Friday, March 30, 2018

Krugman: Trade and the Cities (Wonkish)

Trade and the Cities (Wonkish)

Paul Krugman


Bad policies sometimes lead to interesting economics. For example, the disastrous turn toward austerity after 2009 was a kind of natural experiment that led to an upwelling of good work on the effects of fiscal policy.

And I'm starting to think that the Trumpian trade war, which finally seems to have arrived, will lead to some good work on international economic policy. Like the work on fiscal policy, it will of course be ignored by people in power. But still worth doing.

In this little essay I'm going to offer some analysis and a few numbers based on a chain of thought that begins with Trump's evident disdain for Japan and ends up in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Buffalo. What? Bear with me if you have a taste for things wonkish.

My starting point is a peculiar aspect of Trump's climb-down on steel tariffs. The ostensible justification for these tariffs was national security; but as was widely noted from the start – although this probably came as news to the Trumpies – most U.S. steel imports come from American allies. And now Trump has granted exemptions to allies that largely vitiate the supposed point of the exercise.

One country that has conspicuously not been granted an exemption, however, is Japan. Why not?

One answer may be that the Japanese aren't, you know, white.

Another answer may be that Trump, who often seems to have fixed ideas about the world that are long out of date – like his belief that American cities are gripped by a huge crime wave – is still living in the Michael Crichton era when Japan was going to take over the world any day now.

Yet a third answer may be that the U.S. does run a trade deficit with Japan – actually even bigger than the headline number if you include Japanese components embedded in Chinese exports – and Trump believes that (a) a trade deficit means that you're losing while someone else is winning and (b) trade balances are determined by protectionism.

Both propositions are, of course, untrue. In reality, trade balances are the flip side of capital flows: countries that attract more inflows of foreign capital than their own outflows must, by the sheer arithmetic, run current account deficits (that is, including investment income). Conversely, countries that are exporters of capital run current account surpluses.

And modern Japan is a country that really should be running current account surpluses, for one powerful reason: demography. Japan has a rapidly declining working age population:


This means limited opportunities for investment, which means that it's a country that should be investing its savings abroad.

But the claim that trade surpluses often reflect weakness, while trade deficits reflect strength, is a very hard sell. And demographic drivers of trade imbalances are usually a lot less clear than this.

This, however, got me thinking: what about regions within the United States? We have sharply different growth rates across metropolitan areas, mainly driven by in- or out-migration. There are no protectionist barriers to muddy the picture, and capital is surely highly mobile within the country.

Unfortunately, we don't have comprehensive regional balance of payments data. Thanks to researchers at Brookings, however, we do now have a lot of information on the exports and imports of metropolitan areas – exports and imports to and from other parts of the U.S. as well as the rest of the world. I'm not sure how safe it is to use these data to estimate trade balances, but let me take a stab at it.

These data only cover goods; they don't cover either services or income transfers like, say, Social Security receipts, which as we'll see in a second can make a big difference. So I don't think I can run any regressions here. But I still think looking at metropolitan trade balances can be enlightening.

So let's look at the metros with the biggest goods trade deficits and surpluses.

First, the biggest deficits (data for 2010, in billions of dollars):

Washington: -$86 billion

Miami: -$68 billion

San Francisco: -$41 billion

Atlanta: -$35 billion

Baltimore: -$33 billion

OK, Washington runs a huge deficit in goods; basically, what it exports is garbage. No, literally: waste is the only product in which it runs a surplus. But this goods deficit is presumably offset by services, both the federal budget and stuff like payments to K Street lobbyists. My guess is that Baltimore has some of the same stuff.

Miami, meanwhile, is selling warm weather to senior citizens, who live largely off Social Security and Medicare.

The big deficit surprise here to someone with a Trumpist view of trade balances would surely be Atlanta, which has been one of our fastest-growing metropolitan areas: a 24 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2010. And we're talking about a big deficit – about 13 percent of metro GDP. What's that about?

The answer, surely, is that the deficit is a reflection of Atlanta's growth: we're talking about building lots of housing, office parks, and so on, and much of that is financed by capital inflows from the rest of the country.

Next, the biggest surpluses:

Los Angeles: +$63 billion

Memphis: +$29 billion

Greensboro: +$18 billion

Corpus Christi: +$18 billion

New Orleans: +$15 billion

Los Angeles is a very big metropolitan area, but also one whose growth has slowed a lot: it has run out of land, and zoning restrictions have kept it from building up. So its population rose only 3.7 percent from 2000 to 2010. As a result, it has probably become a big exporter of excess savings, hence a city with big trade surpluses, around 9 percent of GDP (probably even bigger if we had data on services).

I haven't done enough homework to know what's going on in the middle three here. But did you know that New Orleans runs huge trade surpluses? And I mean huge: almost 20 percent of GDP in 2010.

Now, I don't think many people would consider New Orleans an economic winner. In fact, its population declined 11 percent from 2000 to 2010, partly because of Katrina, but also because of wider problems. And that very decline means that savings generated in New Orleans go elsewhere in search of returns.

You can see the same thing in smaller cities with declining populations. Buffalo-Niagara Falls saw a 3 percent population decline in the 2000s; in 2010 it ran a trade surplus of 22 percent of GDP.

And what about the Big Apple? Greater New York ran a small goods trade deficit – 1.6 percent of GDP – in 2010, but thanks to the financial industry surely ran a huge surplus in services. (Remember, this is the metro area, not just New York, so there are plenty of goods exports from, say, the pharma complex in New Jersey.) So it's a big surplus economy overall – not because it's growing fast, but because despite immigration its overall population is growing slowly.

So to sum things up: within the United States we have large regional trade imbalances that don't reflect "unfair" trade policies, because interstate trade is totally free. And running trade surpluses isn't a sign of success, nor is running deficits a sign of failure. If anything, much of the time it's the reverse: fast-growing regions run deficits, stagnating regions run surpluses.

The same principles apply at the international level. And I'm sure experts in the Trump administration will explain to the president why his view of such things is all wrong. Oh, wait.-- 

John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

The Winners and Losers Radio Show
7-9 AM Weekdays, The Enlighten Radio Player Stream, 
Sign UP HERE to get the Weekly Program Notes.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.