The Good Half of NAFTA

This article marks the beginning of my annual update of trade data for 2012, about a month behind schedule.  Sorry about that, but it’s not my fault.  I’ve been waiting for the Foreign Trade Division of the Census Bureau to publish its annual update of country-by-country trade broken down by the 5-digit “end use code” for all products.  After waiting a month beyond that time when it’s usually published, it became apparent that, for whatever reason (budget cuts, perhaps?), it’s not happening. 

So I’ve had to adjust, switching to data broken down by the 6-digit NAICS code (North American Industry Classification System).  It classifies products in much finer detail than the 5-digit end use code – more detail than necessary for my purposes.  So it’s ballooned my spreadsheets and made my data gathering more difficult.  But for me, at least, it’s fascinating data and interesting work, and so it goes on.

As in the past, I’ll begin with America’s top trading partner, the nation that accounts for 16.1% of all of our exports and imports.  Some may be surprised that it’s not China.  The title of this article should tip you off.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 and established a trilateral free trade zone encompassing the United States, Canada and Mexico.  In terms of total imports and exports, Canada is our biggest trading partner, beating China by $80 billion per year who, in turn, beats Mexico (the other half of NAFTA and our 3rd largest trading partner) by $42 billion. 

Our trade results with Canada stand in stark contrast with our balance of trade with the rest of the world in the critical category of manufactured products.  Here’s a chart of the data for the past twelve years, broken into five categories -  food, feeds and beverages; energy resources (oil, gas, coal & nuclear); metals & minerals; forestry products (lumber, logs, etc.); and manufactured products:  Canada Trade.

Our trade deficit with Canada improved slightly in 2012, declining to $32.5 billion from $35.7 billion in 2011.  The reason for the deficit is no mystery; Canada is, by far, our largest source of imported oil.  Our deficit in that category alone was $83 billion in 2012.  In the category of manufactured products, it’s an entirely different story.  In 2012, we had a trade surplus of $66 billion in manufactured goods with Canada - much larger than with any other nation.  Why do we have such success with Canada when the U.S. suffers a trade deficit in manufactured goods of over $500 billion with the rest of the world?  It’s a matter of population density.  Canada’s is one tenth of the U.S.’s. 

Especially when it comes to our trade deficit with China, economists are fond of blaming low wages in China and a Chinese currency that is kept artificially weak by Chinese manipulation.  But, just as the laws of physics must be valid regardless of one’s frame of reference (the foundation of Einstein’s theory of relativity), so too must the laws of economics.  They should apply to trade with every nation or, if it appears that they don’t, there should be a good explanation.  So let’s see how these claims hold up in the case of trade with Canada.  The following is a chart of our balance of trade with Canada vs. the exchange rate between the Canadian and U.S. dollars:  Canada Trade vs. Exchange Rate.

If economists’ claim that a stronger currency makes imports cheaper for our trading partner and makes their exports more expensive, thus helping our balance of trade, then what we should see is an “X” pattern in this chart.  As the exchange rate drops, the U.S. balance of trade should rise.  (The exchange rate can be a little tricky to understand.  A drop in the rate means that the other country’s currency has gotten stronger.  If it once took two Canadian dollars to buy an American dollar, and now it only takes one, then the Canadian dollar has become twice as strong.) 

In this case, the claim is valid.  As Canada’s dollar has strengthened, from 1.53 in 2001 to being equal to the U.S. dollar in 2012, our balance of trade with Canada (including manufactured goods, as we saw in the previous chart), has improved.  Our deficit has shrunk from $53 billion per year in 2001 to $32 billion in 2012.  But is this improvement really due to the change in exchange rate, or is it due to Canada’s low population density?  The answer to that question will become evident as we explore our trade results with more countries in upcoming articles.

As for the claim that trade deficits are caused by low wages – that is, that manufacturers will move production to where the labor is cheapest –  here’s a chart of our balance of trade with Canada vs. Canada’s purchasing power parity (PPP), a good measure of wage rates relative to our own:   Canada Trade vs. Canada PPP.  As you can see, as incomes have risen in Canada, our balance of trade has improved, just as economists suggest would happen.  But one data point doesn’t validate the theory.  Again, has our balance of trade with Canada improved because of their rising incomes and stronger currency, or has it improved because of Canada’s low population density?

And consider this:  it’s not as though our suplus in manufactured goods with Canada is purely a matter of exporting goods to them while importing nothing.  The U.S. imports more manufactured products from Canada – a high-wage nation - than from any other nation except China.  (We import slightly more from China.)  But China has 40 times more people than Canada.  When expressed in per capita terms, our imports of manufactured goods per Canadian dwarfs those from China!    How do you explain that?  How would economists explain it?  It’s because Canada’s low population density makes them capable of having a high rate of per capita consumption – perhaps even higher than that of Americans.

Free trade with this half of NAFTA – Canada – has indeed been very beneficial to the United States.  This is one situation where it works very well.  There are others, too. But free trade doesn’t always yield such results.  There are situations – as when trading with badly overpopulated nations – when free trade is tantamount to economic suicide. 

So stay tuned.  My next article on our number two trading partner – China – will paint a very different picture.

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