Archive for the 'Balance of Trade' Category

Nov 07 2011

Excuse me, China… could you lend us another billion? Understanding the imbalance of trade between China and the United States

The $1.4 Trillion Question – James Fallows – the Atlantic

American consumers are a curious bunch. Up until 2007, the average savings rate in the United States fell as low as 1%, and during brief period was actually negative. What does negative savings actually mean? It means that Americans consume more than they actually produce.On the micro level, the only way to consume beyond ones income is to borrow from someone else to pay for the additional consumption. In other words, savings must be negative for one to consume beyond his or her income. The US is a nation of borrowers, but from whom do we borrow? China, for one…

China is a nation of “savers”, where national savings averages 50% of income. What exactly does this mean? Well, just the opposite what negative savings means; rather than consuming more than it produces, the Chinese consume only about half of what it produces. Here’s how James Fallows, a Shanghai-based journalist, explains the China/US dilemma:

Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should—which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
What happens to the rest of China’s output? Naturally, it’s shipped overseas for Americans and others in the West to consume. The irony is that the consumption of China’s products has been kept affordable and cheap thanks to the actions the Chinese government has taken to suppress the value of the RMB, thus keeping its products cheap and attractive to American consumers.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Clearly, a strong dollar is good for America in many ways. The dollar’s strength in the last decade can be credited partially to the Chinese, who have been buying dollar denominated assets in record numbers over the last seven years.

By 1996, China amassed its first $100 billion in foreign assets, mainly held in U.S. dollars. (China considers these holdings a state secret, so all numbers come from analyses by outside experts.) By 2001, that sum doubled to about $200 billion… Since then, it has increased more than sixfold, by well over a trillion dollars, and China’s foreign reserves are now the largest in the world.

China’s purchase of American assets keeps demand for dollars on foreign exchange markets strong, thus the value of the dollar high relative to other currencies, allowing American firms and consumers the benefits of a strong dollars described above.
A nation’s balance of payments consists of the current account, which measures the difference between a country’s expenditures on imports and its income from exports (In 2008 China had a $232 billion current account surplus with the US, meaning the US bought more Chinese goods than China bought of American goods), and the capital account, which measures the difference between the inflows of foreign money for the purchase of real and financial assets at home and the outflows of currency for the purchase of foreign assets abroad. In the financial account, China maintains a deficit (meaning China holds more American financial and real assets than America does of China’s), to off-set its current account surplus.The two accounts together, by definition, balance out… usually. Any deficit in the China’s capital account that does not cover the surplus in its current account can be held as foreign exchange reserves by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC, however, prefers not to hold excess dollars in reserve, as the dollar’s value is continually eroded by inflation and depreciation; therefore it invests the hundreds of billions of excess dollars it receives from Americans’ purchase of Chinese goods back into the American economy, buying up American assets, with the aim of earning interest on these assets that exceed the inflation rates.

The “assets” the Chinese are using their large influx of dollars to buy are primarily US government bonds. The government issues these bonds to finance its budget deficits, and the Chinese are happy to buy these bonds for a couple of reasons: They are secure investments, meaning that unless the US government collapses, the interest on US bonds is guaranteed income for China. That’s one reason; but the primary reason is that the purchase of these bonds puts US dollars that were originally spent by American consumers on Chinese imports right back into the hands of American consumers (via government spending or tax rebates), so they can continue buying more Chinese imports.

The Chinese demand for dollar denominated financial assets, including government bonds, corporate stocks and bonds, and real assets like real estate, factories, buildings and so on, has resulted in a long period of a strong dollar. If the Chinese ever decided to stem the flow of dollars into American assets, the dollar’s value would plummet to record lows, leading to high inflation and eventually a balancing of America’s enormous current account deficit with China and the rest of the world.

However, a falling dollar is the last thing China wants to see happen, for two reasons: One, it would make Chinese imports more expensive thus less attractive to American households, thus harming Chinese manufacturers and slowing growth in China. Two, US dollars are an asset to China. Its $1.4 billion of US debt would evaporate if the dollar took a major plunge. To China, this would represent a loss of national wealth; in effect all that “savings” that makes China so unique would disappear as the dollar dived relative to the RMB. For these reasons, it seems likely that China will continue to be a willing buyer of America’s debt, thus the financier of Americans’ insanely high consumptive lifestyle.

