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President Trump is obsessed with the trade deficit — it's often the only number he requests and the only number he mentions. But the vast majority of economists agree the number is a misleading indicator of whether the United States is getting the better of any trade deal.

Expand chart
Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

By the numbers...

  • The top five deficits are with China ($375 billion in 2017), Mexico ($71 billion), Japan ($69 billion), Germany ($65 billion), and Canada ($18 billion).
  • The top five surpluses are with Hong Kong ($32.5 billion in 2017), the Netherlands ($24.5 billion), the United Arab Emirates ($15.7 billion), Belgium ($14.8 billion), and Australia ($14.6 billion).

Three big reasons why economists say deficits don't matter...

  1. Trade balances are dictated by macroeconomic factors — namely how much a given country saves versus invests — rather than trade policy. So trade experts say there's no point in using deficits as a scorecard.
    1. Americans are big spenders, while the Chinese and the Germans save.
  2. China's economy is experiencing export-led growth, while the U.S. has a consumer-driven economy. There's surging consumer demand for exports in the U.S., so the country has trade deficits with exporting nations.
  3. The U.S. is an attractive investment destination for countries all over the world, and that also piles onto trade deficits.

The other side ... Trump isn't alone. Jared Bernstein, who was chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, and Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote for The Atlantic just after Trump's election, in "Why Trade Deficits Matter":

  • "Trade deficits, even in times of strong growth, have negative, concentrated impacts on the quantity and quality of jobs in parts of the country where manufacturing employment diminishes."

Be smart: The Wall Street Journal's Greg Ip, reflecting mainstream economists and journalists, writes that trade deficits are an oversimplified and "deeply flawed gauge of trade behavior that could lead the U.S. to pick the wrong fights."

Go deeper

Major companies vow to train, hire Afghan refugees arriving in U.S.

Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya. Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Global Citizen

More than 30 major companies have promised to hire and train Afghan refugees coming to the U.S., per a press release from the Tent Partnership for Refugees, the group spearheading the effort.

The big picture: The 33 companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Pfizer and UPS, are joining the Tent Coalition for Afghan Refugees, a coalition founded by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of yogurt and food company Chobani.

Hispanic Heritage Month: Gracias, México, for color TVs

The patent diagram (left) from Guillermo González Camarena's chromoscopic adapter, and he and the engineer (right inspecting TV equipment around 1955 in Mexico City. Photos: U.S. Patent Office and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia de México

Credit Mexican engineering and entrepreneurship for developments that led to the in color television, oral contraception and finding a way to help mend the ozone layer.

Why it matters: The contributions helped modernize how we could see the world; improve women's health and expand women's roles beyond the home; and identify dangerous emissions and how to reduce them.

Ipsos poll: Support growing for abortion rights in Latin America

Members of feminist groups in Saltillo, Mexico, after the decriminalization of abortion was approved in Coahuila, Mexico. Photo: Antonio Ojeda/Agencia Press South/Getty Images

Support for abortion rights in some Latin American countries has jumped considerably since 2014, with Argentina seeing the biggest shift, an Ipsos poll finds.

The big picture: The view that abortion should be permitted at least under certain circumstances is held by a majority of adults surveyed in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.