Friday, 13 March 2009

US trade deficit continues to contract

During the boom years, the US consumer, fueled by credit, kept the world economy going.

The formula for the boom was remarkably simple. Americans imported cheap consumer goods. The Chinese produced them. Japan and Germany produced the capital goods that furnished Chinese factories. The Middle East and Russia provided the oil products that kept everyone moving.

However, the formula also generated huge imbalances. The US ran up massive trade deficits that the rest of the world financed. The Chinese were particularly generous, recycling all their export profits back into the US, buying treasury bonds.

Since the summer, it has all gone pear-shaped. The US consumer has cut back their import demand dramatically. Since July 2008, monthly US imports of goods and services has fallen $69 billion. This has sent a powerful trade shock towards China, leading to a collapse of exports. Likewise, lower US import demand pulled away support for high oil prices, leading to a dramatic reduction foreign exchange earnings for oil exporters.

The US balance of goods and services is now falling. In January 2009, the deficit was $36 billion. Before the Lehman crisis, the US deficit averaged around $60 billion a month. That is quite a contraction.

The US consumer is unlikely to start spending any time soon. With household net wealth down 19.9 percent in just 18 months, Americans are now trying out a period of extended self-denial. They are cutting back on big TVs, cheap electronics and oil products. That is very bad news for China.

So much for decoupling.


deepian said...

ahem, you mean January 2009, the deficit was $36 billion.... :)

Alice Cook said...


Yes, that is what I meant. Thanks for catching that.


Anonymous said...

"The Chinese were particularly generous": well, except in the literal sense - they foolishly funded a subprime nation.

Anonymous said...

The Chinese magnanimity was self interested. They bought T bills which kept interest rates down, and the value of their own currency artificially low. The consumer boom was funded on the asset price bubble those low interest rates encouraged.

Don't think for a minute the Chinese were being altruists.

The aftermath of this bust is going to be very hard, and very long.

mike said...

The US economy is in bad shape. Now China questions whether it should lend any more money:

What's funny is that the sad US still thinks that there is no better place in the world to invest. This is a big headed attitude and is being proven wrong. China has access to financial weapons of mass destruction and they may chose to use them.

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