I buy more from my grocer than he buys from me, and I bet it’s the same with you and your grocer. That means we have a trade deficit with our grocers. Does our perpetual grocer trade deficit portend doom? If we heeded some pundits and politicians who are talking about our national trade deficit, we might think so. But do we have a trade deficit in the first place? Let’s look at it.
Insofar as the grocer example, there are two accounts that I hold. One is my "goods" account, which consists of groceries. The other is my "capital" account, which consists of money. Let’s look at what happens when I purchase groceries. Say I purchase $100 worth of groceries. The value of my goods account rises by $100. That rise is matched by an equal $100 decline in my capital account. Adding a plus $100 to a minus $100 yields a perfect trade balance. That transaction, from my grocer’s point of view, results in his goods account falling by $100, but when he accepts my cash, his capital account rises by $100, again a trade balance.
The principle here differs not one iota if my grocer was located in another country as opposed to down the street. There’d still be a trade balance when both the goods account and the capital account are considered. Imbalances in goods accounts are all over the place. For example, my grocer buys more from his wholesaler than his wholesaler buys from him. The wholesaler buys more from the manufacturer than the manufacturer buys from him, but when we put capital accounts into the mix, in each case, trade is balanced.
International trade operates under the identical principle. When we as consumers purchase goods from China, and the Chinese don’t purchase a like amount of goods from us, it is said that there’s a trade deficit. But instead of purchasing goods, the Chinese might purchase corporate stocks, bonds or U.S. Treasury debt instruments. Just as in my grocer example, there is a balance of trade. The deficit in our nation’s goods and services account, sometimes called current account, is matched by a surplus of equal magnitude in our capital account. A large portion of surpluses in our capital account consists of U.S. Treasury debt instruments held by foreigners. As of June 2004, China held nearly $200 billion, Japan over $1 trillion, and Europe combined held over $2 trillion.
Some politicians gripe about all the U.S. debt held by foreigners. Only a politician can have that kind of audacity. Guess who’s creating the debt instruments that foreigners hold? If you said it’s our profligate Congress, go to the head of the class. If foreigners didn’t purchase so much of our debt, we’d be worse off in terms of higher inflation and interest rates. What about the possibility of foreigners dumping our debt? Foreigners aren’t stupid. Dumping large amounts of Treasury bonds would drive down their value. Foreigners as well as we would take a hit.
The fact that foreigners are willing to exchange massive amounts of goods in exchange for slips of paper in the forms of currency, stocks and bonds should be a source of pride. It means America, with its wealth, rule of law and the sanctity of contracts, inspires foreigners to hold large amounts of their wealth in U.S. obligations. Their willingness to do so means something else: Trade increases competition. Ultimately it’s competition, many producers competing for his dollar, that truly protects the consumer. What protects producers, at the expense of consumers, are restrictions on competition. The quest to restrict competition is what lies at the heart of the trade deficit demagoguery. When’s the last time you heard a consumer complaining about his buying more from a Chinese or Japanese producer than that producer buys from him?