The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

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October 14, 2016

Cumulative U.S. Trade Deficits Resulting in Net Profits for the U.S. (and Net Losses for China)

The United States has run trade deficits for decades (1976 is the last year with a recorded surplus). To illustrate this, chart 1 depicts the cumulative U.S. trade deficit since 1980, which now surpasses $10 trillion. As a result, a drastic deterioration in the U.S. net foreign asset position—the difference between the amount of foreign assets owned by U.S. residents and the amount of U.S. assets owned by foreigners—has occurred. That is, as Americans borrow from the rest of the world to finance the recurring trade deficits, the national net worth goes deeply into the red. Not long ago, many commentators predicted that as a result of this increasing U.S. foreign debt, the U.S. dollar was set to collapse, which would trigger a stampede away from U.S. assets. Of course, this has not happened.

Much of the rising U.S. deficit is the by-product of deficits with one country in particular: China. Chart 2 shows that U.S. bilateral trade deficits with China have been growing steadily during these years. In 2015, the total U.S. goods trade deficit was about $762 billion, and the goods deficit with China alone made up nearly half of that total ($367 billion). This situation is not unique to the United States, as many countries find themselves in similar trade positions with China. During the last few decades, China has been running protracted trade surpluses with the rest of world and has accumulated a positive and sizeable net foreign asset position.

Yet, despite accumulating a positive and sizeable net foreign asset position, China is facing increasing losses in net income on its foreign assets. Put differently, China has been accumulating negative returns on its increasingly large portfolio of foreign assets. Chart 3 shows this observation, made in a paper by Eswar Prasad of Cornell University at a recent conference cosponsored by the Atlanta Fed and the International Monetary Fund.

The net income on foreign assets measures the return a nation receives from the foreign assets it owns minus the return paid on domestic assets held by foreigners. In sharp contrast to China, however, the U.S. international net financial income has remained positive and has even increased. This increase comes despite the fact that the United States has consistently run trade deficits, and its net foreign asset position has deteriorated. Chart 4 shows the U.S. income from foreign assets and foreigners' income on U.S. assets, which is reported as a negative number for this series because it is regarded as a liability for the United States. The difference between these amounts is depicted by the middle line, which shows the net foreign income of the United States.

How is this possible? Ricardo Hausmann (Harvard University) and Federico Sturzenegger (currently, the chairman of Central Bank of Argentina) came up with an explanation more than ten years ago: the United States gets a far higher return on its foreign assets than the other way around. Indeed, U.S. foreign direct investments (FDI) often generate a relatively high rate of return. In part, U.S. FDI are benefiting from business expertise, brand recognition, and research and development in new product and service lines. Comparatively, foreigners tend to earn substantially less return on the American assets they own. Foreigners often desire to hold their dollar assets in the form of safe, liquid assets, which—following the "low-risk, low-return" principle—have relatively low returns.

To see this, chart 5 shows the sources of the net financial income of the United States. The U.S. government net income is negative—mostly the by-product of interest payments in government debt held by foreigners. The U.S. gets most of its financial return from FDI. Although much has happened in the world economy during the last decade, the implications of Hausmann and Sturzenegger's analysis remain intact. In sum, the differential return from these foreign assets and liabilities appear to largely compensate for the trade deficits.

Eswar Prasad also showed that China is in a starkly different situation. Most of its foreign liabilities are in the form of FDI, while the vast majority of the foreign assets are reserve assets and foreign exchange reserves—not surprisingly, largely U.S. dollars and U.S. Treasury securities. The rate of return foreigners make on Chinese assets is around twice the rate of return China gets on its foreign assets.

This analysis suggests that focusing on a country's net foreign asset position conveys an incomplete picture of the profitability of foreign assets because it fails to account for the differences in rates of returns that countries earn on their foreign assets. Overall, the United States makes a sufficiently high return on foreign assets that it maintains positive net income on foreign assets. The situation is similar to role leverage in investing; debt can be profitable if you can devote it to purposes that earn a higher rate of return than your cost of borrowing it. Therefore, when viewed in terms of the net income earned on foreign assets the United States holds, the sizable U.S. trade deficits may not be as much of a concern as commonly thought.

May 19, 2011

The long and short (runs) of tax reform

In an earlier part of my career, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about fiscal policy issues. The evolution of my responsibilities eventually moved my attentions in a somewhat different direction, but you never really forget your first research love. With questions of debt, government spending, and taxes at the top of the news, it isn't hard for my old fondness for the topic to reemerge.

