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September 18, 2014

Chamber of Commerce Uses “Weird Facts” to Claim a $106 Billion Trade Deficit Isn’t There

The Chamber of Commerce is a place of magic.  For its latest trick, the corporate alliance tried to make a $106 billion trade deficit disappear.

The Chamber took to its blog last week to highlight for readers “One Weird Fact About the Trade Deficit No One Has Noticed.”  Here’s the claimed “fact”: “in 2012 — for the 20 countries with which the United States has entered into a free-trade agreement (FTA) — the trade deficit vanished.”

A disappearing U.S. trade deficit with our FTA partners?  That’s not just weird – it’s incredible.  As in, not credible. 

Want to know why “no one has noticed” this oddity?  Because it didn’t happen. 

In 2012 the U.S. trade deficit with FTA partners topped $106 billion.  That includes trade in goods and services.  (If you just count goods, the deficit was $178 billion.) 

And that mammoth FTA trade deficit is not “vanishing.”  The estimated U.S. trade deficit with FTA partners in 2013 is exactly the same: $106 billion. 

Indeed, the aggregate U.S. goods trade deficit with FTA partners has actually increased by more than $147 billion since the FTAs were implemented. In contrast, the aggregate deficit with all non-FTA countries has decreased by more than $130 billion since 2006 (the median entry date of existing FTAs).

The Chamber goes on to claim, “The United States has recorded a trade surplus in manufactured goods with its FTA partner countries for each of the past five years.”  The opposite is true.  The U.S. has run a major trade deficit in manufactured goods with its FTA partners in each of the last five years.  The average FTA manufacturing trade deficit during this period exceeded $48 billion. Last year, it topped $51 billion.

How does the Chamber claim to not see glaring FTA trade deficits?  By using some “weird facts” of its own. 

The Chamber distorts the data by counting “foreign exports” as “U.S. exports.”  Foreign exports are foreign-made goods that pass through the United States without alteration before being re-exported abroad.  Along the way, they support zero U.S. production jobs.  And yet, the Chamber includes foreign-made exports alongside U.S.-made exports as if they had the same value for U.S. workers.

Doing so dramatically deflates the size of the actual U.S. trade deficit with FTA partners.  By errantly including foreign exports, the 2012 goods trade deficit with FTA partners can be made to look less than 40 percent of its actual size ($71 billion vs. the true deficit of $178 billion).  The distortion was even worse in 2013, when the actual FTA goods trade deficit was nearly three times as large as the distorted deficit with foreign exports included ($67 billion vs. the true deficit of $180 billion). 

The graph below shows how this single data trick allows the Chamber to claim that a $106 billion FTA trade deficit has disappeared.  As the administration contemplates expanding the old deficit-ridden FTA model via the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, it seems that we should be looking at the actual evidence from past FTAs, not illusions. 

Chamber Weird Fact
A footnote on data availability: services data are not available for some FTA countries, particularly the smaller economies.  The missing data were not included in either the Chamber’s figures or those reported above.  Also, while the Chamber did not report figures for 2013 due to a claimed lack of available services data for that year, 2013 services data is actually available for all but two of the FTA partners for which 2012 data were available.  For those two countries, services data for 2013 has been extrapolated based on observed growth trends.

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