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 Richmans' Trade and Taxes Blog

Trade Deficits Increase U.S. Debt Vulnerability
Jesse Richman, 2/22/2013

A paper presented earlier today suggests that countries with trade deficits are substantially more vulnerable to debt crisis / inflation spirals.  Whether the U.S. is equally vulnerable to such problems remains a subject to debate though.  David Greenlaw, James D. Hamilton, Peter Hooper, and Frederic S. Mishkin write:

"Our nonlinear regression results imply that a country can quickly move from the group without problems to the group that faces nearly insurmountable problems if its debt rises significantly above 80 percent of GDP, particularly if it is running a large current-account deficit” 

"A country with a current-account deficit is predicted by the regression to run into these problems much more quickly.  For example, if the current-account deficit has averaged 2.5% of GDP over the last 5 years, going from 0% to 40% debt would raise borrowing costs by 108 basis points, and going from 0% to 120% debt would raise the interest rate by 517 basis points (see the red line in Figure 3.1 or column 3 in Table 3.1).  A country with large and persistent current-account deficits (e.g.,  c = −5%) could end up paying a very high price for running up more debt."  

This is unsurprising.  Current account deficits place countries is substantially weaker positions in international markets, and thereby exacerbate the vulnerabilities that arise from high sovereign debt.  Large trade deficits mean net borrowing from foreigners, borrowing that becomes extremely difficult to maintain once sovereign debt crises sour international investors on the national economy.  Surplusses provide a cushion that makes it easier to finance sovereign debt through internal means (as in Japan). 

The key question is whether the United States is as vulnerable as the typical country examined in the models of Greenlaw and colleagues.  For a summary of some of the debate see:

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Comment by Dan Marshall, 2/27/2013:

Hi Admin,

I am Dan, a financial writer. Today I came across your site and enjoyed reading some of your articles.

I just want to know do you allow outside article contribution? I would like to write for your blog on some relevant topics that is yet to cover on your blog.

I will make sure that my articles will be completely unique and free to serve the purpose of your website. I do believe your readers will enjoy reading it.

It will be a thrilling experience for me if my article finds a place in your blog.

Please let me know about your decision.

Dan Marshall
Response to this comment by Howard Richman, 2/28/2013:
Dan, You can't contribute to our blog, but you can send us a working paper. Send it to Ray ( and if he approves it, we will post it as an Ideal Taxes Association working paper. And when we publish it as a working paper, we will write about it on our blog to let people know about it. Howard

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  • [An] extensive argument for balanced trade, and a program to achieve balanced trade is presented in Trading Away Our Future, by Raymond Richman, Howard Richman and Jesse Richman. “A minimum standard for ensuring that trade does benefit all is that trade should be relatively in balance.” [Balanced Trade entry]

    Journal of Economic Literature:

  • [Trading Away Our Future] Examines the costs and benefits of U.S. trade and tax policies. Discusses why trade deficits matter; root of the trade deficit; the “ostrich” and “eagles” attitudes; how to balance trade; taxation of capital gains; the real estate tax; the corporate income tax; solving the low savings problem; how to protect one’s assets; and a program for a strong America....

    Atlantic Economic Journal:

  • In Trading Away Our Future   Richman ... advocates the immediate adoption of a set of public policy proposal designed to reduce the trade deficit and increase domestic savings.... the set of public policy proposals is a wake-up call... [February 17, 2009 review by T.H. Cate]