There are an awful lot of things to really dislike about Donald Trump and his conduct as president to date, but that doesn’t mean everything his administration does is wrong. In particular, there is considerable truth to what he has said about trade costing a large number of good paying manufacturing jobs and hurting the living standards of the middle class.
Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging this point, the media show the same determination as global warming denialists in saying that trade cannot be a problem. We got two examples of this sort of denialism in recent days.
The first was a piece in the Washington Post criticizing Trump adviser Peter Navarro’s view of trade and the trade deficit. While Navarro makes many questionable arguments in pushing his views on trade, his point that the trade deficit can reduce growth and employment is absolutely correct.
Ever since the crash in 2008 the bulk of economics profession has agreed that we faced a situation of “secular stagnation,” where the economy faced a persistent shortfall of demand. In this context, anything that boosts demand, such as an increase in government spending, private consumption, or a reduction in the trade deficit, leads to more output and employment.
In this context, the piece’s comment, taken from Harvard University economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, “that a smaller trade deficit means lower investment along with possibly higher interest rates and less consumption” is completely wrong. If the economy is operating below full employment, as it certainly has been through most of the period from 2008 then reducing the trade deficit certainly can be a net addition to growth. As Mankiw says, “even a freshman at the end of ec 10 knows that.”
In this context, Navarro’s claim that a lower trade deficit could bring in $1.74 trillion in tax revenue over the course of a decade cannot be so easily dismissed even though the Post tells us:
“Hooey, say economists across the political spectrum.”
The key question here is whether the economy is now at potential GDP and whether it is likely to be over the next decade, even with a trade deficit that is close to 3.0 percent of GDP ($538 billion in the most recent quarter). On this question, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) might be on the side of Navarro.
According to CBO, potential GDP for the 4th quarter of 2016 was $19,049 billion. This is 1.0 percent higher than the estimate of GDP for the quarter of $18,860.8 billion. This means that if CBO is right, if there had been more demand in the economy, for example due to imports being replaced by domestically produced goods, GDP could have been 1.0 percent higher last quarter.
Of course, CBO’s estimates of potential GDP are not especially accurate. Its most recent estimates for potential GDP in 2016 are more than 10 percent below what it had projected for potential GDP in 2016 back in 2008, before the severity of the crash was recognized. It is possible it overstated potential by a huge amount in 2008, but it is also possible it is understating potential today. It also hugely understated potential GDP in the mid-1990s, with 2000 GDP coming in more than 5 percent above the estimate of potential that CBO made in 1996. In other words, it would not be absurd to think that the economy could sustain a level of output that is 2.0 percent above the current level. (The fact that the employment rate of prime age workers [ages 25–54] is still 4.0 percentage points below the 2000 peak is certainly consistent with this view.)
Suppose that GDP were consistently 2.0 percent higher than current projections over the next decade due to a lower trade deficit. This would imply an additional $4.6 trillion in output over this period. If the government captures 30 percent of this in higher taxes and lower spending on transfer programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps, this would imply a reduction in the projected deficit of $1.38 trillion over the decade. That’s not quite the $1.74 trillion projected by Navarro, but close enough to make the derision unwarranted.
In terms of how you get a lower trade deficit, Navarro’s strategy of beating up on China is probably not the best way to go. But there is in fact precedent for the United States negotiating a lower value for the dollar under President Reagan, which had the desired effect of reducing the trade deficit.
There is no obvious reason it could not pursue a similar path today, especially since it is widely claimed in business circles that China actually wants to raise the value of its currency. The U.S. could help it.
The second area of seemingly gratuitous Trump trade bashing comes from a Wall Street Journal news article on the Trump administration’s efforts to correct for re-exports in trade measures. Before getting to the article, it is important to understand what is at issue.
Most of what the United States exports to countries like Mexico, Japan, or elsewhere are goods and services produced in the United States. However, some portion of the goods that we export to these countries consists of items imported from other countries which are just transshipped through the United States.
The classic example would be if we offloaded 100 BMWs on a ship in New York and then 20 were immediately sent up to Canada to be sold there. The way we currently count exports and imports, we would count the 20 BMWs as exports to Canada and also as imports from Germany. These re-exports have zero impact on our aggregate trade balance, but they do exaggerate out exports to Canada and our imports from Germany.
If we wanted better data on bilateral trade flows, then it would be desirable to pull out the re-exports from both our exports to Canada and our imports from Germany. This adjustment would make our trade deficit with Canada appear larger and trade deficit with Germany smaller, but would leave our total trade balance unchanged.
This better measure of trade flows would be useful information to have if we wanted to know what happened to trade with a specific country following a policy change, for example the signing of a trade deal like NAFTA. The inclusion of re-exports in our export data would distort what had happened to actual flows of domestically produced exports and imports for domestic consumption.
The United States International Trade Commission already produces a measure of trade balances that excludes imports that are re-exported. However, this measure is still not an accurate measure of bilateral trade balances since it still includes the re-exports on the import side. In the case mentioned above, it would include the BMWs imported from Germany that were immediately sent to Canada, as imports. In principle, we should be able to construct a measure that excludes these items on the import side as well. If this is what the Trump administration is trying to do, then it is asking for a perfectly reasonable adjustment to the data.
This is where we get to the WSJ article. According to the piece, the Trump administration was asking the Commerce Department to produce measures of bilateral trade balances that took out the re-exports on the export side, but left them in on the import side. This would have the effect of artificially inflating our trade deficit with a bogus number. If this is in fact what the Trump administration is trying to do, then we should be shooting at them with all guns. (This is metaphorical folks, I’m not advocating violence.)
However, some skepticism might be warranted at this point. No one with a name actually said the Trump administration asked for this bogus measure of trade balances. The sole source listed is “one person familiar with the discussions.”
There was an official statement from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), which collects and compiles the data:
“Any internal discussions about data collection methods are no more than the continuation of a longstanding debate and are part of the bureau’s normal process as we strive to provide the most precise statistics possible.”
I take very seriously efforts to mess with the data. We are fortunate to have independent statistical agencies with dedicated civil servants who take their work very seriously. However, we should wait until we have a bit more solid evidence before assuming that the Trump administration is trying to interfere in their independence, as opposed to trying to make a totally legitimate adjustment to the data that the BEA staff would almost certainly agree is an improvement.