President Trump’s Risky Bet Against Trade
A consensus converged in the 1980s around three economic principles:
- reduced regulation of banks;
- free trade;
- liberalizing immigration.
Today, many people in Europe, Great Britain, and the U.S. are questioning nos. 2 and 3—particularly President Trump and his top economic adviser Peter Navarro, who are questioning the benefits of trade, especially when that trade causes the U.S. to have a trade deficit with another country.
Trade deficits reduce economic growth, according to a theory posited by the great 18th-century Scottish economist and philosopher David Hume: the outflow of gold to pay the shortfall (trade deficit) would contract the money supply and automatically lead to the reduction of domestic prices, as if by an “invisible hand.”
What is a Trade Deficit?
A trade deficit occurs when we buy more goods and services from a country than we sell to it. Hume worried that such a shortfall could deplete a country of its reservoir of gold, as the nation that sold those goods could request payment in gold. Moreover, since, in theory, the amount of gold determined how much banks could lend, any depletion of that supply could have an enormous financial effect on a country that expends more than it receives.
Today, however, no country is on the gold standard, and almost all banking systems are closed, which means their money must remain in their banking systems. Therefore, Mexico, like any other country that sells goods here in the U.S., must use any proceeds to buy U.S. financial assets or our goods and services. To “bring money home,” Mexico must first go to the currency market and sell its dollars to receive pesos.
Who Buys Currencies?
Commercial banks, central banks, speculators, hedge funds, mutual funds, and companies that want to hedge their currency risk all participate in this enormous foreign exchange market, in which average daily trading volumes are approaching $5.3 trillion. In contrast, the average trading volume in 2013 for stocks on the NYSE was $169 billion.
What Happens When U.S. Companies Sell Overseas
Foreign sales by U.S. companies trap money in the banking system of other countries. Germans buy Apple computers or iPhones with euros. Japanese pay with yen. This means, if Apple or some other U.S. based company wants to “bring that money home,” it must also go to the currency market and sell its yen or euros.
Moreover, “bringing money home” does not change the number of dollars available for our economy, which gives us no additional purchasing power. All that changes is who owns the dollars, which makes suspect all of these claims that we need to lower the tax rate to incentivize companies to repatriate the $2.4 trillion they have trapped in banks overseas.
These companies knew the rules when they sold products overseas. So why should we reconfigure the tax code again, when most of the returning money will go to executives and shareholders and simply increase our income inequality?
Are We Addressing the Wrong Problem?
Capitalism has a propensity for credit bubbles, because, as the great English economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out in his classic Treatise on Money, “It is evident that there is no limit to the amount of bank money which banks can safely create provided that they move forward in step.”
However, what capitalism does better than any other economic system is what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” or innovation fueled by competition. Thus, anything that reduces competition, such as trade barriers, has the potential to extinguish the fire that fuels capitalism, while any relaxing of bank lending regulations has the potential to burn the system down.
 Ingham, Geoffrey. The Nature of Money. Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2004.
 Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987.
 McLeod, Gregory, and Simone Foxman. “Forex Market Size: A Traders Advantage.” DailyFx, January 23, 2014. https://www.dailyfx.com/forex/education/trading_tips/daily_trading_lesson/2014/01/24/FX_Market_Size.html
 Ingham, op. cit.
 Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1942), p. 83.