The U.S. trade deficit has risen more or less steadily since 1992. In 2006, the trade imbalance reached $811.5 billion, an increase of $20 billion over the 2005 deficit, and a total increase of about $765 billion since 1992. The trade deficit's growth in 2006 was largely the consequence of increase of import purchases of nearly $210 billion, a slight deceleration from import growth in 2005. Exports in 2006 increased a smaller $162 billion, but this was an acceleration over the 2005 results. As a percentage of GNP, the trade deficit in 2006 was 6.1%, a decrease from 6.3% in 2005. The investment income component of the trade balance moved from a surplus of $10.3 billion in 2005 up to a surplus of $36.6 billion in 2006. The large and growing size of U.S. foreign indebtedness caused by successive trade deficits suggests that the investment income surplus is likely to soon be pushed toward deficit. The size of the U.S. trade deficit is ultimately rooted in macroeconomic conditions at home and abroad. U.S. saving falls short of what is sought to finance U.S. investment.
Many foreign economies are in the opposite circumstances, with domestic saving exceeding domestic opportunities for investment. This difference of wants will tend to be reconciled by international capital flows. The shortfall in domestic saving relative to investment tends to draw an inflow of relatively abundant foreign savings seeking to maximise returns and, in turn, the saving inflow makes a higher level of investment possible. For the United States, a net financial inflow also leads to a like-sized net inflow of foreign goods -- a trade deficit. Absent a major shift in the underlying domestic and foreign macroeconomic determinants, most forecasts predict the continued widening of the U.S. trade deficit in 2007, but the rate of increase of the trade deficit is expected to slow. The benefit of the trade deficit is that it allows the United States to spend now beyond current income. In recent years that spending has largely been for investment in productive capital. The cost of the trade deficit is a deterioration of the U.S. investment-income balance, as the payment on what the United States has borrowed from foreigners grows with its rising indebtedness.
Borrowing from abroad allows the United States to live better today, but the payback must mean some decrement to the rate of advance of U.S. living standards in the future. U.S. trade deficits do not now substantially raise the risk of economic instability, but they do impose burdens on trade sensitive sectors of the economy. Policy action to reduce the overall trade deficit is problematic. Standard trade policy tools (e.g., tariffs, quotas, and subsidies) do not work. Macroeconomic policy tools can work, but recent and prospective government budget deficits will reduce domestic saving and most likely tend to increase the trade deficit. Most economists believe that, in time, the trade deficit will most likely correct itself, without crisis, under the pressures of normal market forces. But the risk of a more calamitous outcome can not be completely discounted.