Friday's advance estimate of GDP provides some encouragement in this regard. The US economy still has a long way to go, but it is now at least back to its pre-recession level of output. The trade deficit remains smaller than it was before the recession - it was 3.3% of GDP in the 4th quarter of 2010, versus 4.9% in the last quarter of 2007.
But the fact that a huge negative contribution of inventories coincided with a huge positive contribution of imports does not seem to be a coincidence. There's a clear pattern in the recent data that when one of these makes a positive contribution to GDP growth, the other makes an offsetting negative contribution. Although we often think of inventories as a substitute for production (you could either produce a good or sell it out of inventories), in the current environment inventories seem to act more as a substitute for imports (you could either import the good, or sell it out of inventories).Nonetheless, it looks like the trade deficit may not headed back to where it was. What happens going forward depends in large part on what happens with the US' trading partners. Faster growth in the rest of the world should reduce the trade deficit. We're seeing this in much of the developing world, which is recovering more quickly (indeed many emerging markets now face a danger of inflationary overheating).
At Project Syndicate, Martin Feldstein argues that one of the major surpluses, China's, will come to an end because its astronomical saving rate is headed down:
China’s national saving rate – including household saving and business saving – is now about 45% of its GDP, which is the highest rate in the world. But, looking ahead, the five-year plan will cause the saving rate to decline, as China seeks to increase consumer spending and therefore the standard of living of the average Chinese.Of course, declining savings only reduces the current account if investment doesn't also fall with it.
The plan calls for a shift to higher real wages so that household income will rise as a share of GDP. Moreover, state-owned enterprises will be required to pay out a larger portion of their earnings as dividends. And the government will increase its spending on consumption services like health care, education, and housing.
These policies are motivated by domestic considerations, as the Chinese government seeks to raise living standards more rapidly than the moderating growth rate of GDP. Their net effect will be to raise consumption as a share of GDP and to reduce the national saving rate. And with that lower saving rate will come a smaller current-account surplus.
Real exchange rates play a role, too, and in this regard, inflation in China is causing its exports to become more expensive, its intervention to hold down the nominal exchange rate notwithstanding. The Times' Keith Bradsher reports:
Inflation is starting to slow China’s mighty export machine, as buyers from Western multinational companies balk at higher prices and have cut back their planned spring shipments across the Pacific...See also this recent post. Whether it comes by inflation or a movement in nominal exchange rates, a Chinese real appreciation would take some pressure off other developing countries which are shadowing China in holding down their currencies.
Already, the slowdown in American orders has forced some container shipping lines to cancel up to a quarter of their trips to the United States this spring from Hong Kong and other Chinese ports.