In light of increasing trade threats between the US and China, some perspective on US trade deficits is warranted. Piecing together data from a variety of sources, the following chart shows the US balance of trade since 1790, shortly after the country’s founding.
The US maintained very closely balanced trade for the first 200 years of the country’s history. From 1790 until 1974, the last year in which the US ran a trade surplus, the US exported roughly $102 billion more than it imported. Since 1974, the US has run a cumulative trade deficit exceeding $11.64 trillion. In other words, in the last 44 years the US trade deficit was 113 times larger than the trade surplus it amassed during all previous American history. The massive deterioration in the US balance of trade since the 1970s is both historically anomalous and highly unsustainable. That multiple Presidents and Congresses have come and gone without taking serious action to correct the imbalance is indefensible, particularly given the American people’s near universal recognition of the problem and its deleterious impacts.
The US is not starting a trade war, the US has been in a trade war since the 1970s and it has been losing badly.
As we discussed here, the bulk of America’s trading problem is not with its free trade partners. The US has entered into free trade agreements with 20 countries and has seen its balance of trade improve with 16 of them since adopting an agreement. The notable exceptions are Mexico and Israel. The following chart shows the indexed change in the balance of trade with the US’s free trade partners since the inception of an agreement.
The majority of the US trade deficit is a result of trade with China. The US trade deficit with China is roughly $375 billion, 66% of the total US deficit. If the US managed to eliminate its trade deficit with every country in the world expect China, it would still have the largest trade deficit in the world.
The rarely discussed truth of the matter is that, in addition to a host of non-tariff trade barriers and intellectual property theft, Chinese import tariffs are over twice as high as import tariffs in the US. That the Chinese feel the need to maintain such high import barriers, despite their huge trade surplus and far lower manufacturing costs, is remarkable. They are trying to protect their high tech industries from American competition while denying the US the same privilege.
About 19% of Chinese exports go to the US, making the US the largest export destination for Chinese goods. Conversely, only about 8% of US exports go to China, the third largest export destination for the US. Furthermore, trade represent a significantly larger piece of the Chinese economy than it does in the US. Chinese exports to the US are also generally products that can be manufactured in other lower labor cost economies such as India, Taiwan, or Mexico.
Given all of these factors, China’s overt unwillingness to take any action to remedy a clearly unsustainable situation is likely to encourage, not deter, further American tariffs. It will be to everyone’s detriment, but mostly theirs.