The U.S. Trade Deficit


Previous Page



What is the Trade Deficit? 

Information Courtesy Congressional Research Service, IF11016

What is the trade deficit?

The “trade deficit” generally is used to refer to three things: the balance of trade in goods, balance of trade in goods and services, and broadly as the balance on the current account. The trade balance is the difference between a country’s exports and imports of goods, services, and some income flows; this applies to each bilateral trading relationship, as well as to the aggregate across all trading partners. A deficit occurs when a country imports more than it exports. Broadly, a trade deficit is an indicator that a nation consumes more than it produces and does not save enough domestically to fund its investment needs (see below). The United States has run trade deficits annually for most of the post-WWII period. In 2019, the United States had a global trade deficit in goods and services of $576.9 billion. The deficit is driven by goods trade—the U.S. trade deficit in goods was $864.3 billion (down from a peak of $837.3 billion in 2006). A large and growing level of U.S. trade is in services, where the United States runs annual surpluses, exporting more than it imports. In 2019, the services trade surplus was $287.5 billion.

The broadest measure of a country’s trade balance is the current account, which includes trade in goods, services, net income (payments and receipts on foreign investments), and some official, or government, flows. The United States has experienced an annual current account deficit since the mid-1970s. In 2019, the United States had a $480.2 billion current account deficit, down from its historic peak of $816.6 billion in 2006. The shrinking deficit was largely due to the economic slowdown following the global financial crisis in 2008, which significantly reduced U.S. (and global) demand for imports, and the decline of commodity prices and U.S. oil imports in the wake of the shale oil and gas boom. The U.S. trade deficit relative to the size of the economy provides a metric to examine trends over time and compare with other countries. The U.S. current account deficit relative to GDP reached a historic high of 5.8% of GDP in 2006, but it has declined since to 2.4% of GDP as of 2019.

Why does the United States run a trade deficit?

Put simply, the U.S. global trade deficit reflects that the United States consumes more than it produces and imports more than it exports. Most economists argue that the trade deficit stems largely from U.S. macroeconomic policies, primarily an imbalance between domestic savings and total investment in the economy. The most significant cause of the trade deficit is the low rate of U.S. domestic savings by households, firms, and the government relative to its investment needs. To make up for that shortfall, Americans must borrow from countries abroad (such as China) with excess savings. Such borrowing enables Americans to enjoy a higher rate of economic growth than would be obtained if the United States had to rely solely on domestic savings. This boosts U.S. consumption and demand for imports, producing a trade deficit. A number of other factors can affect the size of the U.S. trade deficit in the short run, such as differences in economic growth between countries. The role of the dollar is also an important factor in sustaining the U.S. trade deficit. As a de facto global reserve currency, the U.S. dollar facilitates the trade deficit by broadening the availability of dollars and dollar-denominated assets. Foreign investors seek dollar-denominated assets as safe-haven assets, especially during times of economic stress. As long as foreigners (both governments and private entities) are willing to loan the United States the funds to finance the lack of savings in the U.S. economy, such as through buying U.S. Treasury securities, the trade deficit can continue.

What role do foreign trade barriers play in causing trade deficits?

Some policymakers view the size of U.S. bilateral trade deficits with certain countries—such as China, the largest single source of the U.S. overall trade deficit—as an indicator that the trade relationship is “unfair” and the result of market-distorting trade policies, such as trade barriers, subsidies, and discriminatory regulations. Such policies may potentially affect the volume of bilateral trade in specific products and with particular countries, but they have less effect on the size of the global U.S. trade deficit, which is largely a reflection of the low level of U.S. savings. The evidence suggests that high tariffs and trade barriers are not correlated with smaller overall trade deficits. If protectionist trade measures were reduced in certain countries, U.S. exporters might sell more products. However, if U.S. overall consumption and savings behavior did not change, increased demand for imports would leave the overall U.S. trade deficit relatively unchanged, all things held equal. Similarly, the reduction or imposition of protectionist trade measures in one country might simply result in trade diversion, the shifting of trade from one country to another, and do little to change the overall trade deficit.

Bilateral trade balances provide a useful snapshot of the U.S. trade relationship with a particular country, but they are influenced by various factors beyond trade barriers including the overall level of economic development and relative rates of economic growth, abundance of raw materials, and rates of technological change. Moreover, bilateral trade deficits with certain trading partners often marks complex supply chain relationships, where one country (such as China) is the final point of assembly for products (such as iPhones) or a supplier of inputs and components, where the added value that occurred in one country is relatively small compared to the value that occurred in other parts of the supply chain.

How does the trade deficit affect the exchange value of the dollar?

Without sufficient inflows of capital, a trade deficit causes other parts of the economy to adjust, in particular a country’s exchange rate (e.g., the value of the dollar relative to the yen or euro). Net imports cause a surplus of U.S. dollars to flow abroad. If converted to other national currencies, the dollar’s excess supply tends to lower its value relative to other currencies. In practice, this should make imports more expensive for Americans and exports cheaper for foreign buyers, gradually leading to a smaller trade deficit. However, the dollar holds a special status in global financial markets; countries use the dollar both as a medium of exchange and reserve currency. The U.S. economy is a safe haven for storing wealth and an attractive destination for investments, especially for countries with high savings rates, like China. When foreigners exchange their currency for U.S. dollars to buy U.S. Treasury securities, for example, the dollar appreciates, which makes U.S. exports more expensive. In addition, foreign governments (with large domestic savings) have intervened to keep the value of their currency from appreciating relative to the dollar by buying dollars and investing them back in the United States. Some analysts contend that past intervention in currency markets by China and other countries seeking to hold down the value of their currencies in order to boost exports has hampered the realignment of global trade balances.

Is the trade deficit a problem for the U.S. economy?

As discussed, trade deficits reflect the savings/investment shortfall, which means the United States is borrowing from abroad. One major concern is the debt accumulation from sustained trade deficits. Ultimately, whether borrowing to finance imports is worthwhile depends on whether those funds are used for greater investments in productive capital with high returns that raise future standards of living, or whether they are used for current consumption. If U.S. consumers, business, and the government are borrowing to finance new technology, equipment, or other productivity-enhancing products, borrowing results in a deficit and can be paid off because such investments are expected to result in a higher long-run economic growth. However, borrowing to finance consumer purchases (e.g., clothes, household electronics) pushes repayment to future generations, without investments to raise the ability to finance those repayments. Some economists also warn that under certain circumstances, a rising U.S. trade deficit could spark a large and sudden fall in the value of the dollar, risking financial turmoil in the United States and abroad. For example, foreigners could lose faith in U.S. ability to honor its debt or no longer see the United States as an optimal place to invest in.

Many economists argue that attempting to reduce the U.S. trade deficit without addressing the underlying macroeconomic imbalances could negatively affect the economy, including reducing economic growth, and do little to affect the trade balance in the long run. The current account deficit could be reduced by boosting domestic savings (i.e., reducing domestic consumption and government budget deficits) or reducing foreign investment (i.e., reducing borrowing from abroad). Realigning exchange rates through the depreciation of the dollar, or ensuring other countries are not intervening in the market to artificially devalue their currencies, is another means. Trade policies are generally not viewed as the most effective policy tools for affecting the overall trade balance.