Discussion Questions:
  1. Many people in America are terrified that the Chinese might dump their dollar holdings. What would happen to the value of the US dollar if China decided to change its foreign reserves to another currency?
  2. Why is it very unlikely that China will do this? In other words, how does the status quo benefit China as well as the US?
  3. How do American households benefit from China’s financing of the government’s budget deficits? In what way to they suffer from this arrangement?
  4. Do you think America can continue to finance its budget deficits through the continued sale of debt to foreigners forever? Why or why not?

153 responses so far

Sep 12 2011

If Iceland can get rich, anyone can!

CIA – The World Factbook – Iceland

How did a barren rock in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean become one of the richest countries in the world, where the average citizen earns $40,000 per year?

Iceland’s prosperity is a perfect example of how a country that participates in international trade based on the principal of comparative advantage can produce the goods for which it has a relatively low opportunity cost, export them to the rest of the world, and become rich. Listen to the podcast below, then complete the activity that follows.


  • Go to the CIA World Factbook online.
  • Look up your home country from the drop down menu.
  • Click on the “Economy” section and read the introduction to your nation’s economy.
  • Look through the economy section and find information on your nation’s exports, then answer the questions that follow.
  1. What is the value of your home country’s exports (in dollars)?
  2. What are the main exports from your country to the rest of the world?
  3. Calculate the percentage of your nation’s GDP is represented by exports (divide the dollar value of exports by the dollar value of GDP, and multiply by 100).
  4. What types of goods does your country export? Are they land-intensive? Labor-intensive? Capital-intensive? Discuss why your country exports what it does to the rest of the world.
  5. What does your country import? What is the dollar value of your country’s imports? What is the percentage of your country’s GDP made up of imports?
  6. What is greater, the value of imports or the value of exports in your country? What does this mean for your nation’s “circular flow” of income?
  7. Referring to the principal of comparative advantage, discuss the composition of your nation’s exports and imports. What types of goods or services do you think your nation has a comparative advantage in? How can you tell?

45 responses so far

Apr 11 2011

“A glimmer of hope” – rising incomes in China lead to rising demand for US exports

A nation’s balance of payments measures all the transactions between the residents of that nation and the residents of foreign nations, including the flow of money for the purchase of goods and services (measured in the current account) and the flow of financial or real assets (measured in the financial or capital account). The sale of exports counts as a positive in the current account, while the purchase of imports counts as a negative. In this way, a nation can have either a positive balance on its current account (a trade surplus) or a negative balance (a trade deficit).

The US has for decades run persistent deficits in its current account. As the world’s largest importer, Americans’ appetite for foreign goods has been unrivaled in the global economy. Of course, this is not to say that the US has not been a large exporter as well. In fact, the US is also one of the largest exporting nations, along with China, Germany and Japan, in the world. However, the total expenditures by Americans on imports has exceeded the country’s income from the sale of exports year after year, resulting in a net deficit in its current account.

So the news that rising incomes in China have fueled a boom in US export sales should come as a relief to US politicians and more importantly, firms in the American export industry:

Last year, American exports to China soared 32 percent to a record $91.9 billion.

A study by a trade group called the U.S.- China Business Council says China is now the world’s fastest-growing destination for American exports.

While United States exports to the rest of the world have grown 55 percent over the past decade, American exports to China have jumped 468 percent.

Most of those exports have come from California, Washington and Texas, which have shipped huge quantities of microchips, computer components and aircraft. But states that produce grain, chemicals and transportation equipment have also benefited.

China, which last year surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy (measured by total output), is soon expected to become the world’s second largest importer as well:

And while much of what China imports is used to make goods that are then re-exported, like the Apple iPhone, Mr. Brasher says a growing share of what China imports from the United States, including cotton and grain as well as aircraft and automobiles, is staying in China.

“You know all those BMW X5 S.U.V.’s that are in China? They’re being imported from the U.S.,” Mr. Brasher said in a telephone interview Thursday. “They’re being made by a BMW factory in South Carolina.”

All this must be good news for the US, right? Growing exports to China must mean a smaller current account deficit, greater net exports and thus stronger aggregate demand, more employment and greater output in the United States. However, this may not be the case. While exports to China grow, the US economy’s recovery has led to a boost in the demand for imports from China as well. So, ironically, even as exports have grown 468 percent in the last decade, the US has still managed to maintain a stunningly large trade deficit with China: 

Last year, China’s trade surplus with the United States was between $180 billion or $250 billion, according to various calculations.

