May's trade deficit: encouraging 'blip' in troubling trend

In 1980 AMF Inc., a White Plains, N.Y., company sold $110 million worth of industrial equipment and leisure products overseas. By 1983 AMF's exports had dropped almost 30 percent to $80 million.

''It is increasingly difficult for AMF to sell its many products in world markets,'' AMF vice-chairman Merlin E. Nelson told Senate hearings on the trade deficit Thursday.

AMF's woes mirror the trade problems facing the United States economy as a whole. Last year the nation's imports outpaced exports by a record $69.4 billion. And the problem is expected to get worse before it gets better.

''We're talking about a trade deficit of $130 billion this year,'' says Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige. By contrast, deficits averaged $40.1 billion between 1977 and 1982.

The flow of red ink in the US trade accounts affects the average consumer as well as corporate exporters. Among other things, huge trade deficits slow economic growth, cut into job creation, and push up the national debt, the repayment of which will lower the standard of living Americans can enjoy in the future.

The trade deficit eased a bit in May, the government announced Thursday, as imports outpaced exports by $8.8 billion. April's merchandise trade deficit hit

But economic analysts say the May numbers do not signal the beginning of a rapid end to US trade woes. The latest data should be seen as ''a blip with encouraging overtones,'' says Michael Young, chief international economist for Chase Econometrics, a forecasting firm.

Most of the reduction in the deficit in May was the result of sharply lower oil imports. The oil import figures bounce around from month to month, so the oil import decline does not indicate a new long-term trend, Mr. Young says.

He says he finds modest encouragement in the fact that US exports recently have been growing as the economies of US trading partners gain speed. And there has been a ''minor moderate decline'' in imports of manufactured goods like factory machinery as the US economy begins to slow.

Still, Young says he expects the US trade deficit to be $120 billion in 1984,

If these forecasts are accurate, the impact for the American economy will be severe. Each $1 billion in the trade deficit represents 25,000 US jobs either lost or not created, the Commerce Department estimates. By cutting potential tax revenue and increasing social costs like unemployment insurance, a $100 billion increase in the trade deficit adds $35 billion to US budget deficits, argues John J. Nevin, chairman of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company.

The US covers the trade deficit by, among other things, selling assets the US owns overseas and increasing the amount the US owes to foreign creditors. Federal Reserve officials have warned that by the end of 1984 the US could end up owing more to overseas investors than it owns overseas. That means that in the future, more of the nation's income will have to be devoted to paying foreign debts and less to boosting the US standard of living.

Increasing foreign investment in the US makes the nation's economy somewhat less stable. If foreign investors were rapidly to withdraw large amounts of money, ''then what happens without question is a major escalation in interest rates,'' says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas. Rates would rise because corporations and the government would be trying to tap a sharply reduced supply of funds for investment.

There are a number of culprits behind the trade deficit. For one thing, the US economy bounced back from recession faster than did the economies of many of its trading partners. US consumers bought more imported goods while the slower recovery overseas held down foreign demand for US goods.

And developing nations, like Mexico, have been forced to cut back on imports from the US and elsewhere in order to get their financial houses in order. For instance, AMF says its Latin American sales dropped 45 percent between 1980 and 1983.

Testifying before Congress recently, Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker said these cyclical and debt-related causes ''appear to explain one-third to one-half of the adverse swing in our nonoil trade balance.''

Many economists say an overvalued dollar, closely but not exclusively tied to the US budget deficit, is the biggest cause of the trade deficit. To help cover the budget deficit, the US government has been selling larger amounts of bonds and investors have demanded higher yields to buy them. These higher rates have attracted foreign investors, who must convert their money into dMllars. This, in turn, bids up the value of the dollar against foreign currencies, making US exports more expensive and imports cheaper.

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