Enormous, Humongous Trade Deficits Widen, Further Exposing Failed Policy

Dave Johnson

In December the trade deficit in goods and services made its largest percentage jump in more than five years and the 2014 yearly total is its highest since 2012 – which begs the question: Why is the Obama administration doubling down on the failed trade policies of its predecessors?

The U.S. has run massive trade deficits for decades since the Wall Street-driven “free trade” ideology came to dominate. “Free trade” de-industrialization has cost our country millions of jobs, tens of thousands of factories and entire industries. It has pushed down wages and greatly increased inequality. Now the Obama administration is doubling down, pushing a vast “NAFTA-style” trade agreement and asking Congress to pass a rigged “fast track” process to pre-approve it.

December’s Numbers

The U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday that the December trade deficit jumped $6.8 billion (17.1 percent) to $46.6 billion, the largest since November 2012 and the biggest percentage increase since July 2009.

Exports fell $1.5 billion to $194.9 billion (with a chunk of our exports being oil and gas and other raw materials, not manufactured, finished goods). Imports rose $5.3 billion to $241.4 billion.

2014’s Totals

For all of 2014, the trade deficit increased $28.7 billion (6 percent) to $505 billion. There was a $6.5 billion (2.9 percent) increase in the services trade surplus and a $35.2 billion (5.0 percent) increase in the goods trade deficit. Note that exports increased, but imports increased more. Exports were $2,345.4 billion, up $65.2 billion or 2.9 percent. Imports were $2,850.5 billion, up $93.9 billion or 3.4 percent.

The resulting trade deficit subtracted 1.02 percentage point from last year’s GDP growth and is causing the government to revise growth forecasts downward.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Robert Scott pointed out that “The U.S. trade deficit in manufactured products increased to $524.2 billion in 2014, an increase of $76.8 billion (17.2 percent) from 2013. … Growing trade deficits in manufactured products have been a primary driver in the displacement of U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2000.”

The 2014 trade deficit with China increased by $23.9 billion to $342.6 billion. Exports to China were up $2.3 billion to $124.0 billion while imports from China increased $26.2 billion to $466.7 billion. Again, exports increased but imports increased more, resulting in job loss and a drain on our economy.

Korea and NAFTA

Since the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, our trade deficit with Korea has surged more than 80 percent, which equates to the loss of more than 70,000 U.S. jobs. The U.S. goods trade deficit with Korea increased 20 percent in 2014 to more than $25 billion. 2014 exports to Korea were lower than 2011 – which was before entering into the KORUS trade agreement.

Brad Markell, Executive Director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, issued a statement that included the following:

These numbers are a consequence of a murderer’s row of bad trade deals. Together, NAFTA, PNTR, CAFTA, and KORUS have gutted the U.S. manufacturing sector. They’re a hall of fame of horribles.

So why is the Obama administration doubling down on the failed policies of its predecessors? Especially when the President and his team have worked hard to encourage American manufacturing by saving the domestic auto industry, establishing a national technology strategy, and enforcing trade-rule violations. Their dogged pursuit of more old-style trade agreements will undermine all of the progress we have made.

Instead, the Obama administration should crack down on foreign government’s currency manipulation to help our manufacturing sector. Prominent economists across the spectrum like Art Laffer, Larry Summers, Jared Bernstein, Dean Baker and Rob Scott all agree this is a significant problem that should be addressed in trade agreements. But President Obama recently acknowledged provisions on currency manipulation are being left off the table.

Currency Manipulation

A major cause of the trade deficits was currency manipulation by other countries. By manipulating the value of their own currency countries can cause American-made goods and services to cost more internationally. China and Japan are two of the worst offenders.

Currency manipulation is not addressed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement now under negotiation.

A February 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “Stop Currency Manipulation and Create Millions of Jobs,” shows how currency manipulation by China and others are costing the United States between 2.3 million to 5.8 million jobs.

Japan’s currency manipulation contributes to the approx. 897,000 us jobs lost to our 2013 trade deficit with that country — 466,000 of those in manufacturing.

Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute explains:

The U.S. dollar gained 13.3 percent against other major currencies between December 2013 and January 2014 (according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System) as a result ofcurrency manipulation by Japan and the slowdown in Europe.  Dollar appreciation reduces the competitiveness of U.S. exports and increases the U.S. goods trade deficit.

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) And Fast Track

The Obama administration is pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by saying that we need this trade deal to keep China from dominating the region. But our problem with China is because of trade deals. We set up conditions when we agreed to bring China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and we were promised jobs from exports. Instead we got massive imports.

President Obama talks about “boosting exports” but does not mention imports or the enormous, humongous trade deficit. The administration is putting up with these trade deficits and refusing to do anything about currency manipulation by China, Japan and others, while pushing TPP.

The TPP has nothing that fixes this problem. It does not require balance; it does not address currency manipulation. All it does is set up rules that create conditions for the giant multinational corporations to dominate and prevent competition.

EPI’s Robert Scott, in Increased U.S. Trade Deficit in 2014 Warns Against Signing Trade Deal without Currency Manipulation Protections warns of consequences of TPP, because several of the TPP countries are currency manipulators:

U.S. trade and investment deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and China’s membership in the World Trade Organization, have resulted in growing U.S. trade deficits and job losses and downward pressure on U.S. wages.   Several members of the proposed TPP are well known currency manipulators, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan. In fact, Japan is the world’s second largest currency manipulator, behind China. The United States should not sign a trade and investment deal with these countries that does not include strong prohibitions on currency manipulation.

Action note: The Alliance for American Manufacturing asks you to: “join us in telling Congress to ensure currency manipulation is addressed in the TPP.

We don’t need any more “free trade” agreements. The U.S. has run large and increasing trade deficits since the late 1970s, when the “free trade” ideology took over. The results are obvious. These trade agreements have devastated entire “rust belt” regions of the country. They have kept wages stagnant for decades. They have caused “structurally” high unemployment. They have shifted the middle class down into demeaning, low-wage jobs. They have brought incredible, massive wealth to a very few gazillionaires as they move more factories and jobs out of the country and pocket the wage and environmental-protection differential and these gazillionaires are now controlling our entire political system.

Enough Is Enough

We don’t need more corporate-dominated, rigged trade agreements. Instead we need to fix the agreements we already have. To do this we need to reform the corporate-dominated process that has gotten us where we are today. We need to bring in all of the stakeholders in these agreements and put them at the negotiating table.

Imagine a trade agreement negotiation by representatives of consumer, labor, environmental, health, LGBT, democracy and other citizen “stakeholder” groups instead of solely by and for the giant multinational corporations. Imagine the changes in the way we can all live.

Imagine a trade agreement that prohibits employers from threatening to move a job out of the country to keep someone from getting a raise. Imagine a trade agreement in which the participants agree not to import any goods from countries that allow pollution of the environment. Imagine a trade agreement that outlaws the sale of goods made in conditions that are unsafe for workers. Imagine a trade agreement that sets minimum standards for product reliability and customer support. Imagine a trade agreement that sets a limit on the gap between CEOs and their employees.

Honestly, democratically and transparently negotiated trade agreements could bring about a new direction for the world’s economy and citizens.


Campaign for America’s Future says: “No More Job Killing Trade Agreements.”

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) wants you to: “Tell Congress: We Can’t Afford to Outsource More Jobs.”

Robert Reich says, “I’m collaborating with my friends at Democracy for America and MoveOn to spread the word about why the TPP is such a bad idea. Check out this email that I made with MoveOn — and then sign DFA’s petition to Congress.”

Public Citizen wants you to email your representative to keep us from taking the Fast Track down the same losing path.

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