Still, the combination of a weakening American dollar and China’s growing economic clout is likely to bode well for American exports. With China short of water and arable land, exports of crops to China jumped to $13.8 billion last year.

Study the graph below and answer the questions that follow.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the primary determinant of demand for exports that has lead to the growth over the last decade seen in the graph above?
  2. What types of goods has China primarily imported from the US in the past? As incomes in China rise, how will the composition of its imports from the US likely change?
  3. How is it possible that the US current account deficit remains as large as it does (as much as $250 billion) despite the growth in exports to China?
  4. The value of China’s currency, the RMB, is closely managed by the Chinese Central Bank to maintain a low exchange rate against the US dollar. How does maintaining a low value of its currency exacerbate the imbalance of trade between China and the US? How would allowing greater flexibility in the RMB’s value help reduce the large imbalance of trade between the two countries?
  5. If the US spent $250 billion more on Chinese goods than China did on US goods in 2010, where did that $250 billion end up? What does China do with the money the US spends on its goods that it does not spend on US goods? Define the financial account and explain the relationship between a nation’s current account balance and its financial account balance.

43 responses so far

Nov 23 2010

Exchange rates and trade: a delicate balancing act, currently out of balance! / Asia-Pacific – Renminbi at heart of trade imbalances.

“The Americans get the toys, the Chinese get the Treasuries and we get screwed.” Thus a European Union official once characterised the pattern of Beijing accumulating US assets by selling renminbis for dollars, while nothing stood in the way of a rapid and destabilising appreciation of the euro.

In a world of freely floating exchange rates trade imbalances between countries would ultimately be reduced and eliminated. At least, that’s the belief of those advocating a floating exchange rate between East Asian currencies and the United States.

Here’s how it is supposed to work:

  • Cheap labor and cheap imports from China following China’s joining the world economy 30 years ago led to a rapid increase in demand for Chinese manufactured goods in the US, creating growth, jobs, and rising national income for China.
  • A trade imbalance emerges between the US and China as US spending on imports increases more rapidly than America’s  sale of exports. If the Chinese currency were allowed to float freely on foreign exchange markets, however, this imbalance would be temporary, because…
  • The US current account deficit means, literally, that Americans are supplying more of their dollars in the foreign exchange market, while demanding more Chinese RMB. The forces of supply and demand would naturally lead to an appreciation of the RMB and a depreciation of the dollar.
  • The weaker dollar resulting from the trade deficit with China would eventually make Chinese goods less attractive to Americans. Despite their lower costs of production, the weak dollar makes imported Chinese goods more expensive and less appealing to the American consumer.
  • The strong RMB, on the other hand, makes American produced goods and services cheaper to Chinese consumers, who begin to import more from the US at the same time that Americans demand fewer of China’s products.
  • Through free-floating exchange rates, a current account imbalance is eventually reduced and eliminated as exchange rates adjust to the flows of goods and services between trading partners.

A graphical version of this story is told here:

Floating ER

This, of course, is precisely what has NOT happened, thanks to China’s strict management of the value of the RMB. In order to keep its currency weak, Beijing directly intervenes in foreign exchange markets, “by selling renmenbi for dollars” to accumulate American assets. As seen in the next graph, such interference has the effect of keeping the dollar strong against the RMB.

As any IB student knows, the Balance  of Payments between two countries includes not only the trade in goods and services, but also the flow of real and financial assets, such as government securities, stocks, real estate, factories, and so on, between the countries. China has actively promoted a policy of acquiring such American assets, which keeps demand for dollars strong in China, and supply of RMB high in America, without creating any jobs in manufacturing or services for Americans. China has financed America’s current account deficit by assuring it maintains a capital account surplus!

Put more simply, China has exported goods and services to America, while America has exported ownership of its real and financial assets to China. This is a major area of concern for US policy makers, who would like to see a more balanced current account between the two countries, since it is the export of goods and services that creates jobs for American workers, not the sale of bonds, stocks and real estate.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does Europe care about China’s fixed exchange rate with the US dollar?
  2. Do you believe that American demand for Chinese goods would actually decline if the RMB were allowed to appreciate against the dollar? Why or why not?
  3. Besides American workers and firms, who else suffers from a weak Chinese currency? How could China actually benefit from allowing the RMB to strengthen against the dollar?
  4. How does China maintain the RMB’s peg against the dollar without buying large quantities of US exports?

31 responses so far

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

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