Aug 27th 2018

The Current Account Counts 

by Stephen S. Roach

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of a new book Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

 

NEW HAVEN – In an increasingly interconnected global economy, cross-border trade and financial-capital linkages have come to matter more than ever. The current-account balance, the difference between a country’s investment and saving position, is key to understanding these linkages. The dispersion of current-account positions tells us much about the state of global imbalances, which are often a precursor of crises.

The same is true of trade tensions, such as those now evident around the world. Current-account disparities often pit one country against another.

Economies running current-account deficits tend to suffer from a deficiency of domestic saving. Lacking in saving and wanting to invest, consume, and grow, they have no choice but to borrow surplus saving from others, which gives rise to current-account and trade deficits with the rest of the world. The opposite is the case for countries with current-account surpluses. They are afflicted by subpar consumption, excess saving, and chronic trade surpluses.

There is a long-standing debate over who is to blame for this state of affairs – the deficit countries, which draw freely on the saving of others to finance economic growth, or the surplus countries, which choose to grow by selling their output in foreign markets. This blame game, which has long been central to disputes over international economic policy and trade tensions, is particularly contentious today.

The United States has the largest current-account imbalance in the world. It has recorded a deficit for all but one year since 1982, the sole exception being 1991, when foreign contributions to its military campaign in the Persian Gulf underpinned a miniscule surplus (0.05% of GDP).

During the 2000-2017 period, the US amassed $9.1 trillion in cumulative current-account deficits. That is larger than the $8.9 trillion of cumulative surpluses run collectively by the three largest surplus economies – Germany, China, and Japan – over the same period.

Many observers believe that the US is doing the rest of the world a huge favor by running chronic current-account deficits – namely, supporting the large surplus countries, which tend to suffer from a shortfall of domestic demand. Others, including me, are more critical of America’s long-standing penchant for excess consumption and the role that surplus economies play in enabling it. While there is undoubtedly some validity to both points of view, I worry more about the destabilizing role of the US.

America’s consume-now-save-later mindset, which is at the heart of its current-account deficit, is deeply embedded in its political economy. The US tax code has long been biased toward low saving and debt-financed consumption; the deductibility of mortgage interest, the absence of any value-added or national sales tax, and a dearth of saving incentives are especially problematic.

So, too, are the wealth effects from a profusion of recent asset bubbles. Aided and abetted by the Federal Reserve’s über-accommodation since the late 1990s, there was no stopping the interplay between America’s asset-dependent economy and an equally pernicious leverage cycle underwritten by bubble-inflated collateral. Why save out of income when frothy asset markets can do the job? The preference for asset-based saving over income-based saving is central to America’s current-account deficit.

The surplus countries have been delighted to go along for the ride. It didn’t matter that the US consumption binge was built on a foundation of quicksand. Excess export growth in the large surplus economies enabled the excesses of the world’s largest consumer.

That was especially the case in China. Spurred by Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up,” China’s export sector increased sixfold – from 6% of GDP in 1980 to 36% in 2006.

Mirroring America’s massive current-account deficit, China’s current account went from relative balance in 1980 (+0.1% of GDP) to a massive surplus of 9.9% in pre-crisis 2007. The same was true in major developed economies, albeit to a lesser extreme: Germany’s export share of GDP went from 19% in 1980 to 43% in 2007, while Japan’s went from 13% to 17.5% over the same period.

In many respects, a marriage of convenience between the surplus and deficit countries eventually blossomed into full-blown codependency. But then, with the wrenching global financial crisis in 2008, the music stopped. Since then, frictions between deficit and surplus countries have intensified, now risking the possibility of a full-blown trade war.

President Donald Trump’s administration has played an especially antagonistic role in asserting that the US is being victimized by large trade deficits. Yet America’s trade gaps have, in fact, been spawned by a chronic deficiency of domestic US saving. Despite the government’s recent upward revision to a still-depressed personal saving rate, the overall US national saving rate, which drives the current account, remains woefully deficient, averaging just 1.9% in net terms (adjusted for depreciation) over the post-crisis 2009-17 period. That is less than one-third the 6.3% average during the final three decades of the twentieth century.

Large and growing federal budget deficits over the next several years will only exacerbate this problem. Blaming China misses the obvious and important point that the Chinese current-account surplus has fallen sharply in recent years, from 9.9% of GDP in 2007 to an estimated 1% in 2018. In 2017, China’s current-account surplus of $165 billion was well below that of Germany ($297 billion) and Japan ($195 billion).

As China presses ahead with consumer-led rebalancing, it will continue to move from surplus saving to saving absorption, with the distinct possibility that its current account will shift into permanent deficit (a small deficit actually was recorded in the first quarter of this year). That will leave a deficit-prone America with one less surplus country to draw on in funding the growth of its saving-short, excess-consumption economy. Maybe the rest of the world will step up and fill the void. But with the Trump administration now disengaging from globalization, that seems less and less likely.

History suggests that current-account imbalances ultimately matter a great deal. A still-unbalanced global economy may be forced to relearn that painful lesson in the coming years.


Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"