Brad Setser

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The facts, just the facts (US goods trade)

by Brad Setser
August 31, 2006

First, US imports to three major non-oil (really non-resource) exporting regions of the world economy – Asia, Europe and North America.  Ok, Canada and Mexico sell their share of oil to the US, but they also account for a large share of US non-petroleum imports and exports.   I haven’t tried to strip out Mexican and Canadian energy exports to get their goods exports (US goods imports) only.     It turns out that it doesn’t matter – even if you include energy imports, the NAFTA countries do not explain the recent surge in US imports.   Look instead to Asia. 

All data comes from the BEA, ends with q1 2006, is a rolling four quarter sum and is presented as a percentage of US GDP.


After the very strong growth in US imports from Asia in 2004 and 2005, I just don’t see how folks can still argue that rising US imports from China just reflect shifts in the location of final production in Asia.  

Sure, that has happened.   In early 2003, total US imports from Asia were not any higher than they had been at the peak of the tech boom.   But things have changed since then! 

If imports from China were substituting for imports from elsewhere in Asia, I would expect overall US imports from Asia to be flat as a share of US GDP.  Or perhaps even fall, as cheap Chinese assembly replaces expensive Korea and Taiwanese assembly.   Yet overall US imports from Asia (the data series excludes Asian OPEC countries) clearly are rising as a share of US GDP.  That suggests some things previously made in the US are being imported from Asia – though the pace of increase seems to have moderated recently.

Second, US goods exports to the major goods producing regions of the world economy.


It is striking to me that US exports to these three regions remain below their 2000 (tech boom) levels.  Some of that fall reflects the tech bust.    Less capital investment globally (and in the US) meant fewer US chip exports (including the export of chips that were then imported as assembled electronics goods).   But that isn’t all that is going on either.   The big fall in US exports to Europe in 2002 reflects a European slump, but also the very strong dollar in 2001 and early 2002 …

Finally, the US trade balance with these three regions.    the_facts_3
The deterioration in the US trade balance with Asia stands out, at least to me.    From say the end of 2001, the US trade balance with Europe has deteriorated by about half a percent of US GDP while the US trade balance with Asia has deteriorated by almost a full percentage point.  

As importantly, most of the deterioration with Europe came in 2002 and early 2003, when the dollar was strong. The absence of a stronger rebound in the US trade balance with Europe is a bit of a puzzle – one that I suspect is explained in part by the strong growth of Chinese exports to Europe over the past few years.   Dollar (and RMB) depreciation did have an impact.  But it had a stronger impact on China than on the US.   

My hunch?  US (and other) firms are using China as an export platform for Europe … just as they are using China as an export platform to supply the US.

Or, put differently, the US has responded to the pressures created by globalization in two ways since say 2000.   Those at the top organize global supply chains (and the global financial chain).   Those at the bottom increasingly specialize in the production of non-tradables services …


  • Posted by Stormy

    I would suspect that as China gains the full chain of the manufacturing process, we will see trade balance with Asia begin to look more and more like that with NAFTA.

    In short, it only gets worse.

  • Posted by Guest

    Starbucks soars in China:After only seven years in mainland China, Starbucks already has 180 stores there, and sales and profit growth has exceeded all expectations. Analysts say the coffee retailer will continue spreading to smaller cities, and adjust its ownership structure by raising the equity participation of the Seattle parent company.

    Asian Highway network gathers speed: The monumental Asian Highway network, which will weave through 32 countries and link Asia with Europe, is making progress, with a section in Vietnam the latest to be finished. While many issues such as customs procedures remain to be addressed, the completed system could well become more important than its Silk Road ancestor.

  • Posted by Charles

    This is a good insight, Brad. However, I think it’s fair to say that every industrialized nation is using China and Southeast Asia as an export platform, Japan especially. So, the big question is what relative flows are.

    Charles of MercuryRising

  • Posted by ReformerRay

    How can the U.S. learn to live with China? By imitating Japan and Germany. Supply the Chinese with advanced machinery they use to produce goods.

    I recommend Eamonn Fingleton’s website “unsustainable” for a detailed discussion of how Japan maintains a trade surplus with China.

