Our new President rails against it, unions denigrate it, and unemployed blame it. And not without reason. On trade, jobs and economic growth, the US has performed less than stellar.
Let’s look at the data, but then drill down a bit to the nuances. Undirected bluster to reduce trade deficits and grow jobs will likely stumble on those nuances. Rather, an appreciation of economic intricacies must go hand-in-hand with bold action.
So let’s dive in.
The US Performance – Trade, Jobs and Growth
For authenticity, we turn to (by all appearances) unbiased and authoritative sources. For trade balances, we use the ITC, International Trade Commission, in Switzerland; for US employment, we use the US BLS, Bureau of Labor Statistics; and for overall economic data across countries we drawn on the World Bank.
Per the ITC, the United State amassed a merchandise trade deficit of $802 billion in 2015, the largest such deficit of any country. This deficit exceeds the sum of the deficits for the next 18 countries. The deficit does not represent an aberration; the US merchandise trade deficit averaged $780 billion over the last 5 years, and we have run a deficit for all the last 15 years.
The merchandise trade deficit hits key sectors. In 2015, consumer electronics ran a deficit of $167 billion; apparel $115 billion; appliances and furniture $74 billion; and autos $153 billion. Some of these deficits have increased noticeably since 2001: Consumer electronics up 427%, furniture and appliances up 311%. In terms of imports to exports, apparel imports run 10 times exports, consumer electronics 3 times; furniture and appliances 4 times.
Autos has a small silver lining, the deficit up a relatively moderate 56% in 15 years, about equal to inflation plus growth. Imports exceed exports by a disturbing but, in relative terms, modest 2.3 times.
On jobs, the BLS reports a loss of 5.4 million US manufacturing jobs from 1990 to 2015, a 30% drop. No other major employment category lost jobs. Four states, in the “Belt” region, dropped 1.3 million jobs collectively.
The US economy has only stumbled forward. Real growth for the past 25 years has averaged only just above two percent. Income and wealth gains in that period have landed mostly in the upper income groups, leaving the larger swath of America feeling stagnant and anguished.
The data paint a distressing picture: the US economy, beset by persistent trade deficits, hemorrhages manufacturing jobs and flounders in low growth. This picture points – at least at first look – to one element of the solution. Fight back against the flood of imports.