Peter Gridley Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) recently released statistics on U.S. exports for January, but failed to mention of one of the biggest U.S. “exports”—federal Treasury securities.

In 2012, the government financed its deficit spending by selling $382 billion in Treasury securities to foreign buyers. To put that in perspective, foreigners spent more on Treasury securities than the total amount they spent on U.S.-produced agricultural products ($133 billion), cars and parts ($146 billion), civilian aircraft ($45 billion), and pharmaceutical products ($48 billion).

There is not a one-to-one relationship between Treasury securities sales and lost exports. But everything else being equal, if people in other countries had spent $382 billion on U.S. exports produced by private companies instead of on Treasury securities produced by the federal government, our 2012 trade deficit would have been slashed by 71 percent.

The real world is more complicated than that, and economists can debate the relationship between budget deficits and trade flows. The point to remember is that when politicians complain about the U.S. trade deficit, they’re ignoring the hundreds of billions of dollars that foreigners invest in our economy each year, including the $382 billion that foreigners spent on “exports” of government Treasury securities in 2012.