    The race we seem to be loosing is not with China, it is with Japan and Germany. They produce the high-tech goods that the U.S. should be producing.

  • Posted by Movie Guy

    Nicely done, Brad.

    There is no question that the offshoring and/or foreign substitution of goods produced is increasing. Once the next wave of high tech transfers occurs, we’ll see more evidence of the growing disparity.

  • Posted by Movie Guy

    I realize that you probably rely on the BEA web site for most of your trade data. That’s fine.

    I bring to the attention of others, though, that the same data is available from the Census Burear web site. I mention this because its files spool up faster and are readily available in pdf and text files as well as xls. Moreover, there are some interesting rollups not available from BEA that the Census Bureau provides. If you’re trying to do a quick look or seek a breakdown by various coding systems, I would go to Census Bureau over the BEA.

    Some of the key trade data links include:

    Foreign Trade Statistics


    FT900: U.S. International Trade in Goods and Services

    Prior Issues and Historical Data – Monthly, 1994 to present
    * Scroll to the bottom of the page.

    Country and Product Trade Data

    Advanced Technology Product Data – Imports and Exports – ATP Group by Country


  • Posted by Movie Guy

    Reformer Ray,

    Here are four articles from my files on China’s shift to high tech production. I have plenty of other articles, but these lay out the case well enough.

    2006-01-11: China Maps Out High-Tech Development Plan

    2006-04-18: China Aims for 20% Rise In High-Tech Goods Trade

    2006-04-18: ‘Sanzi’ Firms (Joint Venture, Private and Totally Foreign-Owned) Take Up 75% of High-Tech Sector Income

    2006-06-01: China Encourages (Requires) Independent Innovation of Auto Industry, Including Foreign-Funded Manufacturers Direct Support

    The last article provides a good indication of how Western FDI firms will be “encouraged” to transfer technology to domestic firms in China.

    We can expect China to kick our butt as the nation ramps up for increasing its flow of high tech exports. It’s just a matter of time.

  • Posted by Movie Guy

    As Brad has so well demonstrated, the offshoring plans and initiatives of transnational corporations continue to gain strength.

    With regard to such strategies, I have seven basic questions regarding U.S. trade policy:

    1. If the U.S. government is unwilling or unable to create and support effective U.S. trade policy and currency valuation policy in such a manner as to provide a level playing field whereby growing economic advantages are repeatedly provided to offshore production of goods and some services (as is becoming the case) by U.S. transnational corporations or foreign corporations, then what is the plan for sustaining the U.S. economy down the road?;

    2. What is the U.S. government’s plan, with respect to U.S. trade policy, for reversing the massive U.S. trade deficits?;

    3. What is the U.S. government’s plan, with respect to U.S. trade policy, for future U.S. employment wage growth and skills retention in critical nationbuilding and infrastructure supporting industries?;

    4. What is the U.S. government’s plan, with respect to U.S. trade policy, for protecting the future well being of American workers, households, and retirees in light of the economic imbalances that the United States is facing?;

    5. What is the U.S. government’s plan, with respect to U.S. trade policy, to satisfy the Congressional mandate that U.S. trade policy initiatives be designed and implemented in such manner as to improve the standards of living of average American citizens?;

    6. What is the U.S. government’s plan, with respect to U.S. trade policy, to counter all known and anticipated reverse protectionism measures adopted by U.S. trading partners which are not being resolved quickly with case filings with the World Trade Organization and direct consultations with the IMF and trading nations concerned with regard to such matters as currency valuation pegs or near pegs which distort the trade markets, VAT credits as approved by WTO which provide obvious producting marketing advantages to such nations that employ the VAT systems, and all other known subsidies and market distortions as presently practiced?; and

    7. Absent effective actions on 1. through 6. above, what is the U.S. government’s plan, with respect to U.S. trade policy and other national policies, to sustain the economic growth of the United States of America, employment growth including skills retention and skills base expansion, and comparative advantage of U.S.-based durable goods manufacturing, agricultural production, and importable services industries?

  • Posted by Psh

    ‘Those at the top organize global supply chains … those at the bottom increasingly specialize in the production of non-tradables services’ Some day they’ll silk-screen that on t-shirts with a Brad head for future crust punks. Cuz nothing gets rid of those external imbalances like a fall in the relative price of nontradables.

