienced record low interest rates even while maintaining persistent current account deficits. This can be understood by examining by the macroeconomic conditions of the US and global economies, in which deflation posed a greater threat than inflation over the years 2008-2010. The fear of deflation combined with low confidence in the private sector among international investors has kept demand for US government bonds high even as the US trade deficit has grown, allowing the US government and central bank to keep interest rates low and continue to attract foreign investors.

Whereas under “normal” macroeconomic conditions a build up of US dollars among America’s trading partners would require the US to raise interest rates to create an incentive for foreign investors to re-invest that money into the US economy, in the environment of uncertainty and low confidence in the private sector that has prevailed over the last several years, America’s trading partners have been willing to finance its current account deficit at record low interest rates.

The effect on indebtedness: A large current account deficit is synonymous with a large financial account surplus. One source of credits in the financial account is foreign ownership of domestic government bonds (i.e. debt). When a central bank from another nation buys government bonds from a nation with which it has a large current account surplus, the deficit nation is essentially going into debt to the surplus nation. For instance, as of August 2010, the Chinese central bank held $868 billion of United States Treasury Securities (government bonds) on its balance sheet. In total, the amount of US debt owned by foreign nations in 2010 was $4.2 trillion, or around 50% of the country’s total national debt and 30% of its GDP.source: http://www.ustreas.gov/tic/mfh.txt

On the one hand, foreign lending to a deficit nation is beneficial because it keeps demand for government bonds high and interest rates low, which allows the deficit country’s government to finance its budget without raising taxes on domestic households and firms. On the other hand, every dollar borrowed from a foreigner has to be repaid with interest. Interest payments on the national debt cost US taxpayers over $400 billion in 2010, making up around 10% of the federal budget. Nearly half of this went to foreign holders of US debt, meaning almost $200 billion of US taxpayer money was handed over to foreign interests, without adding a single dollar to aggregate demand in the US.

The opportunity cost of foreign owned national debt is the public goods and services that could have been provided with the money that instead is owed in interest to foreign creditors. If the US current account were more balanced, foreign countries like China would not have the massive reserves of US dollars to invest in government debt in the first place, and the taxpayer money going to pay interest on this debt could instead be invested in the domestic economy to promote economic growth and development.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would a large current account deficit cause a nation’s currency to depreciate? How could a weaker currency automatically reduce a nation’s current account deficit?
  2. Why should governments be concerned about a large trade deficit? What is one policy a government could implement to reduce a deficit in the current account?
  3. Would a nation with a large trade deficit be better off without trade at all? Why or why not?
  4. Discuss the validity of the following claim: “Americans buy tons of Chinese imports, but the Chinese don’t buy anything from America, this is why the US has such a huge trade deficit with China”. To what extent is this claim true or false?

8 responses so far

Nov 05 2010

US balance of payments deficit prophecies!

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 US balance of payments deficit hits another record – WSWS.org – 16 March 2006

As I was looking for news stories about the balance of payments, which we started studying in AP Economics today, I stumbled upon a story from over two years ago, published on the World Socialist Website, of all places. The reason I am blogging about it today, 25 months later, is that it contains some ominously prophetic messages about what the future (now the past) could hold for the US based on the economic data at the time. Read below to see what I mean:

The extent of the imbalances in the global economy and the fact that normal growth patterns will not correct them has been underlined by the latest US balance of payments deficit. The current account deficit reached $225 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005, up from $185.4 billion in the third. For the year 2005 the deficit was $805 billion, equivalent to 6.4 percent of gross domestic product.The latest figures show that rather than being closed, the payments gap is widening. This was the seventh year out of the last eight in which the deficit hit a new record.

“The bottom line is that a current account deficit of this unparalleled magnitude is unsustainable and there is no hope of it being painlessly resolved through higher exports alone,” Paul Ashworth, an analyst at Capital Economic told the Financial Times.

Total US exports would need to increase by 70 percent to eliminate the payments gap. “This is clearly not going to happen,” Ashworth continued. “Instead it will require a big dollar depreciation alongside much weaker domestic demand for imports.”

In other words,

 

the only way the deficit would start to fall is through a major recession in the US.“a big dollar depreciation” would almost certainly lead to a sharp interest rate rise, as international banks and financial institutions demanded bigger compensation for placing their funds in dollar assets. And a significant interest rate rise would bring a downturn in the economy.On the other hand, On the one hand,

 

“weaker domestic demand for imports” could be achieved only by a severe contraction of the US economy.This is because the very structure of the US economy, in which imports of goods and services are some 59 percent higher than exports, means that normal economic growth automatically increases the deficit.

 

So far almost everything the article has mentioned has actually happened, except for the increase in US interest rates. In fact, the Fed has lowered interest rates as the economy has approached recession, indicating that it considers a slowdown in growth a bigger threat than a weaker dollar and the accompanying inflation. In fact, expansionary monetary policy in the US (i.e. lower interest rates) has accelerated the dollar’s decline as foreign investors have pulled their money out of the US assets as interest rates in Europe and other markets have become more attractive.The article doesn’t hold out much hope for rising exports helping the US out of the predicted recession:

 

The only way the US could export its way out of the crisis would be if economic growth in the rest of the world proceeded at a significantly higher rate than the American economy. But here a vicious circle is in operation because economic growth in the rest of the world is itself highly dependent on an expanding US market. This is especially the case in Asia where economic growth is increasingly being fuelled by exports to China where goods are manufactured for the American market.

