Wednesday, March 18, 2009

U.S. exports falling at 49% pace as customers fade away

Global trade collapsing

Commentary: U.S. exports falling at 49% pace as customers fade away

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For a while, some analysts held out hope that the rest of the world would be spared the devastation of the collapse of the great American credit bubble. The global economy had de-coupled, they said. America's problems were her own.

No one is saying that any more.

In fact, the latest evidence shows that global trade flows are plunging at an alarming rate.

The Commerce Department reported that the volume of U.S. imports from abroad fell 4.6% in January while exports declined 8.6%, the most since the monthly trade figures were first collected in 1992. See full story.

Over the past five months since the credit crunch intensified, real exports have plunged at a 49% annual rate, while real imports have fallen at a 30% pace.

The pace of the decline is unprecedented in modern times, economists say. "We doubt even during the Great Depression that trade collapsed with such ferocity," said David Greenlaw, an economist for Morgan Stanley.

The Great Recession, as the IMF calls it, has severed a crucial link in the global economy. U.S. consumer spending has been the main engine of growth for the whole world, but that spending was based largely on phantom gains in asset prices that were inflated by that cheap money from abroad that has now been disrupted.

The profits that foreign producers made from selling to America, in turn, created millions of jobs in places such as China, Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf. That was then: China reported its exports plunged 25% in February compared with a year earlier.

Those jobs are disappearing, sparking a great reverse migration back to rural China, the Philippines and South Asia. In China, an estimated 20 million workers have lost their jobs. It's not just the American economy that needs to adjust to the new reality. The rest of the world will have to re-examine just where growth comes from.

Ultimately, the global economy may find a road to more balanced growth. Economies from Germany to China may need to rely less on U.S. consumers and more on their own.

Wherever the road leads, the process will be wrenching and drawn out.

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