  • Posted by Guest

    MG, so many questions and no answers? I am disappointed since you usually seem to have all or most of the answers.

  • Posted by Movie Guy


    Are you the U.S. Government’s spokesman? If so, step up. Answer the seven questions. Knock yourself out.

    My remarks are directed to key economists and others, in and outside of federal government service, who should be asking similar questions.

    I have opinions as to potential courses of action, but I’m interested in learning the government’s response or the responses of those advising government leaders.

  • Posted by Guest

    Those at the top organize global supply chains (and the global financial chain). Those at the bottom increasingly specialize in the production of non-tradables services …

    Foucault the Neohumanist? Power reputedly consisted of a relationship between sovereign and subjects. It bespoke the capacity of rulers to censure or to control the behavior of those they ruled. That was the traditional model of power that Foucault vigorously challenged in these pathbreaking studies. As he remarked laconically: “In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king.” By remaining beholden to an anachronistic notion of power, the human sciences, Foucault claimed, remained impervious to the distinctive modalities and flows of power in modern society, tone-deaf to the diffuse and insidious operations of “biopower”: modern society’s well-nigh totalitarian capacity to institutionally regulate and subjugate individual behavior — via statistics, public-health guidelines, and conformist sexual norms — down to the most elementary, “corpuscular” level.

    What would happen if we reconceived power as operating on a horizontal axis, wondered Foucault? What if the traditional vertical focus on sovereignty, governance, and law were diversionary, leading us to mistake power’s genuine tenor and scope? What if power’s defining trait were its productive rather than its negative or suppressive capacities? In that case, power’s uniqueness would lie in its ability to shape, fashion, and mold the parameters of the self, potentially down to the infinitesimal or corpuscular level. Following Descartes, we have typically been taught to conceive of the self as a locus of autonomy or freedom. But what if this autonomy were in fact illusory, concealing potent, underlying, and sophisticated mechanisms of domination?

  • Posted by DOR


    “If imports from China were substituting for imports from elsewhere in Asia, I would expect overall US imports from Asia to be flat as a share of US GDP.”

    Why GDP? Why not as a share of US imports? Second question: is “Asia” Japan, China, the NICs and ASEAN?


    In the first seven months of 2006, Japan reported a trade deficit – not a surplus – with China of Y1.72 trillion, or US$14.9 billion. The last Japanese monthly trade surplus with China (according to Japanese figures) that wasn’t due to heavy seasonality, was in July 1993. China reports the opposite: 48 straight months of trade deficit with Japan.

    Take your pick, but be careful about suggesting we adopt the Japanese model.


  • Posted by MTC

    Reformer Ray –

    A few years back Alex Kinmont, a stock broker, spoke for all of us living in Tokyo when an interviewer engaged him a word association game:

    Interviewer – “Eamonn Fingleton”

    Kinmont – “Erich von Daniken”

  • Posted by MTC

    To All –

    Sorry about the double postings–there seems to be some kind of echo problem, possibly involving the preview mode.

  • Posted by Guest

    re: “the big question is what relative flows are”

    “…More extreme sanctions would be a freeze on Iranian assets or a broader trade ban, but those would likely be opposed by Russia, China and perhaps others, particularly since it could cut off badly needed oil exports from Iran.”,,-6051939,00.html

  • Posted by Guest

    “…India’s annual growth in manufacturing output, at 9 percent and accelerating, is close to catching growth in services, at 10 percent. Exports of manufactured goods to the United States are now rising faster in percentage terms than China’s, although from a much smaller base. More than two-thirds of foreign investment in the last year has gone into manufacturing in India, not services… cities in the export-oriented Guangdong Province in southeastern China raised monthly minimum wages this summer by 18 percent… after factories reported that they had one million more jobs than workers to fill them… “I think India will pass China very soon.”…”

  • Posted by Guest

    “…Resentment has been smouldering in official circles in China since 2005, when the world’s main iron ore producers won a 71 per cent annual increase in the price of iron ore in negotiations with Japan and Europe. Although China is by far the largest importer of iron ore, which is used to make steel, it played no role in the talks and was forced to accept the price… “With reference to the model set for iron ore, we should start as soon as possible a price-negotiating system for oil, alumina and copper and other commodities, and expand the use of long-term trade contracts,” Mr Wei wrote in the Economic Daily, a local newspaper. “We are a large buyer but lack international pricing power, and as a result, the cost of buying resources and energy products is getting higher and higher.”…”

  • Posted by Guest

    MG, if you want to know what “key economists” think, why not contact them directly? You are important enough to have their ear, are you not? And then you could summarize their answers for us here.

