It is really bizarre how folks find it so difficult to mention the trade deficit as the obvious source of weak demand in the economy. This is not a debatable point. We have a trade deficit of around $500 billion a year or roughly 3.0 percent of GDP. This is money that is creating demand elsewhere, not in the United States.
If we are going to maintain something like full employment then we need to make up this $500 billion in lost demand with higher than normal expenditures from another sector, which means either government spending, investment, residential construction, or consumption. This is all simple GDP accounting, the stuff everyone learns in intro economics. This is about an accounting identity, it is not a theory that can be debated. It is by definition true.
In the last decade we made up the shortfall in demand with consumption driven by ephemeral housing equity created by the housing bubble and by a boom in housing construction. In the late 1990s, when the deficit first exploded, the gap was filled by demand generated by the stock bubble.
Now, with no bubbles in the economy, we are facing a $500 billion shortfall in demand due to the trade deficit. But no one seems able to talk about it.
Today’s culprit is Matt O’Brien. In a mostly good piece about the death of inflation (we’ll have to talk about the claims of overstated inflation later) O’Brien explains the cause:
“Well, it’s the crisis, stupid. Households can’t or won’t borrow, even though interest rates are zero, because they’re still trying to pay down their old debts. That means growth is weak, and price pressure is too.”
This one doesn’t work because households are in fact borrowing. Consumption is actually quite high as a share of disposable income or GDP (pick your denominator). It’s not quite as high as it was at the peak of the housing or stock bubbles, when it was being spurred by trillions of dollars of ephemeral wealth, but it is far higher than at any point in the post war period until the end of the 1990s.
In other words, it makes zero sense to blame the ongoing weakness of the economy on weak consumption. It just ain’t so. While investment is not booming, it is actually above its 2005 level as a share of GDP, which means it is not especially weak either. We can say we need larger government budget deficits (fine by me), but the deficit is also not especially low by post-war standards.
The obvious culprit in the story is the unmentionable trade deficit. In the standard textbook story, rich countries like the United States (and Europe and Japan) are supposed to be running trade surpluses with fast growing developing countries like China and India. The idea is that capital should be flowing to the countries that can use it better.
That story did reasonably well describe the world in the 1990s until the East Asian financial crisis. The botched bailout (brought to you by the I.M.F. and the US Treasury Department) reversed these flows in a big way, setting the stage for the global imbalances were see today.
It should be possible for reporters to talk about the trade and deficit and its causes. What’s the problem here, will the NSA throw people in jail for jeopardizing national security?