Although many readily accept that balanced trade does not reduce aggregate employment, some might argue that the United States' current large trade deficit must mean that the number of U.S. jobs has been reduced on net. However, the existence of a trade deficit or surplus, by itself, does not have any evident effect on the level of employment. For example, across countries, trade deficits and unemployment rates show little correlation. Among our six Group of Seven partners (the world's leading industrial countries), three have trade surpluses (Canada, Germany, and Japan). However, based on the figures for February of this year, the unemployment rates in Canada (5.3 percent) and in Germany (9.0 percent) are significantly higher than the 4.5 percent rate in the United States; and Japan's unemployment rate, at 4.0 percent, is only a bit lower.7 Factors such as the degree of flexibility in the labor market, not trade, are the primary source of these cross-country variations in unemployment.
Though I found much to quibble over in Bernanke's very orthodox defense of trade, this one paragraph made the whole speech worthwhile. I do agree with it. There's no reason to think that unbalanced trade should have any effect on unemployment rates. But that's not why I was so pleased. I was excited just to see the question of imbalance addressed, to see America's huge trade balance actually grappled with in a major policy speech on trade. So often the fact of persistent imbalance is just ignored, maybe mentioned with a quick cough, but let's move on and pretend we are all living in some Ricardian paradise.
Perhaps in future speeches, Bernanke could address the trade imbalance and its effect on the character of domestic investment — that is, whether persistently unbalanced trade results in a skewing of physical and human capital out of tradable sectors. He might touch upon how these dynamic effects bear on the United States' future ability to repay its growing international debt with real goods or services. In his role as Fed chief, Bernanke could comment on whether managing the sizable debt associated with unbalanced trade might someday require a more accommodative monetary stance than would be expected under inflation targeting. (This would be a good opportunity to celebrate the US central bank's famous dual mandate!)
Bernanke could discuss housing and asset bubbles, and future price volatility should patterns of international capital flow change or Americans become more reluctant to increase their debt load. With respect to employment, Bernanke could muse on whether and to what degree unbalanced trade affects wages, if it does not affect unemployment rates. He might offer some insight on whether the combination of sluggish wage growth, low tradables prices, unusually easy credit, and booming financial markets — all related to current trade patterns! — have anything to do with declining labor force participation in the United States.
It could happen. A boy can dream, can't he?
So two cheers for Ben Bernanke, and his speech today on trade. May it be the first of many.
p.s. Bernanke deserves a full three cheers for a famous speech several years ago. His suggestion of a "global savings glut" was a profoundly useful contribution to the conversation on globalization and international trade. It'd be great to see a follow-up on why it is or ought to be the United States that does the world the service of accommodating that glut, and what if any limits there are or ought to be on America's willingness to borrow the world's copious savings.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Wednesday May 2, 2007 at 4:36am||permalink|