[Editor’s Note: The following essay was adapted from the book, “I.O.U.S.A.: One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt,”a companion offering to the critically acclaimed documentary “I.O.U.S.A.”]
Although still seen as the world’s economic superpower, the United States has found itself with a myriad of problems: Skyrocketing federal debt, growing annual budget deficits, an almost nonexistent personal savings rate, and the dubious honor of being the country with the largest current account deficit, of which trade makes up the largest part.
A trade deficit occurs when you are importing more than you are exporting — in other words, you are consuming more than you are producing. So the next time you are at Wal–Mart (WMT) or Target (TGT), take a look around. Just about everything you can purchase there comes from another country.
Economists are generally split over what the economic impact of a trade deficit is on a country. Those who defend running a trade deficit argue that when the United States sends money to another country for its goods or services, that country will take that money and invest it back into the United States, in one way or another. In economist Milton Friedman’s opinion, having a large trade deficit meant that your country’s currency is desirable. He believed that a trade deficit simply meant that consumers had an opportunity to purchase and enjoy more goods at lower prices; on the flip side, 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.
However, as those on the other side of the argument point out, countries with large and long-term trade imbalances also maintain a low national savings rate. Conversely, those countries with trade surpluses (such as Germany, Canada, and Japan) have a high national savings rate. Those arguing against trade deficits believe that gross domestic product (GDP) and employment will be pulled down by a large trade deficit over the long run. As goods flow into the United States from other countries, the country is losing opportunities to produce these goods domestically, which subsequently has an adverse effect on U.S. jobs.
Somewhere in the middle of these two sides is the world’s richest man, Warren Buffett. Buffett believes that, on a whole, trade is a good thing for America, but that over the long term, running “large-and-persistent” trade imbalances will be problematic for the United States.
Buffett realizes the importance of having the average American understand big economic issues, like the trade deficit. As a result, he wrote an article in 2003 for Fortune magazine, called “Squanderville vs. Thriftville.” This parable of sorts was designed to simplify for the readers the problems inherent in trade imbalances.
“Economics tends to put people to sleep,” Buffett told us when we sat down with him in his office at Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A, BRK.B), where he is CEO and largest shareholder. “And I thought by creating a couple islands with inhabitants of quite widely different activities that it might get across a point that otherwise they get lost on.”
In Buffett’s story, he outlined two side-by-side islands: Thriftville and Squanderville. On these islands, land is the capital asset, and these primitive people only need food and produce only food. At first, the citizens of both islands work eight hours a day and produce enough to sustain themselves. However, as time passes, the Thrifts realize that if they work harder and put in longer hours, they can produce a surplus of goods and then trade what they produce with the Squanders. The people of Squanderville like the idea of working less — and all the Thrifts want in exchange for these goods are “Squanderbonds,” which are denominated in “Squanderbucks.”
As time goes on, these Squanderbonds begin to pile up and it is clear that the Squanders will have to put in double time to eat and pay off their growing debt. “Meanwhile,” writes Buffett, “the citizens of Thriftville begin to get nervous.
Just how good, they ask, are the IOUs of a shiftless island? So the Thrifts change strategy: Though they continue to hold some bonds, they sell most of them to Squanderville residents for Squanderbucks and use the proceeds to buy Squanderville land. And eventually the Thrifts own all of Squanderville.”
“At that point, the Squanders are forced to deal with an ugly equation: They must now not only return to working eight hours a day in order to eat — they have nothing left to trade — but they must also work additional hours to service their debt and pay Thriftville rent on the land that they so imprudently sold. In effect, Squanderville has been colonized by purchase rather than conquest.”
In a nutshell: Buffett’s story illustrates that any short-term actions have long-term consequences that sometimes people don’t think about in the short run. This is true of the United States.
“Our country’s ‘net worth’,” Buffett writes in the introduction of his Fortune article, “is now being transferred abroad at an alarming rate. A perpetuation of this transfer will lead to major trouble.” And it may be more than just economic trouble. History shows that countries with similar trade and debt problems are fertile ground for political movements we’re not accustomed to in a democratic society.
In 2007, the total U.S. trade deficit was $ 738.6 billion, which was down 9% from 2006. Much of the decline could be attributed to a decline in the value of the U.S. dollar. The popular argument suggests that a lower dollar makes production of goods in the United States cheaper and therefore more attractive to buyers of U.S. goods overseas. Exports would go up. And in fact they are, each year.
Some would argue that the dollar is being kept weak to help close the trade gap.
“If I could finance all my own consumption today by handing out something called Warren Bucks or Warren IOUs and I had the power to determine the value of those IOUs over time, believe me, I would make sure that when I repaid them 10 or 20 years from now that they were worth less, per unit, than they are today. So any country that piles up external debt will have a great temptation to inflate over time, and that means that our currency, relative to other major currencies, is likely to depreciate over time.”
And this is just what the United States is doing. From November 2002 through August 2008, the dollar has fallen more than 50% against the euro. Some experts will argue that a weaker dollar benefits the United States — at least where the trade deficit is concerned.
What is not pointed out in this argument is that a falling dollar – paired with low domestic productivity – means that the country is consuming more than it produces. In that sense, since the dollar is losing purchasing power, Americans are paying more for these imports, and the rise in these import costs erases any sort of benefits the country would have seen because of a falling dollar. In other words, America is getting fewer goods for the same amount of money — but that isn’t slowing down the rate of American consumption.
“In the past six or eight years,” Buffett explains, “the United States has started consuming considerably more then it produces. It’s relied on the labor of others to provide things that are used every day. Because the country is so rich, this can continue for a long time, and on a large scale — but not forever.”
Buffett likens it to a credit card. “My credit’s pretty good at the moment,” he says, which usually draws snickers from the audience. “If I quit working and have no income coming in but keep spending, I can first sell off my assets and then, after that, I can start borrowing on my credit card. And if I’ve got a good reputation, I can do that for quite a while. But at some point, I max out. At that point, I have to start producing a whole lot more than I consume in order to clean up my debts.”
The trade deficit aside, Buffett doesn’t believe that the economic situation in the United States is as dire as many of the other experts with whom we’ve spoken have made it out to be. While he warns to not “bet against America,” because he believes that we have a healthy overall economy, what does keep the Oracle of Omaha up at night is the imbalance between imports and exports.
“The rest of the world is buying more and more of our goods all the time, but at an even greater rate, we’re buying more and more of theirs. More trade, overall, is good — as long as it’s true trade. If it’s ‘pseudo trade,’ where we’re buying but not selling, I do not think that’s good over time.”
This is why the U.S. trade deficit remains high. The. The country’s dependence on foreign oil, automotive parts, and cheap consumer products from China accounts for almost the entire deficit.
[Editor's Note: This essay from above was taken from the book, “I.O.U.S.A.: One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt,” a companion offering to the critically-acclaimed documentary, “I.O.U.S.A.” Included in the book you'll find interviews from some of the most revered voices in the nation, including Warren Buffett; former U.S. Treasury secretaries Paul H. O'Neill and Robert E. Rubin; Peter G. Peterson, CEO of The Blackstone Group LP (BX); Congressman Ron Paul, R-Tex.; and bestselling “Empire of Debt” author Bill Bonner. Defiantly non-partisan, the empowering solutions outlined in these pages are a must-read for any American who wants to help change "business-as-usual" in Washington as a new administration heads towards the Oval Office. To get your copy, along with the I.O.U.S.A. DVD and a special "Emergency 'Personal Bailout' Bundle," check out our latest report.]
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