What’s the big deal with beef and China, anyway? Or Canada, for that matter

International trade is fundamentally no different than any other trade. But its potential is too great to ignore.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

April 11, 2018

4 Min Read
What’s the big deal with beef and China, anyway? Or Canada, for that matter
Getty Images/Thomas Peter-Pool

I fully realize I run the risk of beating this drum too much, and I fully realize that some readers disagree with me. That’s OK. But the tit-for-tat between the U.S. and China has the potential to turn into much more, and I stand firmly on the notion that if it does, it will be a no-win outcome for all.

One reader pointed out that we don’t export very much beef to China. He’s right. But, as has often been said about trading with China, a billion times anything is a really big number. China is willing, finally, to take our beef in direct trade. It will take time, but the potential that the Chinese market promises is truly remarkable.

And yes, I believe in putting America first. But I don’t think a shin-kicking contest between the world’s two largest economies is a good idea.

READ: Will beef be collateral damage in Trump's trade wars?

Readers have also taken me to task on my thought that NAFTA is worth keeping around, reminding me that we’re running a trade deficit with Canada on beef. My response is that it doesn’t matter. Keep reading for the explanation.

Earlier this week, Derrell Peel, Extension livestock marketing economist at Oklahoma State University, offered his thoughts on international trade. He explains it better than I can. Here, in part, it is:

“U.S. agricultural trade is being threatened by a storm of policy challenges and political rhetoric. As the political discussions continue, it’s important to not lose sight of the basic economic principles that are the foundation for all trade. 

“Trade between two economic agents adds value to both and is the basis for nearly all economic growth. These gains from trade are the result of specialization where market participants capitalize on their comparative advantage in some activity. 

“Comparative advantage allows all parties in a market to produce at their lowest opportunity cost, thereby using scarce resources most efficiently. For example, it might be possible for me to build my own computer in the absence of trading with the Dell Corporation. However, it is clearly more efficient for me to trade with Dell by buying my computer and using my time to do things I’m better at than building computers. Moreover, having the computer will enhance my productivity in other activities. 

“International trade is fundamentally no different than any other trade in terms of the underlying economic forces. However, the complication of multiple governments and lots of politics often puts international trade under a different lens. One of the concerns is trade deficits that sometimes result from international trade. The term trade deficit is usually applied to the negative balance of goods that occurs when a country imports more products from another country than it exports to that country. 

“To call this negative balance of trade a “deficit” is really a misnomer as it does not imply any unpaid obligation, in contrast to, say, a budget deficit. When a negative balance of trade occurs for goods, there is a corresponding surplus of currency flowing out of the country. In other words, when the U.S. is a net importer of goods, there is a simultaneous export of dollars in equal value. 

RELATED: U.S. beef exports continue higher

“Trade deficits are not necessarily inherently a bad thing. I have a trade deficit with Dell Corporation in that I buy computers from them and they buy nothing from me. As part of a larger economic picture, there is no inherent problem with the fact that I have trade deficits with most of the firms where I buy things. 

“In another example, the state of Oklahoma has a trade deficit with California and Florida with respect to the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed in the state. Oklahoma does not have a comparative advantage in fruit and vegetable production and it would not be efficient to produce them all in the state. However, the state’s trade deficit regarding fruits and vegetables is part of a bigger economic picture and not a source of concern. 

“In general, the same is true for country to country trade deficits…it is part of a larger picture involving the entire macro-economy of the country and the broader global trade picture. For example, goods sourced cheaper in another country free up resources and consumer dollars in the U.S. to support other businesses. 

“With all of that said, the politics of countries may include policies that distort markets and create artificial trade outcomes. This requires political discussions between countries to resolve. As we work through the escalating trade tensions that are currently roiling markets, it will be beneficial if all sides remember that trade adds value and is not a zero sum game.”



About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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