The ‘Malo’ Half of NAFTA

In the previous two articles, we examined trade with America’s two largest trading partners (by total imports and exports):  Canada and China.  We saw that while the U.S. has a fairly large trade deficit with Canada, all of it and more is due to the fact that Canada is by far our largest source of imported oil.  The U.S. actually enjoys a healthy surplus of trade in manufactured goods with Canada, making Canada the good half of NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Now we turn to the other half of NAFTA – Mexico.  Mexico is a fairly densely populated nation – almost twice as densely populated as the U.S.  Mexico isn’t a wealthy nation but, by world standards, they’re not poor either.  With a per capita purchasing power parity (PPP) of $15,300, Mexico ranks 83rd out of 228 nations, placing them in the top 40%.  However, 51% of its people live in poverty, though it’s not for lack of jobs.  Mexico currently enjoys a rather low unemployment rate – 4.5% – a rate that is the envy of the United States.

Here’s a chart of overall trade with Mexico, through 2012:  Mexico Trade.

Since 2007, our overall trade deficit with Mexico has moderated somewhat, dropping from $73 billion to $61 billion in 2012.  But all of that decline is due to a drop in oil imports.  Our deficit in manufactured goods rose in 2012 to $46.1 billion, only $0.8 billion shy of the record deficit set in 2007.  Expressed in per capita terms, that’s a deficit of $401 with every Mexican citizen.  In 2011, our per capita deficit with Mexico in manufactured goods was our 14th worst – worse than China, with whom our per capita deficit is “only” $258.

So, of our top three trading partners in 2012 (who together account for 43% of all U.S. trade), the U.S. enjoys a surplus in manufactured goods with only Canada, a nation with a population density of less than ten people per square mile.  The U.S. suffers large deficits with China and Mexico, nations with population densities of 361 and 151 people per square mile respectively.  You should be starting to get suspicious that population density may be a factor.

As we did with Canada and China, let’s consider the other factors that economists like to blame for trade deficits – weak currencies and low wages.  The following is a chart of our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Mexico vs. the peso-dollar exchange rate:  Mexico Trade vs Exchange Rate.

As the peso has weakened from 9 per dollar in 2001 to 14 pesos per dollar in 2012, our trade deficit in manufactured products with Mexico has worsened dramatically, almost doubling during that 11-year span.  This is the effect that economists would predict but, so far, the exchange rate theory is only batting 2 for 3, while the population density theory is batting a thousand.  Mexico’s weakening currency may explain why our enormous deficit with Mexico is so out-of-proportion to their population density. 

And I won’t deny that low wages also play a role.  Many American companies have set up shop just across the border for that very reason.  Here’s a chart of our balance of trade in manufactured  goods with Mexico vs. their PPP:  Mexico Trade vs PPP.

As you can see, Mexico’s PPP (analagous to wages in Mexico) has risen by over 50% since 2001.  But, instead of our balance of trade improving as economists would predict, our trade deficit in manufactured goods with Mexico has nearly doubled.    If the “low wages” theory really held water, we should be seeing at least some improvement in our balance of trade with Mexico as their incomes have risen dramatically.  Instead, it has gotten much worse.  Once again, we see that economists have the cause and effect backwards.  Mexicans are growing wealthier because of their surplus with the U.S., instead of rising incomes in Mexico improving our balance of trade.   So far, economists’ “low wages” theory is batting zero.

Taken together, the 55% decline in the value of the peso since 2001 essentially cancels out the 50% rise in PPP (and wages) during the same period in Mexico.  So traditional economic theory should predict that our trade imbalance with Mexico should have held steady instead of nearly doubling.  The real explanation for that is that the effects of the population density disparity are becoming more pronounced the longer we attempt to apply free trade in a situation where it’s a hopelessly inappropriate trade strategy. 

Free trade with sparsely populated Canada – the good half of NAFTA – makes sense and has been enormously beneficial to the U.S.  Free trade with Mexico – the “malo” (or bad) half of NAFTA – has been a trade policy disaster, draining hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs from the U.S.  And it’s getting worse as the Obama administration stands idly by and renegs on its promise to fix NAFTA.

Next up, our 4th largest trading partner:  Japan.

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