There’s a Basic Disconnect in Trump’s Plan to Make America Great Again

donald trumpThis is the third and the final column in the series, where I explain that Donald Trump’s idea of making America great again, by imposing tariffs, is not going to work.

Dear Reader, before you start reading this column, it perhaps makes sense to read the two columns published before this, in order to get a complete perspective on the topic. (You can read the columns here and here).

In today’s column we will take a look at how Trump’s entire idea of driving up exports while driving down imports, is contradictory to say the least. Let’s start by looking at Figure 1, which basically plots the trade deficit of the United States over the years.

Figure 1: US trade deficit (in $ million) 

Trade deficit is a situation where the imports of a country are more than its exports. We can see that the United States has run a trade deficit with the rest of the world over the last four decades. The trade deficit peaked between 2004 and 2008, fell for a few years after that, and started going up again.

The American trade deficit came down in the years 2009 and 2010, and these were years when the American economy and the global economy, were both not doing well. Now let’s take a look at Figure 2, which basically plots the exports and imports of the United States over the last four decades.

Figure 2: 

Figure 2 makes for a very interesting reading. The exports and the imports curves of the United States, move more or less in the same way. This basically means that when imports go up, exports also go up and vice versa. Why is that the case? The reason for this is very straightforward. The United States is the largest market in the world. When it imports stuff, it pays dollars to other countries, which are exporting stuff to the United States. These countries can then use these dollars to pay for American exports.

Hence, if Trump keeps going ahead with imposing more tariffs on imports into the US, as he has suggested for a while, he will deny other countries an opportunity to earn “enough” dollars through which they can pay for their imports from the US, which are basically the exports for the US. The larger point being that it is not possible to increase American exports and decrease American imports at the same time. This is the simplistic plan that Trump has to make America great again and there is a basic disconnect at the heart of it. Also, any such plan will have a negative international impact.

Now let’s take a look at Figure 3, which basically plots the American trade deficit with one country, and that is China.

Figure 3: 

Figure 3 clearly shows that the American trade deficit with China has gone up dramatically over the years. The Chinese imports help keep inflation low in the United States. They also help keep interest rates low, as the dollars earned by the Chinese, have over the years found their way back into the United States and are invested in American treasury securities and other debt securities. This foreign demand for American financial securities has helped keep interest rates low in the US. Over and above this, there is another major point that arises here. Take a look Figure 4. It plots the overall trade deficit of the United States, along with the trade deficit that the country runs with China.

Figure 4: 

Figure 4 tells us very clearly that over the years, the trade deficit with China has formed a greater proportion of the overall trade deficit run by the United States. In 2017, the trade deficit with China formed nearly 66% of the overall trade deficit.

Much has been said about the fact that Trump is basically not thinking about the long-term, but is trying to beat down American trading partners into giving American companies better terms. The trouble is that the bulk of the American trade deficit is with China and unless Trump takes on China, the gains of his so called policy are going to be very low.

Of course, it is not easy to bully China, given that other than helping maintain a low inflation and low interest rates in the US, the Chinese also own more than a trillion dollars of American government treasury securities and if push comes to the shove, it can use these treasury securities, as a bargaining tool.

Also, the current Chinese regime is turning more and more authoritarian and is unlikely to take to any bullying by the US, lightly. The only way America can become great again on the industrial front is, if it is able to compete with the products being produced internationally, both on the price as well as the quality front.

The column originally appeared on Equitymaster on March 16, 2018.