So, in that context, I had a somewhat nostalgic response to an item at Angry Bear, written by contributor Dan Crawford. In essence, the Crawford post formally (through statistical analysis) asks the question "How is GDP growth related to marginal tax rates (that is, the tax rate applied to your last dollar of income)?" More specifically, Crawford analyzes how gross domestic product (GDP) growth next year is related to the marginal tax rate faced by the average individual and the marginal tax rate faced by the highest-income taxpayers.

I don't intend to quibble with the specifics of that experiment per se but rather highlight an aspect of taxation and tax reform that I think should not be forgotten. That is, the short run is no place for a decent discussion of tax policy to be hanging out. To say that more formally, the largest effects of tax policy accrue over time, and it is probably not a good idea to be too focused on the immediate—say, next year's—effects of any given policy or change in policy.

The following chart is based on tax reform experiments in a paper I co-authored over a decade ago with Alan Auerbach, Larry Kotlikoff, Kent Smetters, and Jan Walliser. (Note that the chart does not appear in the paper, but I created it using data from the paper—a publicly available version of the paper can be found here.) The chart depicts the cumulative percentage increases in national income that would be realized (in our model) in the years following three different tax reforms.

The three experiments depicted in this chart were as follows:

"[The clean income tax] replaces the progressive taxation of wage income with a single rate that is also applied to capital income. In addition, the clean income tax eliminates the major federal tax-base reductions including the standard deduction, personal and dependent exemptions, itemized deductions, the deductibility of state income taxes at the federal level, and preferential tax treatment of fringe benefits...

"Our flat tax experiment modifies the clean consumption tax by including a standard deduction of $9500. In addition, housing wealth, which equals about half of the capital stock, is entirely exempt from taxation."

Parenthetically, the "clean consumption tax"

"...differs from the clean income tax by including full expensing of investment expenditures. This produces a consumption-tax structure. Formally, we specify the system as a combination of a labor-income tax and a business cash-flow tax."


"Our [flat tax with transition relief] experiment adds transition relief to the flat tax by extending pre-reform depreciation rules for capital in place at the time of the tax reform."

Here's what I want to emphasize in all of this. If the change in policy you might be considering involves a reduction in effective marginal tax rates (implemented via a combination of changes in statutory rates and adjustments in deductions and exemptions), the approach taken by Crawford in his Angry Bear piece is probably acceptable. The clean income tax reform is in the spirit of Crawford's calculations, and in our results the long-run impact on output is realized almost immediately. If, however, the tax reform involves changing the tax base in a fundamental way (in both versions of our flat tax experiments the base shifts from income to consumption), then the ultimate effects are felt only gradually. In our flat tax experiments, the longer-run effects on income are in the neighborhood of three times as large as the near-term effects.

All of the experiments described were done under the assumption of revenue neutrality, so questions of the right policy for budget balancing exercises weren't explicitly addressed. (Nor is it the nature of the experiment contemplated in the Angry Bear post.) Nonetheless, they do suggest that deficit reduction exercises that involve changes in tax rates and the tax base will have differential effects over time, and realizing the full benefits of tax reform may require a modicum of patience.

Note: A user-friendly description of the paper that the chart above is based on appeared in an Economic Commentary article published by the Cleveland Fed.

Update: Though the item at Angry Bear was posted by Dan Crawford, Mike Kimel actually wrote it. I apologize for the mistake and draw your attention to Kimel's follow-up post.

Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

April 18, 2011

Can Keynesians be anti-Keynesian?

Follow any policy debate, and you are sure to find a list of economists who support or inspire those on both sides of the issue. In The Economist, we find some of those on the roster for the new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, and why:

"When Republicans proposed slashing billions of dollars from federal spending this year, Democrats circulated predictions by economists that jobs and growth would be hit. John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, countered with an economic expert of his own: John Taylor of Stanford University. 'Nothing could be more contrary to basic economics, experience and facts,' Mr. Taylor asserted on his blog, which Mr. Boehner cited. By cutting government spending, he said, the Republicans would 'crowd in' private investment and create jobs.

"… if there is one ideology that unites today's Republicans, it is Keynesianism, whose nefarious influence they are determined to stamp out. 'Young Guns,' the book-sized manifesto of Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, leading Republican House members, devotes several pages to the evils of Keynesian activism and its exponents in the administration."

One of the interesting things about the article is that among the economists cited as being among the critics of "Keynesianism," you find the names John Taylor, Robert Mundell, and Kenneth Rogoff. I find that list interesting because if you follow the links I attached to those names you will find work with models that are decidedly Keynesian in structure. Works by Taylor and Rogoff are, in fact, seminal contributions to the "New Keynesian" paradigm that dominates macroeconomics today.

As far as I know, none of these men have repudiated the basic worldview that motivates the referenced work. In fact, as recently as last year John Taylor approvingly described, as he has many times, a key characteristic of the paradigm for monetary policy that was in place the decades before the financial crisis:

"… the central bank has a strategy, or rule, to adjust the interest rate depending on economic conditions: In general, the interest rate rises by a certain amount when inflation increases above its target and the interest rate falls when by a certain amount when the economy goes into a recession."

I added the emphasis to the last part of that passage as it is a feature of the so-called Taylor rule that is entirely built on the foundation of the New Keynesian model.

How, then, to explain the Keynesian predilections of the economists mentioned as presumed carriers of the anti-Keynesian mantle? The source of the confusion, I think, goes back to the historical, but somewhat obsolete, distinction between so-called Keynesianism and monetarism. The latter was, of course, personified in Milton Friedman and his dispute with what was the orthodoxy in the three decades following the Great Depression. Lost in the early-days labeling, however, was the fact that the disputes were more about the empirical details of theory rather than the theory itself.

In particular, Friedman did not deny the effectiveness of policy in principle but rather its wisdom or impact in practice. This sentiment is exactly the one he expressed in his prescient and transformative 1968 presidential address to the American Economics Association:

"In the United States the revival of belief in the potency of monetary policy was strengthened also by the increasing disillusionment with fiscal policy, not so much by its potential to increase aggregate demand as with the practical and political feasibility of so using it."

In a recent essay on Friedman's views about the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy, Tim Congdon notes Friedman's views on the issue:

"Friedman offered two informal theoretical arguments for the virtual irrelevance of fiscal policy, as he saw it. The second was that fiscal policy is much harder to adjust in a sensitive short-term way than monetary policy. But the first was the more telling and deserves detailed discussion.… In Friedman's words, 'I believe it to be true… that the Keynesian view that a government deficit is stimulating is simply wrong.' The explanation was the wider effects of the way the budget deficit is financed. To quote again, 'A deficit is not stimulating because it has to be financed, and the negative effects of financing it counterbalance the positive effects, if there are any, on spending.' "

Though Congdon emphasizes different channels (associated with the mix of monetary and fiscal policy associated with deficit spending), those who follow such things may recognize in Friedman's remarks the notion of Ricardian equivalence:

"This is the idea that increased government borrowing may have no impact on consumer spending because consumers predict tax cuts or higher spending will lead to future tax increases to pay back the debt.

"If this theory is true, it would mean a tax cut financed by higher borrowing would have no impact on increasing aggregate demand because consumers would save the tax cut to pay the future tax increases."

My point is not to dispute or defend the truth of the Ricardian proposition. My point is that it has absolutely nothing to do with whether one believes (or does not believe) that the New Keynesian framework is the right way to view the world. The essential policy implications of the New Keynesian idea (like the old Keynesian idea) is that changes in gross domestic product can be driven by changes in desired spending by households, businesses, foreigners, and the government in sum. You can believe that and still believe in fiscal policy ineffectiveness, as long as you believe that total spending is unaltered by a particular policy intervention.

There are, of course, plenty of arguments against fiscal policy activism that do not require adherence to Ricardian equivalence, in total or in part. The most obvious would be the position that any short-term rush from stimulative policies is more than reversed in the long run by the negative consequences of higher tax rates on productive activity, or the redirection of private investment to lower return public spending. Again, the point is that a self-professed adherent to a Keynesian reality need suffer no doubts about the coherence of his or her intellectual framework if he or she objects to fiscal policies aimed at juicing the economy through greater government spending.

This whole discussion may seem like a bit of inside baseball, and perhaps it is. But the stakes in this debate are high, as clearly illustrated by today's announcement from rating agency Standard & Poor's that it reduced its outlook to negative on the triple-A credit rating of the United States. In my view, productive discussions about the truly pressing issues of our day are unlikely unless we understand where the disagreements lie—and where they do not.

Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed

January 11, 2011

The pluses and minuses of reluctant consumers

If you've been keeping up with news from last weekend's convergence of economists at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, you will probably have heard of this optimistic-sounding conclusion by Harvard economist Martin Feldstein:

"It is not hard to imagine that a few years from now the current account imbalances of the US and China will be very much smaller than they are today or even totally gone."

An advance copy of the article was provided a few weeks ago at Real Time Economics, and considerable commentary has followed since (here, here, here, and here, for example). Not surprisingly, the progress Professor Feldstein envisions has two components:

"The persistence of large current account imbalances reflects government policies that alter the savings-investment balances in both the United States and China.

"The large current account deficit of the United States reflects the combination of large budget deficits (negative government saving) and very low household saving rates. ...

"In contrast, China's large current account surplus reflects the world’s highest saving rate at some 45 percent of GDP [gross domestic product]."

The source of Feldstein's belief that progress will come?

"Consider first the situation in the United States. Current conditions suggest that national saving as a percentage of GDP will rise as private saving increases and government dissaving declines. Private saving has been on a rising path from less than two percent of disposable income in 2007 to nearly six percent of disposable income in 2010. The forces that caused the rise in the U.S. saving rate since 2007 could cause the saving rate to continue to rise. Those forces include reduced real wealth, increased debt ratios, and a reduced availability of credit. ...

"The reduction of the U.S. current account deficit implies that the current account surplus of the rest of the world must also decrease. While this need not mean a lower current account surplus in China, I believe that the policies that the Chinese have outlined for their new five year plan are likely to have that effect. These include raising the share of household income in GDP, requiring state owned enterprises to increase their dividends, and increasing government spending on consumption services like health care, education and housing."

Some skepticism about the probability of a substantial decline in Chinese saving rates was noted in a recent post at The Curious Capitalist, which focuses on some interesting new research that relates high Chinese saving rates to an increase in income volatility. To the extent that the increased income volatility is inherent in China's ongoing transition to a more market-based economy, substantial changes in consumer behavior might be difficult to engineer. That said, only about half of the increase in Chinese saving rates appears explainable based on natural economic forces, and the Chinese government can certainly reduce national saving of its own accord (via deficit spending). Furthermore, according to Feldstein's calculations, a relatively small decline in the Chinese saving rate could eliminate their side of the current account imbalance.

As to the first part of the equation—an increase in saving by U.S. consumers—Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart offered this yesterday in remarks prepared for the Atlanta Rotary Club:

"Households have been actively deleveraging—that is, working down debt levels and saving more of their income. The savings rate has increased from a little over 1 percent in 2005 to more than 5 percent currently.

"Consumer debt as a percent of disposable income has declined markedly over the past three years after rising steadily since the 1980s. Most nonmortgage consumer debt reduction has been in credit card balances. As consumers have reduced their debt, the share of income used to service financial obligations has fallen sharply to the lowest level in a decade.

"Consumer action to reduce debt is not the whole deleveraging story. In the numbers, the decline in overall household indebtedness has been highly affected by bank write-offs. Also, banks' stricter underwriting requirements for new consumer debt have contributed to runoff.

"I expect the phenomenon of household deleveraging to continue."

Restrained consumer spending was one item on a list of three "headwinds" that President Lockhart believes will serve to restrain growth in 2011 (the other two being policy uncertainties and ongoing credit market repair). Not that this is all bad:

"First, today's headwinds to a significant degree reflect structural adjustments that will, in the longer term, place the U.S. economy on a stronger footing. The preconditions for strong future growth are reduced uncertainty, improved consumer and household finances, and healthy credit markets.

"Second, I believe the headwinds I have emphasized will restrain growth but not stop it. I fully expect growth in gross domestic product, in personal incomes, and in jobs to be better in 2011 than in 2010.

"Finally, I acknowledge the potential that economic performance this year could surprise me on the upside. Businesses, for example, are sitting on lots of cash. Cash accumulation is not something that can continue forever, particularly in the case of public companies. It may not take much weakening of headwinds to unleash some of the economic forces that thus far have been bottled up."

Though faster progress would be welcome—particularly with respect to job creation—the Lockhart and Feldstein commentary makes it clear there is a delicate balance between resolving the short-run pain and setting up the longer-term gain.

Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
Senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed