Wonkblog | Analysis
February 23, 2017 at 3:47 PM
At a meeting Thursday with the country's top manufacturing executives, President Trump made a puzzling statement about trade. "We don't have any good deals. In fact, I am trying to find a country where we actually have a surplus — surplus of trade. Everything is a deficit," he said. "I actually said to my people: Find a country where we actually do well. So far, we haven't found that country."
Data from his own federal agencies tell a much different story. This chart shows the top 15 countries with which we run a trade surplus in goods. At the head of the list are Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Belgium and Australia.
Since the president has widely complained about trade deals hurting the manufacturing sector, it's also worth focusing there. This chart show the top 15 countries where the United States is running a trade surplus specifically in manufactured goods — stuff like cars and machinery and plastics, but not agricultural goods or minerals like wheat or oil.
Our neighbor to the north tops this list, with a trade surplus of $42 billion. In 2016, the United States sold about $210 billion worth of manufactured goods to Canada, while importing only $167 billion.
Canada doesn't show up on the other list because we import a lot of oil and gas from up north. Thanks to that, we run a slight trade deficit in goods — about $11 billion in 2016. But remember, that difference is just a small fraction of the overall volume of trade between the United States and Canada. In 2016, we sent $267 billion worth of stuff across the border and imported about $278 billion.
So far, we've only looked at trade in goods because that's what most people think of when they talk about trade — stuff zipping around the world on trucks and boats and planes. But more and more these days, trade also involves services.
Think of American banks and insurance agencies doing business with foreign clients; American consulting firms helping foreign companies; and Hollywood selling movies abroad. When foreign visitors spend money in the United States, that tourism cash also counts as an export.
Services are a big export sector for the United States: In 2016, the nation ran a $750 billion trade deficit in goods but a $250 billion trade surplus in services.
Unfortunately, we can't get the same country-by-country breakdowns because the data is more limited. But according to the Census Bureau, we actually had overall trade surpluses with six of our 15 most important trading partners in 2015: Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United Kingdom. (The preliminary data for 2016 show the same picture.)
Let's go back to the example of Canada. When you factor in services, we've actually been running a trade surplus with Canada. They sell us more goods, much of it in the form of oil and gas, but we sell them more services, in the form of intellectual property and tourism. In 2015, that overall surplus was $6 billion. From what's been added up so far, it seems we had a similar surplus in 2016.
It's important to point out that the trade deficit is a poor measuring stick for the economy. Here's a good explanation why. Here's another. As MIT economist David Autor recently put it: "You have to understand the fundamental reason for trade is not because you win by exporting and lose by importing — it's that there are things that other countries make that you want to buy, and things you make that they want to buy."
But it just isn't true that we have trade deficits with every other country on Earth. It's not even difficult to find places where we're running a surplus. Just look north.