Harbingers of Harder Times
Published: March 12, 2005
At $58.3 billion, the United States' trade deficit for January exceeded everyone's worst expectations. The huge mismatch reported yesterday between imports and exports just missed breaking the monthly record, set last November, and is all the more remarkable for occurring in a month when the price of oil actually declined.
The trade deficit is the single most important factor in measuring the extent to which the nation lives beyond its means. As such, it should force us to own up to the dangers of rampant deficit spending. But the White House is showing no sign of action, as if doing nothing might make the problem smaller.
In response to yesterday's trade deficit figure, the dollar weakened against the euro and the yen, and traders predicted further declines in the weeks and months ahead. That, in turn, contributed to a drop in stock and bond prices. Such gyrations are certainly not unprecedented. The dollar has been on a downward trajectory for three straight years and was going into a fresh skid even before the latest trade deficit figure was released.
That slump was largely in response to recent reports, some later denied, that Asian central bankers may begin moving their huge dollar holdings into other currencies. That would mean higher interest rates in the United States because the government would need to sweeten Treasury yields, and higher interest rates imply further declines in stock and bond prices. A declining dollar also risks higher inflation; more expensive imports give domestic producers an excuse to raise prices.
There may be more trouble to come. Next week, the government will release figures showing how much capital flowed into the United States from abroad in January. Those numbers were down by nearly one-third in December. If next week's report is disappointing, the logical response from the currency markets would be to sell dollars - again raising the threat of all the possible side effects.
Since the trade deficit is intimately connected to the federal budget deficit, the best way to reduce the trade imbalance is to reduce the budget gap. But President Bush is calling for more tax cuts, politically implausible spending cuts and costly Social Security privatization. Both parties in Congress must address the twin trade and budget deficits - or risk being forced to do so by events beyond their control.