Economy

Americans Would Have No Christmas Without China

It's no surprise where the U.S. gets a lot of its laptops and video games, but what would we do without Chinese gewgaws?

Christmas kitsch.

Photographer Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Without imports from China, there would be no Christmas. At least, no Christmas lights or decorations or ribbon or video game consoles to wrap up and put under the tree. 

That’s one conclusion you could draw from this table assembled by Caroline Freund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics:

Screenshot 2016-06-10 09.52.27
source: Peterson Institute for International Economics

So if we shut down trade with China, as the tariffs proposed by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump might do, there’d be no other country standing ready to supply us with our Christmas-decorating needs, rubber boots or wigs -- not to mention our laptop computers. As for mobile phones, the biggest U.S. import from China, they don’t make the Peterson Institute list because there are a few other countries that make significant numbers of them (including the U.S., which exported $10.5 billion worth of cell phones 1 in 2015, according to the UN Comtrade database). But China is still pretty dominant.

252780-20160610150349000000000

So there are a few crucial, expensive products in which China dominates U.S. imports. There are also some much cheaper ones that are crucial if, say, you need lights for your Christmas tree, but that don’t seem all that economically significant. I was a little surprised, actually, at how heavy the Peterson Institute list is on things you might buy at Michael’s. This kind of low-value, low-margin manufacturing does not create many good jobs, and I thought China was moving beyond it.

When you look at a more conventional list of the biggest U.S. imports from China by dollar value, things are somewhat less surprising. This is from the U.S. Census Bureau, which uses different categories from those in the U.N. Comtrade database:

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Some of the most valuable parts of those cell phones, computers and other tech products imported from China don’t actually come from China. The raw materials are sourced from around the world, while key components are made in the U.S., Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere. Trade is complicated, and it’s also not a zero-sum endeavor in which exports are always good and imports are always bad.

Still, it is useful to know what trade flows look like. Here are the top ten U.S. exports to China:

252880-20160610154514000000000

Note that the dollar amounts are a lot smaller in this chart. With $502.6 billion in imports in 2015 and $116.2 billion in exports, according to the UN database, the U.S. continues to run a huge merchandise trade deficit with China. Is that a terrible thing? Not necessarily. It definitely seems to make Christmas more affordable than it would otherwise be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The full name of the product category is "Telephones for cellular networks/for other wireless networks, other than Line telephone sets with cordless handsets."

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net

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