Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Export Doldrums: The Little Engines that Couldn't

Americans earn income when they produce things and get paid for the production. Our nation produces lots of things. Pfizer has been in the news lately because they are merging with another company. Pfizer makes Viagra. That makes a lot of people happy but I won’t go into that because some of our readers might take offense. We also make guns and houses and the list goes on and on. We also produce services. In fact the majority of what the nation produces is classified as a service. If you work at Macy’s you get paid the minimum wage or less to perform the sales function. If you are an Uber driver you get paid each time you deposit someone at a desired location like LaTorre’s Mexican Restaurant. If you sell tickets for cruise ship voyages you receive income so that people can gain about 50 pounds and see the shorelines of very interesting places.

In 2014 USA National Output or GDP was $17.4 trillion dollars. Wow. That is a pile of stuff! Of that amount $7.9 trillion was for consumer services and pretty much the rest was for goods sold to consumers and goods and services purchased by businesses and governments. In 2014 we imported goods and services of about $2.8 trillion and we exported $2.3 trillion.

It is those exports that I want to focus on today. Look at it this way – we produce stuff at home and sell it to people both here and outside the country. Let’s call the local buyers Pete and those offshore buyers Charlie. If we are US policymakers we want Pete and Charlie to buy a lot of US stuff. When they do that all kinds of good things rise – output, profits, jobs, wages, and so on. Please, no Viagra jokes. We have problems in the USA presently because neither Pete nor Charlie are on a spending spree. So the economy limps along.

I will pick on Pete another day but the question today is what happened to Charlie? And that’s what the next 117 pages are about. If you are in Colorado or Washington light up your favorite smoke and hold on. Otherwise JD works well. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that the US, unlike some other countries, is not dominated by export sales. That $2.3 trillion of foreign sales is only about 13.2 percent of GDP. If that figure was half of GDP then what I am about to say below would be alarming. But since export sales are 13.2% of GDP that means what foreign buyers do is important but it also means the 86.8% of local buyers are much more important.

But we talk about local buyers all the time so let’s spend a little time investigating foreign sales or exports.

Who buys our crap? Mostly people who are close by – Canada and Mexico are the two top foreign destinations for US goods and services. Together they bought $646 billion in 2014. That amounts to 28% of all US exports. Next in line were China and the UK. Below are the top 12 destinations for US goods and services. Together these 12 countries purchased in 2014 $1.4 trillion or a little over 60% of US total exports to the world.
            United Kingdom
            South Korea
            Saudi Arabia

If the US economy has been slowing down because Charlie is not buying as usual, then we should be able to see this in the data. So I compared two 8 year time periods for evidence of change: 2000 to 2007 and 2007 to 2014. It turns out that exports grew much slower in the latter period compared to the former. The next table shows the increase during 01 to 07, the increase during 08 to 14, and the differences. Data are from www.bea.gov 
US Export Sales to the World from 2000 to 2014.
                               0 to 7  7 to 14  Diff
Canada                   2297  1802     -495
Mexico                   1515  1068     -447
China                        897     345    -552
United Kingdom       773     645    -128
Japan                         760     735     - 25 
Germany                   531     421    -110
Brazil                        415     178    -237
South Korea              404     291    -113
France                        333    268      -65
India                           225      93    -132
Saudi Arabia              154      75      -79
Italy                            171    143      -28
   Total                      8474   6064  -2410

0-7 is the sum of US exports during the years 2000 through 2007
7-14 is the sum of US exports during the years 2007 through 2014
Diff is the difference between the first two columns
A negative number for Diff means lower export sales in 2007 to 2014
Numbers are in billions of dollars

The key point is that US exports have slowed dramatically. From 2000 to 2007 the US exported a total of $8.5 trillion in goods and services to the top 12 country destinations. From 2007 to 2014 we exported less, $6.1 trillion. The difference is not small -- $2.4 trillion! That is a 28 percent reduction.

While China explained about one-fifth of that seven year decline – notice that US exports slowed to every one of the top 12 country destinations. All 12!  Between our NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico we explain almost a trillion of the decline.

These declines do not come from one country or one part of the world. Economic problems in Europe, Asia, South America and even the Middle East all contributed to weakness in US sales abroad. As these countries suffer economic recessions and slow growth, their people are able to buy less. They buy less at home and they buy less from other countries, including the USA.

Next we turn to economic projections for these 12 countries. Expectations of stronger growth abroad would translate into a stronger demands for US goods and services. Below is a table I generated using economic growth data from the IMF World Economic Outlook (October 2015) Tables A2 and A4.

                    97-06  07-15  16-20
Canada          3.4     1.6       1.9
Mexico          3.3     2.1       3.1
China             9.4     9.1       6.3
UK                 3.1     1.0       2.2
Japan              0.9     0.4       0.9
Germany        1.5     1.1       1.5
Brazil             2.7     2.7       0.8
S. Korea         4.9     3.4       3.4
France            2.4     0.7       1.7
India               6.6     7.3       7.6
Saudi Arabia  3.9     5.0       2.7
Italy                1.5   -0.8       1.2
Average          3.7    2.8       2.8
Column 1 is the average annual growth rate of  Real GDP for each country from 1997 to 2006. The second column has average growth rates from 2007 to 2015 (the 2015 number is a projection for the year made in October of this year) and the third column averages the predictions for the IMF for the years 2016 and 2020. 

We see two things from this above table. First, the economic growth rate of the main US trading partners declined significantly after 2006. Every country except for India and Saudi Arabia (Brazil's growth rate did not change) slowed considerably in the 2007 to 2015 time period. This helps to explain the major reductions in US exports during those years. Incomes of our trading partners slowed or declined --- and they purchased less from the USA. 

Second, the IMF is not expecting things to improve in the next five years. The 12 country group's average GDP growth will not improve at all. Looking at our top three destinations only we see a big improvement expected in Mexico, a small gain for Canada, and a continued decline in China. India is expected to grow faster while Brazil and Saudi Arabia will suffer continued growth problems. 

Exports are not everything to the USA -- but they are important. If we believe the IMF's economic growth forecasts it is difficult to see any real hope for an export led resurgence of growth in the USA. As I wrote last week -- free trade agreements are the right thing to do but in this slow global growth environment it is difficult to believe that countries will approve a strong agreement and even with such an agreement, income problems will swamp any gains that might come from trade-opening agreements. The world needs a locomotive but it is unclear who will play that role.  

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