Today in class we introduced the determinants of exchange rates. One way Americans have been able to import so much more from China and other countries (remember, the US has trade deficits with 13 of its 15 largest trading partners!!) has been through foreign purchase of financial and real assets in the US, including government bonds:

In fact, the US is becoming increasingly dependent on foreign sources to support its current account and budget deficits. Foreign lenders have been financing 80 percent of the increase in the federal budget deficit, and foreign holdings of treasury securities increased by $108 billion in the last quarter of 2005.As Stephen Roach noted, with a foreign capital inflow of $3 billion every business day—up from $2 billion in 2003—the external dependency of the US “is simply without precedent in the annals of globalization and international finance”.

 

I found it interesting that most of what this article predicted would happen has already transpired, or is in the process of transpiring as we speak. The dollar has depreciated by 18% to the RMB, and even more to other major currencies, the US has entered a recession, raising questions as to the degree to which the economies of Europe and Asia have “de-coupled” from the US economy.Whether the US recession will lead to a significant slowdown in growth among its trading partners has yet to be seen. Uncertainty in global financial market has resulted in an international credit-crunch, meaning lenders have been less willing to extend loans to borrowers, leading to a decline investment and consumption everywhere; but with growth rates still predicted at 8-10% in China, and not too far behind elsewhere in the developing world, it seems plausible that a continued decline of the dollar combined with healthy growth and rising incomes abroad will shift America’s balance of payments away from worsening deficits in 2008.

Discussion Questions:

 

  1. Define “US balance of payments deficit“. What accounts make up a country’s balance of payments?
  2. In what ways would “a big dollar depreciation alongside much weaker domestic demand for imports” help achieve more balanced trade between the US and its trading partners?
  3. Explain the statement: “weaker domestic demand for imports could be achieved only by a severe contraction of the US economy
  4. Which of the determinants of exchange rates that we learned in class (remember “SIPIT”) is referred to in the following claim: “The only way the US could export its way
    out of the crisis would be if economic growth in the rest of the world
    proceeded at a significantly higher rate than the American economy
    “.

17 responses so far

Nov 01 2010

The problem with price controls in Europe’s agricultural markets

The following is an excerpt from chapter three of my upcoming IB Economics Textbook published by Pearson Baccalaureate

Understanding price elasticity of supply, which measures the responsiveness of producers to changes in the price of different goods, allows firm managers and government policymakers to better evaluate the effects of their output decisions and economic policies.

Excises taxes and PES: A tax on a particular good, known as an excise tax, will be paid by both the producers and the consumers of that good. When a government taxes a good for which supply is highly elastic, it is the consumer who ends up bearing the greatest burden of the tax, as producers are forced to pass the tax onto buyers in the form of a higher sales price. If the producer of a highly elastic good bears the the tax burden itself, it may be forced to reduce output to such a degree that production of the good becomes no longer economically viable. A tax on a good for which supply is highly inelastic will be born primarily by the producer of the good. The price paid by consumers will only increase slightly while the after-tax amount received by the producer will decrease significantly, but in the case of inelastic supply this will have a relatively small impact on output. A graphical representation of the effects of taxes on different goods will be introduced in chapter 4.

Price controls and PES: A common policy in rich countries aimed at assisting farmers is the use of minimum prices for agricultural commodities. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) involves a complex system of subsidies, import and export controls and price controls, the objective of which is to ensure a fair standard of living for Europe’s agricultural community. The use of minimum prices in agricultural markets can have the unintended consequence of creating substantial surpluses of unsold output. Take the example of butter in the EU. The following excerpt was taken from the January 22, 2009 issue of the New York Times:

“Two years after it was supposed to have gone away for good, Europe’s ‘butter mountain’ is back… Faced with a drastic drop in the [demand for] dairy goods, the European Union will buy 30,000 tons of unsold butter. Surpluses… have returned because of the sharp drop in the [demand for]… butter and milk resulting partly from the global slowdown.

In response, the union’s executive body, the European Commission, said it would buy 30,000 tons of butter at a price of 2,299 euros a ton… Michael Mann, spokesman for the European Commission, said that the move was temporary but that if necessary, the European Union would buy more than those quantities of butter — though not at the same price.”

The situation in the European Union butter market can be attributed to an underestimate by policy makers of the responsiveness of butter producers to the price controls established under the CAP. A minimum price scheme of any sort, if effective, will result in surplus output of the good in question, but the 30,000 tons of unsold butter in Europe appears to exceed the expected surplus considerably. The graph below illustrates why:

A price floor (Pf) is set above the equilibrium price of butter established by the free market. Butter producers in Europe are guaranteed a price of Pf, and any surplus not sold at this price will be bought by the European Commission (EC). Assuming a relatively inelastic supply, which corresponds with the short-run period (Ssr), the increase in butter production is relatively small (Qsr), resulting in a relatively small surplus (Qsr – Qd). In the short-run, the amount of surplus butter the EU governments needed to purchase was minimal. But as we learned earlier in this chapter, as producers of goods have time to adjust to the higher price, which in the case of the CAP is a price guaranteed by the EC, they become more responsive to the higher price and are able to increase their output by much more than in the short-run. Slr represents the supply of butter in Europe after years of the minimum price scheme. As demand has fallen due to the global economic slowdown, butter producers have continued to produce at a level corresponding with the price floor (Pf), leading to ever growing butter stocks and the need for the EC to spend, in this case, 69 million euros on surplus butter.

Understanding the behavior of producers in response to changes in prices, whether due to excise taxes or price controls, better allows both firm managers and government policy makers to respond appropriately to the conditions experienced by producers and consumer in the market place and avoid inefficiencies resulting from various economic policies.

Discussion questions:

  1. Explain why the price elasticities of both demand and supply of primary commodities tend to be relatively low in the short run and higher in the long-run.
  2. Explain the factors which influence price elasticity of supply. Illustrate your answer with reference to the market for a commodity or raw material.
  3. Discuss the importance of price elasticity of supply and price elasticity of demand for producers of primary commodities in less developed countries.

6 responses so far

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