Trade Deficits and Fiat Currencies
There is a connection between fiat currencies and trade deficits, and many cynics have argued that the US dollar's status as global reserve currency allowed Americans to consume more than they produced for decades. However, this "deficit without tears" argument is sometimes overstated. To gain a deeper understanding of both monetary theory and international trade, it's useful to probe the issue more carefully.
Does Fiat Money Cause Trade Deficits?
In his book, The Creature from Jekyll Island, G. Edward Griffin is rightfully suspicious of the American trade deficit and the US dollar's special role in the world since World War II. He explains,
When the dollar was separated entirely from gold in 1971, it ceased being the official IMF world currency and finally had to compete with other currencies.… From that point forward, its value increasingly became discounted. Nevertheless, it was still the preferred medium of exchange. Also, the U.S. was one of the safest places in the world to invest one's money. But, to do so, one first had to convert his native currency into dollars. These facts gave the U.S. dollar greater value on international markets than it otherwise would have merited. So, in spite of the fact that the Federal Reserve was creating huge amounts of money during this time, the demand for it by foreigners was seemingly limitless. The result is that America has continued to finance its trade deficit with fiat money — counterfeit, if you will — a feat which no other nation in the world could hope to accomplish. (p. 93)
Griffin then explains the benefits to Americans from this arrangement. After all, it's not too shabby to import cars, clothes, and fancy electronics in exchange for green pieces of paper. Yet all is not bliss:
There is a dark side to the exchange, however. As long as the dollar remains in high esteem as a trade currency, America can continue to spend more than it earns. But when the day arrives — as it certainly must — when the dollar tumbles and foreigners no longer want it, the free ride will be over. When that happens, hundreds of billions of dollars that are now resting in foreign countries will quickly come back to our shores as people everywhere in the world attempt to convert them into yet more real estate, factories, and tangible products.… As this flood of dollars bids up prices, we will finally experience the [price] inflation that should have been caused in years past. (p. 94, emphasis in original)
So far, I am largely in agreement with Griffin. But then he oversteps, or at least appears to, when he concludes,
The chickens will come home to roost. But, when they do, it will not be because of the trade deficit. It will be because we were able to finance the trade deficit with fiat money created by the Federal Reserve. If it were not for that, the trade deficit could not have happened. (p. 94, emphasis in original)
It's not clear whether Griffin thinks the trade deficit would have been literally zero if the United States had used gold as money throughout the 20th century, or (more likely) if Griffin merely means that in practice the trade deficit would have been much smaller.
Regardless of Griffin's particular stance, there are definitely some members of the sound-money community who believe that trade deficits would literally be impossible if all countries were on a gold standard. That's incorrect, as I'll argue in the next section. After that, I will reconcile my own demonstration with Griffin's quite valid linking of the fiat US dollar with unsustainable American trade deficits.
Gold Doesn't Prevent Trade Deficits
One quick way to see a puzzle in Griffin's analysis above is that the reasons for the appeal of the US dollar would only be enhanced by a return to gold. Griffin says that foreigners still esteemed the dollar over other currencies, and that the US was the safest place to invest money. If the Treasury or Fed credibly announced that henceforth the dollar would once again be redeemable for a fixed weight of gold, surely investors would flock to it even more so. It would be much safer to buy a government or even corporate bond issued in the United States knowing that the gold standard would restrain further dollar creation.
When economists compute the trade balance (or more accurately the current account), they don't include the sale of financial assets. So if foreign investors want to spend more (once we convert to a common denominator) on American assets than US investors want to spend on foreign assets, the trade balance is negative. The capital-account surplus is counterbalanced by a current-account deficit.
For example, suppose Americans buy $9.5 trillion in stocks, bonds, and other financial assets from outside the United States, while non-Americans acquire ownership of $10 trillion worth of stocks, bonds, and other financial assets from within the United States. This means the foreigners have on net gained $500 billion of American wealth. Surely the foreigners need to do something in return, and indeed they do: they send Americans $500 billion worth of cars, TVs, iPods, etc.
Tying the dollar to gold, or, better yet, abolishing the government's involvement in money and banking completely, would make the United States an even stronger magnet for foreign investment. It's possible that the absolute size of the trade deficit would fall (as we will explain in the next section), but it wouldn't disappear.
In fact, if the US government not only returned the dollar to gold, but also eliminated the IRS and slashed its budget, it's possible that the US trade deficit would mushroom. This would make perfect sense, as capital from around the world would flow to the new haven where its (after-tax) returns would be much higher.
In this scenario, aliens in space would see tractors, computers, factory parts, bulldozers, and crude oil flowing from all corners of the earth to the United States. If those aliens understood trade accounting, they would compute this massive net inflow of goods as an unprecedented trade deficit. But of course that is exactly what should happen if the United States (or any country) adopted free-market reforms and thereby became a much more hospitable arena for economic activity.
Why Griffin Is Basically Correct
Even though a few of Griffin's sentences might lead one to draw faulty conclusions, nonetheless Griffin's analysis is basically correct. All we really did in the above section was show that a large trade deficit can be consistent with a healthy, productive economy. That's far different from saying a trade deficit is proof of a solid arrangement.
Specifically, the problem occurs because foreigners can invest in "American assets" to fuel either production or consumption. It's true, if the US government enacted the reforms discussed above, then foreigners would invest heavily in American industry. Corporations would float new bonds and issue new stock, and with the influx of funds they could rapidly expand their operations. In terms of physical goods, we would see heavy equipment and raw materials flowing from other countries into the United States, and these inflows of capital goods would constitute a large part of the rising trade deficit.
Unfortunately, there is another possibility. If the Federal Reserve creates hundreds of billions in new dollars out of thin air, and the foreign "investors" are other central banks that gobble up the dollars because their own rules treat them as reserves, then this increase in the foreign demand for "American assets" is of a much-different character.
In particular, the low US interest rates that accompany such a gusher of new dollars will encourage domestic consumption and will discourage foreigners in the private sector from investing in the United States. The rest of the world will acquire American assets all right, but they will be more heavily tilted toward debt (rather than equity in growing companies). The physical goods flowing into the United States will be consumer goods such as TVs and iPods.
Griffin is perfectly correct that this type of mushrooming trade deficit is indeed unsustainable. Unlike the importation of tractors and crude oil, the influx of consumer electronics doesn't allow the US economy to produce more in the future.
The increase in foreign claims on US income streams therefore isn't a constant or shrinking portion of the growing American pie, but rather is a growing portion of a constant pie. It can be sustainable for the absolute dollar amount of US corporations' outstanding bonds to increase over time, so long as earnings and profits increase proportionately. But it is not sustainable if households and the government experience a rising debt-to-income level.
There is a definite connection between fiat currencies and trade deficits. Critics of the Federal Reserve are right to blame it for distorting trade flows and setting the US economy up for an inflationary crash. However, a trade deficit per se is not a sign of a bad economy. Indeed the trade deficit might blossom if the US ever returned to the gold standard, though it would be due to a productive net inflow of producer goods.