The trade balance contributed positively to economic growth in the fourth quarter, with real exports increasing and imports decreasing. Petroleum imports were lower in the fourth quarter, but U.S. production likely will decline again in the Gulf and elsewhere and imports will rebound in 2011.
No longer can Detroit be blamed. Ford and the others are aggressively offering high- quality, more fuel-efficient choices across the board, but federal energy policy impedes, artificially and in a self-defeating manner, safe domestic oil and natural gas production. That taxes growth—directly by destroying high paying jobs in the energy sector and indirectly by pushing up pump prices and the trade deficit.
In the fourth quarter, nonpetroleum import growth moderated too and exports surged, improving the real trade balance and boosting GDP growth. However, these trends will be tempered in 2011 by slower growth and sovereign debt problems in both Europe and Japan, and caution inspired by political conditions in northern Africa. Coupled with an overvalued dollar against the Chinese yuan and other Asian currencies, these factors will drive the trade deficit higher and create a substantial barrier to jobs creation through 2012.
Every dollar that goes abroad to purchase oil or goods from China and elsewhere, and does not return to purchase U.S. exports, reduces demand for U.S. goods and services and taxes jobs creation.
At 3.3 percent of GDP, the $500 billion trade deficit is a tax on domestic demand that offsets the benefits of tax cuts. Consequently, the U.S. economy is expanding at a 3.2 percent annual pace instead of the 5 percent that is possible after emerging from such a deep recession and with so many Americans unemployed.
Growth in the range of 3 to 3.5 percent is not enough to dent unemployment, unless hundreds of thousands of adults quit looking for work as they did in December. Counting discouraged workers and those working part-time who would prefer full time jobs the unemployment rate is closer to 17 percent.
Since December 2009, the private sector has added 112,000 jobs per month, but most of those have been in government subsidized health care and social services, and temporary business services. Netting those out, core private sector jobs creation has been a paltry 58,000 per month—that comes to 18 per county as compared to more than 5000 job seekers per county.
Coming out of a recession, temporary jobs appear first, but 19 months into the expansion the pace of permanent, non-government subsidized jobs creation should be accelerating. Instead, core private sector jobs increased only 60,000 in December, and core jobs growth has fluctuated around that level for the last nine months.
By the end of 2013, about 13 million private sector jobs must be added to bring unemployment down to 6 percent, and current policies are not creating conditions for businesses to hire 360,000 workers each month.
Without fixing the trade deficit, in particular the decline in U.S. petroleum production and commerce with China, high unemployment will be a permanent feature on the U.S. economy. Neither the Obama Administration nor Republican leadership in the Congress appears prepared to do what needs to be done.
Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.