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America's Other 87 Deficits

NEW HAVEN – The United States has a classic multilateral trade imbalance. While it runs a large trade deficit with China, it also runs deficits with 87 other countries. A multilateral deficit cannot be fixed by putting pressure on one of its bilateral components. But try telling that to America’s growing chorus of China bashers.

America’s massive trade deficit is a direct consequence of an unprecedented shortfall of domestic saving. The broadest and most meaningful measure of a country’s saving capacity is what economists call the “net national saving rate” – the combined saving of individuals, businesses, and the government. It is measured in “net” terms to strip out the depreciation associated with aging or obsolescent capacity. It provides a measure of the saving that is available to fund expansion of a country’s capital stock, and thus to sustain its economic growth.

In the US, there simply is no net saving any more. Since the fourth quarter of 2008, America’s net national saving rate has been negative – in sharp contrast to the 6.4%-of-GDP averaged over the last three decades of the twentieth century. Never before in modern history has the world’s leading economic power experienced a saving shortfall of such epic proportions.

Yet the US found a way to finesse this problem. Exploiting what Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called the “exorbitant privilege” of the world’s reserve currency, the US borrowed surplus savings from abroad on very attractive terms, running massive balance-of-payments, or current-account, deficits to attract foreign capital.