  • Posted by Cassandra


    Alex Kimmont was to Japanese strategy forecasting as FIAT used to be to automobiles, or Allitalia is airlines. His nickname was “The Weathervane” and his “insights” were less than useless from an investor’s perspective. One might have just easily put possible scenarios, or random insights, inside a pinata, strike it with a stick, and choose the first one that drops out. Using Mr Kimmont to ‘diss Eammon Fingleton, should raise Fingleton in any reader’s esteem.

    Having worked for Japanese, inside a Japanese institution, I can suggest, with some experience, that Mr Fingleton is more right than wrong in comparison to well-known economic apologists shedding overly empathetic tears for the tatamae that the MoF & Keidanren desires to display, and the US to digest. Though America may still triumph in the Little League World Series, it is so out of it’s league in playing “the big game”. Such are the advantages accruing to a more collectivist-oriented culture.

  • Posted by Stormy


    You were offered a place in the line-up. Swing the bat.

  • Posted by ReformerRay

    Wow! Did I get a reaction by suggesting that the version of Japanese success touted by Fingleton is worth examining.

    The part of Fingleton’s essays that struck me as very important was his report that the Japanese will only provide China with the products they need rather than the technology they need.

    I realize the horse is already out the barn, that China has acquired most of the techonology they need by restricting access to their market until they get what they want. Nevertheless, retaining how-t0-do-it secrets seems to me to be the only hope for western countries.

    I will go back and read the articles suggested by Movie Guy to see if there is any point in shutting the barn door.

    I bow to DOR as having a better grasp of recent data on trade between China and Japan. Sure looks like both countries will lie through their teeth to paint whatever picture they want to paint for us naive foreigners. It may very well be that the data cited by Fingleton refers to history rather than current events. The world is moving awfully fast.

    Nevertheless, with all the qualifications that have been suggested, I repeat my assertion that the Fingleton articles provides good food for thought.

  • Posted by ReformerRay

    “Nearly 60 percent of the high-tech products, valued at 124 billion yuan, are covered by intellectual property rights.”

    Above quote from an article, suggested by Movie Guy above, describing how half of the production in a certain providence is high-tech products. I was impressed by their assertion that the activity is “covered by intellectual property rights”. Sounds like the Chinese expect their own property rights to be respected. Maybe China would be more respectful of U.S. property rights if U.S. companies began to poach on their achievements.

    Sure is an interesting time. I just wish more people in the U.S. would recognize what is happening and act to slow down the loss of U.S. eminience.

  • Posted by Guest

    I’m probably not understanding what you are saying Brad, but my first response would have been to guess that those at the bottom organize into black and grey markets.

    Off topic for this post, but wondering how well or if eBay economics is factored in.

    ‘Pitney Bowes Facilitates Ebay Cross Border Transactions with New Service’, June 2006

    The eBay Economy:

  • Posted by bsetser

    Well, the market for home construction and plumbing is grey, so to speak. plumbers are not known for paying taxes if they are paid in cash — but i wasn’t referring to black/ grey markets. I was referring to the shift in the composition of the US labor force (and economy) toward non-traded services of all kinds — home health care, nail salons and the like — and residential construction.

    DOR: “Why GDP? Why not as a share of US imports? Second question: is “Asia” Japan, China, the NICs and ASEAN?”

    Imports are rising as a share of GDP because of a terms of trade shock that has increased the price of commodities. Asia’s share of US imports coudl therefore be flat even if its share of various manufacturing markets is rising. Moreover, conceptually US imports from say Asia and Mexico could both be rising as a share of GDP but their relative shares would be flat. I consequently don’t find imports from asia as a share of total imports a useful stat.

