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April 17, 2014

Corporate Group Launches “Fact-Based” Trade Series, Avoids Facts

When launching a new series of materials touted as “fact-based analysis,” it is unwise to begin with a distortion of the facts.  But that’s the inauspicious move taken today by the Emergency Committee for American Trade (ECAT), a corporate alliance that has launched a new “Trade Notes” series with some confused data on the record of U.S. trade under “free trade” agreements (FTAs).  

Official government data show that U.S. trade deficits have ballooned with FTA partners while actually diminishing with the rest of the world.  As we reported recently, the aggregate U.S. trade deficit with FTA partners has increased by more than $147 billion, or 443%, since the FTAs were implemented.  In contrast, the aggregate deficit with all non-FTA countries (even including China) has decreased by more than $130 billion, or 16%, since 2006 (the median entry date of existing FTAs). 

Two factors explain this proclivity toward trade deficits with FTA partner countries.  First, imports from those countries have spiked – an unsurprising result of a trade model that has incentivized offshoring and pitted U.S. workers against their lower-wage counterparts abroad.  Second, and perhaps more surprising, is that U.S. export growth to FTA partner countries, despite all promises to the contrary, has been slower than to non-FTA countries. Indeed, growth of U.S. exports to countries that are not FTA partners has exceeded U.S. export growth to countries that are FTA partners by 30 percent over the last decade.

But that isn’t the takeaway from ECAT’s Trade Notes debut today.  In response to “some commentators [who] have argued that trade agreements drive growth in U.S. trade deficits,” ECAT asserts, “recent data suggest that trade agreements, on the whole, actually help to improve U.S. trade balances with FTA partner countries.” 

How can ECAT make this claim?  First, they take oil and gas out of the trade data. Echoing the refrain of many FTA proponents that burgeoning FTA deficits are just about oil imports, ECAT displays a chart that appears to show aggregate non-oil trade deficits with FTA partners diminishing and then turning into surpluses over the last decade.

But the official government data beg to differ.  Even if we remove oil and gas, the non-oil U.S. goods trade balance last year with all U.S. FTA partners was a $100 billion deficit, not a surplus. And while ECAT claims that the non-oil trade balance with FTA countries has been improving, the non-oil U.S. trade deficit with these 20 countries was larger last year than in any of the last six years. 

What, then, explains the gulf between the data and ECAT’s claim of a growing non-oil surplus with FTA countries?  The primary explanation is that ECAT – like the U.S. Trade Representative and fellow corporate conglomerates such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable, etc. – has decided to count foreign-made exports as U.S. exports.  As we’ve explained time and again, determining FTAs’ impacts on U.S. jobs requires counting only U.S.-made exports.  Instead, ECAT also counts “re-exports” – goods made abroad that are shipped through the United States en route to a final destination.  As re-exports to FTA partner countries have been steadily increasing, counting them in trade data – as ECAT does – has had an increasingly distortionary effect on the true record of FTAs (e.g. you can make the NAFTA deficit look half as big simply by counting foreign-made re-exports as U.S. exports). 

In announcing today’s new Trade Note series, ECAT President Calman Cohen stated, “ECAT member companies recognize the importance of maintaining a fact-based dialogue on the contribution of trade and investment to our national economic interest.  ECAT seeks to make a constructive contribution to that dialogue through its new Trade Notes series.”

We’re all for contributions to fact-based dialogue.  Let’s hope we start seeing some from ECAT.  

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