Donald Trump is that fantasy sports team owner who vetoed every trade involving Team China or Team Mexico (except his own, of course). But now he’s become the league commissioner and he’s promised to fix or renegotiate all of those “bad” trade deals. Yikes.
Donald Trump and Peter Navarro, head of the newly formed White House National Trade Council, are always bitterly complaining about the huge trade deficit the United States has with China and other “bad” countries. But trade deficits should not be equated with unfair trade or with the alleged utter destruction of American manufacturing. This is like complaining that a baseball trade was so bad it caused the team not to win the World Series for, say, 86 years. Or, complaining that your team is suffering from a seven-to-one player trade deficit even though your team gave up seven players who were either nobodies, soon to be has beens, or never will bes, and your team gained a perennial All-Star or future Hall-of Famer in return.
The U.S. trade deficit with China does not mean the United States is losing to unfair trade. Trade of goods is just one part of what drives our economy. Though the United States may run a deficit in the trade of goods (both overall and with China), we run a surplus in the trade of services. Also, China and Japan each own more than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bills, bonds, and other securities. Moreover, foreign companies are “insourcing” and purchasing U.S. assets, such as buying U.S. companies or investing in building new factories, shopping malls, hotels, etc. Harping on the United States’ trade deficit while completely ignoring other economic factors in which the United States has a surplus is an incomplete and misguided way to evaluate how the U.S. economy is performing. Full disclosure: my firm and especially our international trade and our China lawyers have a lot of skin in this game as we generate millions of dollars a year in services directly related to US-China trade.
Looking at trade balances between countries as if they were a zero-sum game to be “won” or “lost” does not make sense because countries don’t actually engage in trade with each other on a national level. Only companies and individuals in each country trade with one another. A trade (for fantasy league baseball players or for real life goods) happens only if both sides believe they are exchanging comparable value with each other. China exports boatloads of goods to the United States because U.S. companies and individuals see those imports as the best value for their specific needs. A good chunk of the imports contributing to the U.S. trade deficit are used to manufacture higher value-added products in the United States. The U.S. imports crude oil for U.S. refineries to produce gasoline and other higher-value petroleum products. Boeing airplanes include all sorts of parts imported from around the world. If Party A and Party B each a consensus that a trade is mutually acceptable, and there is no sign of fraud or collusion, why should the President/League Commissioner intervene and try to fix those so-called “terrible” trade deals?
Even those trades perceived to have been lopsided or unfair does not mean that the losing team on the deal needs rescuing or that the deal should be voided or undone. Teams make stupid deals all the time.
Every team hopes to avoid making bad trades, just as reducing the U.S. trade deficit is not wholly a bad idea. But reducing trade deficits by itself will not restore America’s manufacturing jobs any more than avoiding bad trade deals by itself will get teams a championship ring. The effects of a huge trade deficit or a bad trade deal, either in the market place or on the playing field, tend to work themselves out over time because there are so many other factors that go into the country’s economic performance or team’s performance. A good President/League Commissioner would know better than to try to fix every “bad” trade deal or trade deficit he doesn’t like.
Editor’s Note: If you talk with people who regularly do business with China, especially people with companies that do business in China, they will mostly tell you that what they/we need is not so much higher duties on imports, but more pressure exerted on China to level the playing field for foreign companies doing business in China.