    I also have noticed those who argue that the US imbalance with Asia isn’t a proble tend to like that stat (asian imports as a % of total imports) a bit too much — largely because the share has been roughly flat, and it is complicated to explain that if it is flat and it should be falling (b/c of higher oil prices) that tells you something. Imports as a share of GDP is cleaner, and it is a decent proxy for Asian market share in manufacturing assembly/ design/ production etc.

    The data was calculated by subtracting US imports from asian oil exporters (i..e the middle east) from the total Asian data — so it includes Asean, India, China, Japan, etc.

  • Posted by ReformerRay

    Movie Guy has posed questions that ought to be answered by governmental officials.

    My first introduction to this subject was to read the 2000 Final Report of the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission. As a few of you may remember, the Congress established the Commission in 1999 to give advice on what should be done about the trade deficit.

    Their response was “do nothing”. The trade deficit is just the inevitable consequence of the rapidly growing U.S. economy. (that was the Republican response, which the Democrats did not challenge directly. Instead, the Democrats pleaded for governmental money to help people harmed by the trade deficit).

    When the economy tanked, and the trade deficit continued to grow, no one in a position of influence, repudiated the previous report. Nobody said we were wrong.
    We need a fresh look at this question.

    The economic profession, as a group, has provided intellectual cover for those who want to continue the current system until —- well, until they are no longer in charge.

    The intellectual problem is bigger than just excessive allegiance to free trade. Most still believe that lack of savings in the U.S. is the reason for the large trade deficit. That in the richest country in the world that has Net Wealth in excess of 52 trillion dollars at the last count.

    Movie Guys questions need to be answered. If not by governmental officials, at least by economists who are still defending continuing with the status quo.

  • Posted by Guest


    I am not a “key economist” and I don’t know any of them well enough to call them up. I am sure MG does, however.

  • Posted by Guest

    re: “the loss of U.S. eminence”

    Ray – can’t see how protectionism would be the solution. And my understanding is that battles for intellectual property eminence are evolving to more interfirm firm rivalry, thinking of this as one recent example: ‘A Wall Street Rush to Patent Profit-Making Methods’:

    It would be interesting to hear from some of the engineers that frequent this site, but the ones I know are very well traveled and value the perspective and knowledge of the ‘foreign’ team members.

  • Posted by amit


    Re: 52 trillion dollars net worth

    “the US has amongst the highest incomes/wages/etc per capita”. The income outliers on both ends are way too extreme in the current US economy to make any sense of a per capita income or median income.


    Re:shift in the composition of the US labor force (and economy)

    This composition is horrible, all such services are just fluff, if consumers have to tighten their belts, these would be the first to go out of the window. Why should somebody trim/manicure/paint their nails @ a salon for $10-30 when they won’t have money to eat or pay their bills?

    Booming sectors in the coming economy
    1) Cheap motels providing rooms @ less than Holiday Inns or their ilk. Why? Mortgaged out of their homes.
    2) Mass transportation/transit. Why? No money to pay their car note.
    3) Exotic Entertainment. Why? Related to the world’s oldest profession. We may well see gigolo being mainstream.

  • Posted by Guest

    Ray/MG – perhaps one of the problems with providing clear, instant answers to MG’s questions, which U.S. authorities must hear every day, may be that many, if not the majority of ‘Americans’, at least the ones I know, aren’t really American. They’re Irish, Chinese, German, Latino, Italian, Middle Eastern, East Indian, African, Ukrainian, whatever and they all have strong ties to their own home countries. So they also may not want the ‘U.S.’ to impose policies that will compromise their extended families well-being in their home countries either – or their remittances to, or transactions and contact with them. So it has to be a difficult constituency to serve.

  • Posted by Guest

    ‘amit’ – all good reasons why we shouldn’t waste a whole lot of time on your blog.

    Brad – another dumb question. Looking at the recent NYT story ‘110-Building Site in New York City Goes on Market’, when residential properties are owned by REITs, does that make them tradable?

  • Posted by ReformerRay

    Guest – Protectionism as historically defined is not the solution because its pits one U.S. industry against another and it will lead to retaliation.

    Who said that protectionism, as historically defined, is the only means available to the U.S. to control the volume of immports into the U.S.?

