Last week the President not only met as planned with 50 or more leaders from Africa but he followed it up with a major budget proposal and a press conference. Despite wanting to watch my favorite shows on Fox Business News and the Bourbon Channel, I got the pleasure of our President announcing some new and important initiatives. If you read this blog with one or more eyes open, you know that I love trade. And I even stuck up for the US EX-IM bank because it facilitates more US exports. I love to hear plans to increase US trade – exports, imports, capital and more. So I had to listen to the President.
Meanwhile Russians were putting more troops in position to fight in Ukraine, Christians were being murdered in Iraq, Israelis were fighting in Gaza, and Republicans were doing all sorts of evil in America. So given all the items on the President’s agenda, you have to admit that Africa must be very important to the US for the President to pour out another half-million words on TV.
I decided that I haven’t bored you readers with data in a while and I was curious how the President was going to do really great things empowering Africans to help themselves and to buy a bunch more of our exported goods. To preface this data mining experiment let’s start with a few points. First, we are engaged and have long been engaged with giving foreign aid in Africa and many countries. But this speech and the $33 billion the President wants to send to Africa is not being marketed as more foreign aid. This is all about creating more business for American companies and workers. According to his speech, this is all about trade – not aid.
Second, if it is about trade, then there ought to be some bang for the buck. A policy to increase US exports (or imports or capital) ought to have some impact. Third, it not only has to have some impact but it also ought to have the best impact. Okay so a policy might increase country A’s purchases of US goods by 49%. But if that 49% increase amounts to a tiny amount of dollar orders for Kentucky bourbon compared to a similar policy in country B, then you might prefer to direct the order to country B since that will generate more US sales, employment and profits.
What I illustrate below is that President Obama’s new plan for Africa is mostly about more foreign aid. Africa is not a good place to increase US trade. If it is about trade – we would be better off spending that $33 billion elsewhere.
Let’s start with goods and services exports. The US wants Africa to buy more US stuff. In the first six months of 2014, the US exported $804 billion goods and services to the world. Africa bought $19 billion. The whole continent of Africa bought 2.3% of US exports. In contrast this is what other regions bought (in billions):
North America 273
Pacific Rim 119
South/Central America 91
Egypt and South Africa were the two largest African buyers of US goods and services, buying $3.6 and $3.1 billion respectively. If we doubled exports to those countries it wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans to US workers operating in a $15 trillion dollar economy producing a couple trillion dollars in exports each year.
The US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA.gov) also publishes direct investment data by country destination. Direct investment (plant, equipment, etc) by US companies in the world in 2013 amounted to $4.7 trillion. That’s how much “capital” our companies owned abroad. That ownership increased by about 25% between 2010 and 2013. Below are comparison figures that put US business investment in Africa in a global perspective. First is the amount for 2013 in trillions of dollars and in parentheses is the percent change between 2010 and 2013:
Europe $2.607 (28%)
Asia Pacific .695 (22%)
Islands W. Hemis .601 (16%)
Canada .358 (25%)
S. America .169 (23%)
C. America .113 (15%)
Africa .060 ( 9%)
Middle East .045 (32%)
When it comes to US business investments across the globe, Africa has not been a major destination. It stands out on this table for two reasons – the small amount and the very low growth rate of 9% in three years. One has to ask a question when seeing this – why haven’t companies been more interested in Africa and what is it about the President’s new program that will change those reasons substantially?
The answer is pretty simple. By and large, African countries are dictatorships that score high in corruption and low on income. Not all African countries are the same. But spend an hour Googling lists of countries by corruption, or income per capita, or percent of people below the poverty line – and African countries are always well represented. A richer country like Egypt can be used as an example. According to the World Bank, Egypt’s income per capita is about $11,000 (South Africa was listed at about $13,000). Cubans make $19,000 and Puerto Ricans earn $35,000. Germans collect about $43,000 per year. With respect to people living in poverty, Nigeria had about 55% of the population labelled as poor. Egypt and S. Africa were more like 23-25%. Naturally the same countries scored high on indexes of corruption.
Tourists love the diversity of colors and cultures in Africa. But such diversity is not great for US companies who want to penetrate new markets. In Africa there are 54 countries. It is believed that Nigeria alone has more than 500 languages/dialects. Our President says he wants to create more trade across the continent. But diversity in South America should be a caution to what can be expected in Africa. While South American companies have become more global in recent years they have not done it by trading with each other. Often they are more trade-loyal to their colonial pasts than to their regional presents.
The President cited many statistics that show that some Africa countries are growing and could become better trade partners. But let’s be honest – growing from a low base is one thing. Large enough to matter is another. Either call that $33 billion foreign aid and try to give it in ways that will reward and promote less corruption and more democracy and enterprise – or call it trade promotion and give it somewhere that is more apt to bring a strong return in US trade and employment. The last I checked we still have a huge national debt, a slowly growing economy, and little room to employ precious national resources inefficiently.