U.S. trade deficit drops to 6-year low

Cargo ships unload their shipping containers at the Port of Miami in Florida.

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KAI RYSSDAL: We've got a cliche wall going here at Marketplace. Listing all the no-no's we're tempted to use to describe the economic mess we're in. You know, things like, "tough economic times," and "feeling the pinch."

Since the phrase "silver lining" isn't there yet, I'm going to go ahead and use it. For those who've been looking for a silver lining of good news amid all the bad, there was a small one today. The U.S. trade deficit fell in December to its lowest level in almost six years. Overall, in 2008 the trade imbalance narrowed for the second year in a row.

But Marketplace's Steve Henn reports from Washington it's only good news if you don't look too closely.


STEVE HENN: So the trade deficit is falling. That's good, right? Well, maybe not.

Gary Hufbauer: There is nothing like a good, strong recession to bring down the trade deficit.

Gary Hufbauer is an economist at the Peterson Institute. He says our trade deficit is declining because so many Americans are broke.

HUFBAUER: I'd say it's a very small silver lining given the pain we are all going through to get this number down.

Now, if the rest of the world were feeling flush and snapping up American exports, That would be good news but. . . .

Greg Mastel: The bad news is the rest of the world is going through a recession. Which means that our exports are finding a tough market overseas.

Greg Mastel is the author of "The Rise of the Chinese Economy." He says U.S. exports fell 6 percent in December, hurting American manufacturers.

But if you think that's bad, consider China. According to customs data released this week, Chinese exports fell more than 17 percent last month.

And Hufbauer wonders if the American consumers who fueled so much economic growth around the world will ever recover.

Hufbauer: This is such a shock. I believe American behavior will change.

Hufbauer believes from now on Americans will spend less and save more.

Hufbauer: Absolutely. And that will structurally change the size of our deficit.

And the contours of the global economy.

In Washington I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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