    The first question is; “Given current realities, would the U.S. be better off or worse off if the volume of imports into the U.S. were cut in half over a period of 3 to 4 years?” If the answer is yes, then explore our options.

    The problem is the total size of the trade deficit, not any one product. Therefore, the restrictions should address the total size of the trade deficit. The best way to do that is to provide a small but gradually increasing tariff on ALL imports coming into the U.S. from the 5 nations that are responsible for 60% of the U.S. trade deficit.

    Diverting attention from Brad’s posts to my ideas is not good. I vowed to stop doing it. But I find it extremely difficult to ignore a challenge. I have been working on these issues for a long time and I want to find a way of discussing these things which will ultimately reverse the apathy with which so many people view our predicament.

    I don’t think ancestors have anything to do with it. Our political and business leadership has become interested only in next month’s profit figures. Our intellectual leadership I will not characterize.

  • Posted by bsetser

    REITs certainly can be traded — you cannot buy or sell an apartment easilty, but you can buy or sell a share of the apartments’ rent … it is a form of securitization.

    MG — not sure posting comments on this blog is the best way to reach big name economists, much as we all might wish it to be the case.

  • Posted by ReformerRay

    I apologize for my impatient carelessness. The above post should say that the goal is to cut the merchandise TRADE DEFICIT in half, not imports.

    If the trade deficit reduction comes solely from less imports (exports remain the same), reducing the trade deficit by 50% would reduce imports by 23%. If the imports are reduced to 383 billion (half using 2005 numbers), that would leave the U.S. trade deficit at 30% of U.S. imports. No other major country had a ratio of merchandise trade deficit to imports in excess of 25% in 2005.

    I am not asking for the moon. I am not asking to destroy the world trading system. I just want to get a little closer to the rest of the world.

  • Posted by STS


    I don’t speak for anyone, but I think you know perfectly well the US Gov’t has no plans on any of the points you raise. If you had posed these questions to the Clinton administration, a minority of policy folks would have had some answers which they were attempting to defend against political operatives who had an eye on the Republican majorities in Congress. Today … gimme a break …

  • Posted by ReformerRay

    STS – True, the political leadership is content with current practice, since profits have remained high.

    No reason for the intellectual leadership to agree.

    What is politically possible today is not the same as what should become politically possible in the future.

  • Posted by MTC

    Cassandra –

    I have just visited your blog and read its contents.

    You seem the victim of a misapprehension. No one in the political world ever thought Tanigaki Sadakazu’s appointment (and subsequent reappointment) to the position of Minister of Finance a significant event. No one ever assumed his utterances were going to reflect actual government policies or plans.

    The key persons in the formulation of financial and fiscal policy since 2003 have been LDP Policy Research Council chief Nakagawa Hidenao (who was the point man in House of Representatives Policy Affairs before his elevation to his present party position), Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy and Financial Services Yosano Kaoru, BoJ Governor Toshihiko Fukui (whose options have been limited not just by the Murakami scandal but the no-pants shabu-shabu scandal of 1998)and Financial Services Agency Commissioner Gomi Hirofumi. Takenaka Heizo’s appointment to the post of Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications lifted his hands from the policy tiller–but he was of course a major force until the September election.

    Tanigaki has never been assumed to be a member of the real premier league.

    As for the incoming Abe Cabinet, Eamonn Fingleton’s guess would for once be as good as mine as to identities of the new financial and fiscal policy bigwigs.

    No, I am afraid not even that is true.

  • Posted by Casandra


    I trust you read the post “MoF v. BoJ – Financial Kabuki”?

    I have not the least doubt that your knowledge of the subtleties and personalities of domestic Japanese politics exceeds my own (which you’ve demonstrated by the illuminations you’ve provided here). My arcane area of interest & expertise is financial markets in and general and Japan’s equity markets, in particular.

    As for Mr. Tanigaki, I have no illusions as to who and what he represents, and my derision is directed at The Position he occupies, and the policies that he de facto represents, and champions with apparent relish.

    You seem opposed to the idea that Japan is anything but an exemplary global financial citizen. At the risk of being presumptuous, might that bear any relation to the position that you yourself occupy at OAI?

  • Posted by Anonymous

    Is there any data pre-2000?