Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Deficit Does Matter

Mike Norman wrote an article for the Motley Fool website arguing that the trade deficit is not a bad thing. His reasoning was something like this: ordinary people run trade deficits, with your grocer, your barber and what have you, buying goods and services from them, and selling nothing to them, and that's a good thing. Ditto for the country!

Ah, but Mike forgot one little detail: true, we do run deficits with most of our vendors, trading services for IOUs (and cash really is a tradeable IOU). But there is at least one vendor we run a large surplus with, your employer - you export services to your employer, and in return, your employer gives you a large IOU called a paycheck, which you then use to import from your vendors. As long as you export more than you import, you have an excess of IOUs that can be invested and you are increasing your net wealth. However, when you have more imports, you are living on credit (like millions of Americans do).

Now, indebtedness is by itself not awful if two conditions are met: the cost of borrowing is cheap, and the credit is used for additional revenue-generating assets. The Chinese have made sure the first is true, but what about the second? Most of their investments have been in government securities, and it is questionable if our governments are investing them in revenue-enhancing activities. (Think of the difference between investing in a rental property versus a car)

And as an individual, you do have to worry about the spigot turning off. That's why you pay your way out of even a mortgage. In the case of the US, the trade deficit keeps increasing. What happens when foreign borrowers are now longer satisfied with their risk-reward profile? After all, a credit card gives you money because that's how it makes money, but at some point, the returns on a risk-adjusted basis are no longer appealing, and the spigot of easy money is turned off. How will the US cope in this event?

1 comment:

greenday said...

Maybe at some point, other countries will get into the "spend more than you can afford" mode and start buying from the U.S. Now the question is-- what could they buy?