Saturday, March 18, 2006

Phantom Trade "Deficits"

Thursday's Wall Street Journal contained an editorial of stunning import. The title was "Trade Deficit Disorder."

While it would be duplicative and overly ambitious to attempt to restate the piece here, let me note the its key points.

First, and most informative, was its reference to a 1776 U.S. Advisory Committee on the Presentation of Balance of Payment Statistics. That group recommended that the words "surplus" and "deficit" be avoided, for their improper fostering of perceptions of, respectively, "good" and "bad" effects.

Second, as I have long believed, the US receives more payments from foreigners, to hold our IOUs, because we have a combination of the most vibrant, productive, and legally safe economy and country on the planet. There is no other country which offers these attractive elements for investor funds.

Third, the piece debunked the commonly-held notion that the US is now a "debtor" nation. Rather, by analyzing and including rates of return on our liabilities and our assets, a Harvard study from the Kennedy School finds that "American assets abroad earn higher than normal rates of return because of noncounted factors....." Since our liabilities are Treasuries, paying much lower rates of returns, we are, still, a net creditor nation in terms of income flows. In fact, the study determined that China is a net debtor to us.

Thus, as I have thought for many years, many pundits have the trade flow situation entirely backwards. It is our country's attractive investment climate that causes it to receive inflows from abroad. They desire access to our innovative economy, our system of strong legal protection of tangible and intellectual property, and our people's business acumen.

As with most strategy and long-term planning, having the right data is critical to making intelligent moves. It would appear most media pundits have been reading the wrong data, and drawing incorrect inferences therefrom.

No comments: