Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Milton Friedman on trade deficits

In the 1980s, Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and father of Monetarism, contended that some of the concerns of trade deficits are unfair criticisms in an attempt to push macroeconomic policies favorable to exporting industries. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the U.S. had experienced high inflation and Friedman's policy positions tended to defend the stonger dollar at that time. He stated his belief that these trade deficits were not necessarily harmful to the economy at the time since the currency comes back to the country (country A sells to country B, country B sells to country C who buys from country A, but the trade deficit only includes A and B). However, it may be in one form or another including the possible tradeoff of foreign control of assets. In his view, the "worst case scenario" of the currency never returning to the country of origin was actually the best possible outcome: the country actually purchased its goods by exchanging them for pieces of cheaply-made paper. As Friedman put it, this would be the same result as if the exporting country burned the dollars it earned, never returning it to market circulation. This position is a more refined version of the theorem first discovered by David Hume. Hume argued that England could not permanently gain from exports, because hoarding gold (i.e., currency) would make gold more plentiful in England; therefore, the prices of English goods would rise, making them less attractive exports and making foreign goods more attractive imports. In this way, countries' trade balances would balance out.
Friedman believed that deficits would be corrected by free markets as floating currency rates rise or fall with time to encourage or discourage imports in favor of the exports, reversing again in favor of imports as the currency gains strength. In the real world, a potential difficulty is that currency markets are far from a free market, with government and central banks being major players, and this is unlikely to change within the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, recent developments have shown that the global economy is undergoing a fundamental shift. For many years the U.S. has bore world has lent and sold. However, as Friedman predicted, this paradigm appears to be changing.
As of October 2007, the U.S. dollar weakened against the euro, British pound, and many other currencies. For instance, the euro hit $1.42 in October 2007, the strongest it has been since its birth in 1999. Against this backdrop, American exporters are finding quite favorable overseas markets for their products and U.S. consumers are responding to their general housing slowdown by slowing their spending. Furthermore, China, the Middle East, central Europe and Africa are absorbing more of the world's imports which in the end may result in a world economy that is more evenly balanced. All of this could well add up to a major readjustment of the U.S. trade deficit, which as a percentage of GDP, began in 1991.
Friedman and other economists have pointed out that a large trade deficit (importation of goods) signals that the country's currency is strong and desirable. To Friedman, a trade deficit simply meant that consumers had opportunity to purchase and enjoy more goods at lower prices; conversely, a trade surplus implied that a country was exporting goods its own citizens did not get to consume or enjoy, while paying high prices for the goods they actually received.
Perhaps most significantly, Friedman contended strongly that the structure of the balance of payments was misleading. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he stated that "on the books" the US is a net borrower of funds, using those funds to pay for goods and services. He pointed to the income receipts and payments showing that the US pays almost the same amount as it receives: thus, U.S. citizens are paying lower prices than foreigners for capital assets to exchange roughly the same amount of income. The reasons why the U.S. (and UK) appears to earn a higher rate of return on their foreign assets than they pay on their foreign liabilities are not clearly understood. An important contributing factor is that the U.S. has investment primarily in stocks abroad, while foreigners have invested heavily in debt instruments, such as U.S. government bonds. Other reports contend that U.S. net foreign income has deteriorated, and appears set to stay in deficit in the future.
Friedman presented his analysis of the balance of trade in Free to Choose, widely considered his most significant popular work.