Economic Nonsense: 37. Government must act to redress trade deficits

trade.jpg

No, not really.  People used to think so.  To some extent this is a hangover from mercantilist attitudes when people thought you needed a surplus of exports over imports so you could accumulate wealth.  In its primitive form of bullionism, people thought you had to sell more than you bought in order to build up piles of precious metals.  

When the UK had fixed exchange rates the balance of trade was regarded as vitally important.  Each month when the Department of Trade (as was) published the figures, people would fret about rising imports or reduced exports.  The "trade gap" would sometimes feature as the lead item on the evening news bulletins.  The significance was that if the imbalance were sustained over a period of time, the pressures on the currency would rise to the point where the pound might have to be devalued to a new fixed rate.  This was regarded as a humiliation, and made imports more expensive, increasing the cost of living.

Once the pound was allowed to float against other currencies, however, the issue lost significance.  If imports exceed exports over a period, the pound drifts down in value, making exports cheaper to sell and imports cheaper to buy, thus closing the gap.  Trade deficits are only a problem for countries with fixed rates of exchange.  And even here, while devaluation can redress them, other countries might also devalue, leading to "currency wars" as each tries to give itself a trade advantage.

Floating currencies solve the problem.  If a country is uncompetitive, buying more than it sells, its currency will go down, enabling it to sell more and buy less.  One of the problems with countries such as Greece has been that within the eurozone, they were not able to devalue or to drift down.  The value of the euro was not within Greece's control.  Had they left the single currency and restored the drachma, a steep devaluation would have addressed their debts and their competitiveness.