US trade deficit sets record in '84

Most of the final economic figures for 1984 now coming from the government are full of good news. Recently released statistics show that the economy grew strongly in 1984, inflation remained relatively subdued, and the amount each worker can turn out in a hour rose smartly.

But there are some dark clouds lingering over the economy, as trade figures released on Wednesday show. The United States trade deficit -- the gap between what the US can sell abroad and the foreign goods Americans purchase -- hit a record $123.3 billion in 1984.

The 1984 deficit is nearly twice the '83 deficit of $69.4 billion and roughly triple the '82 gap of $42.7 billion.

The major domestically controllable cause of the eroding trade picture is the large federal deficit, notes C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics.

The deficit tends to push up US interest rates, which makes dollar investments more attractive to foreign citizens. That pushes up the dollar's value, thereby making it harder for US companies to sell their goods abroad and easier for US consumers to purchase foreign goods.

The trade deficit has a number of serious consequences for the Americn economy. And because the value of the dollar against foreign currencies is not expected to drop significantly in the near term, few economic forecasters see the US trade picture improving in 1985.

A significant drop in the dollar's value is ``very unlikely to happen in the next six months,'' says Jeffrey R. Leeds, managing director of the Capital Markets Group at Chemical Bank.

``Our forecast of a strong dollar through this year . . . suggests that a further deterioration of the trade deficit lies ahead,'' says Edward Yardeni, senior vice-president at Prudential Bache Securities Inc.

In fact, the dollar's recent strength is not yet fully reflected in trade statistics, making further deterioration virtually certain, Mr. Bergsten says. ``We have not seen anything like the full effect of the strong dollar on the trade balance,'' he says.

Of the various consequences of surging imports, one of the most important is that they hold down domestic economic growth and job creation. For example, Bergsten notes that each $1 billion increase in the trade deficit means the loss of 25,000 jobs in the US. So the growth in the trade deficit from $25 billion in 1980 to $123 bilion in '84 implies the loss of ``2 million or so'' jobs, he says.

Buying more goods overseas than it sells there also forces the US to borrow money to finance the purchases. Analysts expect that by year's end, the US will owe more to investors overseas than it owns overseas. That means that the US will be a net debtor nation, something it has not been since the turn of the century.

This net-debtor position, one ususally held by less-affluent developing nations, eventually will affect Americans' living standards, experts say. That is because the US no longer will be receiving net income from overseas investments but instead will be forced to pay large sums to foreign lenders and investors. Americans will be ``paying the piper'' in the near future, Bergsten says.

In the meantime, sales that could go to American firms are going overseas. That holds down the use of domestic manufacturing plants, reducing the incentive for modernization of US factories. At the same time, the added income foreign companies receive by selling more goods to US customers increases their incentive to modernize, notes Kurt Little, vice-president of Bridgewater Associates, an economic consulting firm based in Wilton, Conn. This, he says, helps make foreign companies more competitive.

Eventually foreign investors will decide they do not want to hold more dollars. Then the dollar's value will fall, exerting inflationary pressure on the US economy. Each 1 percent drop in the dollar's value adds an estimated 1.25 to 1.5 percentage points to the US inflation rate, Mr. Little estimates.

A falling dollar adds to inflation in two ways, Little notes. First, it pushes up the dollar price of imported goods. As a result, sales of imports fall and sales of domestic goods rise. That reduces the amount of excess capacity in US factories and gives US firms greater freedom to raise prices.

A decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to lower their prices will result in a drop of about $1 a barrel in OPEC's average price, analysts say. But they add that this will have only a minor effect on the US trade deficit because oil is already being traded at prices below OPEC's official price.

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