In a Tuesday Washington Times editorial "Truth about Trade Deficits and Jobs," Cato Institute trade specialist Dan Griswold makes the following important point about U.S. trade deficits:
A trade deficit doesn't mean that the dollars flowing abroad just disappear. They quickly return to the United States. If they are not used to buy our goods and services to export, they are used to buy American assets — Treasury bills, corporate stock and bonds, real estate and bank deposits.
In this way, America's trade deficit is always and almost exactly offset by a foreign investment surplus. The net surplus of foreign investment into the U.S. each year keeps long-term interest rates down, prevents the crowding out of private investment by government borrowing and promotes job creation through direct investment in U.S. factories and businesses.
In the broadest sense, our trade with the rest of the world is always balanced. In 2010, Americans bought $4 trillion worth of goods, services and assets from abroad, while foreigners bought $4 trillion worth of goods, services and assets from the U.S.
While most of the media attention focuses on the "trade deficit," a more complete analysis always reveals offsetting surpluses for other international transactions that result in a "balance" of our total payments (cash outflows) and receipts (cash inflows) with the rest of the world. Because international transactions are calculated using double-entry bookkeeping accounting, international payments HAVE TO BALANCE, and the balance of payments has to equal ZERO, just like a corporate "balance sheet" has to balance such that Total Assets - (Debt + Equity) = ZERO.
The chart above illustrates graphically the "balance" of international transactions for the first quarter showing that the $1.1 trillion of cash inflows to Americans between January and March from: a) the export of U.S. goods and services, b) income receipts (e.g. dividends and interest income) to Americans owning foreign assets, and c) the sales of U.S. assets (e.g. stocks and bonds) to foreigners, is exactly equal to the $1.1 trillion of cash outflows paid to foreigners for: a) imports of goods and services, b) income payments to foreigners owning U.S. assets, and c) the purchase of foreign assets by Americans.
In other words, even though it's not very "newsworthy," America's international transactions were once again balanced in the first quarter, just like every quarter and every year, and the "balance of payments" was once again ZERO.
Bottom Line: As Dan Griswold concludes, politicians, and everybody else, should just stop worrying about the "trade deficit."