The Dollar, the Deficit, and Accounting Identities

It would be great if people who reported on the budget deficit for major news outlets could be required to know the basic accounting identities that get taught in every introductory economics class. The key one that almost none of them seem to know is that the trade deficit (X-M) is equal to the sum of public and private savings (T-G)+(S-I). This identity means that if the United States is running a trade deficit, then the sum of public and private savings must also be negative. That has to be true -- it is an identity. It's just like 2 + 2 = 4. It is always true.

This matters for all the nutty deficit hysteria because no one every asks the deficit hawks how they would like to see the identity met. The U.S. has a large trade deficit because of the value of the dollar. At a given level of GDP, the main determinant of the trade deficit is the value of the dollar. Politicians and even many economists like to hyperventilate about "competitiveness" and talk about how we're going to improve our trade situation by getting a better trained and educated work force, rebuilding the infrastructure, or fixing the tax code. But even if you gave any of these characters everything they wanted in whichever direction, there is no plausible story where their policy of choice would have even half the impact on competitiveness and trade as a 10 percent reduction in the value of the dollar -- and even then we would only see the impact after many years.

So, the trade deficit is determined by the value of the dollar for all practical purposes. But, most of the deficit hawks see a fall in the value of the dollar as the worst possible outcome. This is their horror story. People will worry about whether the U.S. can pay its debts and then the dollar would fall, the horror, the horror!

Okay, so the deficit hawks want the U.S. to run a large trade deficit. Then the next question is what the rest of the equation should look like. Since they want a balanced or near balanced budget, the deficit hawks must want very low private savings. Again, we can hope to get the identity met by having high levels of private investment, but neither they, nor anyone else, has anything in their bag of tricks that will appreciably raise the level of private investment.

This means that Peter Peterson, David Walker and the rest of the deficit hawk crew want workers to have very low private savings, so that they will have nothing to live on in retirement when we cut their Social Security and Medicare. They may not say this, and it's possible that they don't even understand it themselves, but that is the logical conclusion of their position.

That may make Peter Peterson look bad, but accounting identities are even more powerful than rich Wall Street investment bankers with a billion dollars to buy newspapers, reporters, and economists.

--Dean Baker

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