Talk about a non-story. That some globalization cheerleaders have tried to blow up into a scandal. And all because the Trump administration seems to be interested in correcting important distortions in some commonly used U.S. trade data that presents a misleading picture of America’s exports, imports, and trade balances.
Here’s the situation. Last Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that “The Trump administration is considering changing the way it calculates U.S. trade deficits, a shift that would make the country’s trade gap appear larger than it had in past years, according to people involved in the discussions.”
According to the Journal, “The leading idea under consideration would exclude from U.S. exports any goods first imported into the country, such as cars, and then transferred to a third country like Canada or Mexico unchanged….”
Continued the article, “Economists say that approach would inflate trade deficit numbers because it would typically count goods as imports when they come into the country but not count the same goods when they go back out, known as re-exports.”
So in other words, President Trump and his minions are thinking of artificially deflating the figures describing what the United States sells to the rest of the world, but not making a corresponding change on the import side that would reduce the amount of goods that the nation buys from its trade partners. The result would be a larger U.S. trade deficit, and added ammo for the administration’s claim that America’s trade policy needs major surgery. Talk about creating “alternative facts,” right?
That’s what the Journal‘s editorial board concluded. Charged these trade zealots, the Trump-ers’ “effort to recalculate U.S. trade flows to show larger deficits” is a “trick….borrowed from the political left” that “deserves to be hooted down as an attempt to manipulate statistics to assist bad economic policy [i.e., curbs on trade flows].”
But these allegations aren’t even close to the mark – that is, if you believe theJournal‘s own reporting. For as the original piece eventually reveals (based, as is the entire article, on anonymous sources), the president’s team is indeed mulling making those import data changes, too – which would involve switching the import measure “to ‘imports for consumption,’ a slightly narrower way of measuring imports that would make less of a difference in the overall balance. “
Which means that – weirdly – the Journal reporters decided not to tell those outraged economists that the supposed Trump administration exercise would make statistically valid symmetrical changes, or that these (of course nameless) economists received this info from the reporters and decided to ignore it in order to try to create the appearance of impropriety. It also means that Journal editorial writers either didn’t read their own publication’s coverage all the way through, or chose to ignore that decisive material. Either way, someone has just massively violated their profession’s ethics.
As for the change (reportedly) under consideration itself, it’s entirely justified because those re-exports that under the main system for presenting trade data are counted as real exports literally are not Made in America. As indicated above, they enter the U.S. economy from abroad and then are shipped overseas (or across the border to Canada or Mexico) in nearly all cases entirely or virtually unchanged.
Moreover, the distortions resulting from sloppy methodology of the main exports numbers are anything but bupkis. Last year, for example, failing to strip out foreign-produced goods boosted total U.S. merchandise exports by 15.43 percent – or $224.33 billion. Relatively speaking, the impact on manufactures exports was even bigger – 17.48 percent, or $223.36 billion.
And the effects on America’s goods exports to Mexico and Canada, its partners in the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are especially noteworthy. Proper counting would reduce 2016 U.S. merchandise exports to the former by 23.19 percent and manufactures exports by 25.30 percent. The comparable numbers for Canada are 17.14 percent and 17.93 percent.
Moreover, since proper counting has little effect on import totals, either globally or for NAFTA trade, raising its profile would definitely show higher U.S. deficits. And the export gap has been growing steadily across the board.
Fittingly, this story can be closed on an absurd note, too. As indicated above, the U.S. government already compiles and reports (though in an unsatisfactorily low-profile way), export and import data that quantify exports actually produced in America, and imports actually consumed in America (although, as discussed inthis solid Public Citizen analyses, the import numbers could still use some improvement). So a changeover to more accurate figures that reveal trade’s true impact on U.S. production and job creation looks to be pretty easy. Think we’ll be reading about that in The Wall Street Journal?