A recent parade of reports from corporate lobbies and think tanks has played a familiar but discordant refrain, alleging that more of the same "free trade" agreements (FTAs) would boost U.S. exports and reduce the U.S. trade deficits that displace U.S. jobs. It sounds nice. But this tired promise is simply not supported by the data.
According to the official government trade data from the U.S. International Trade Commission, the aggregate U.S. goods trade deficit with FTA partners is more than five times as high as before the deals went into effect, while the aggregate trade deficit with non-FTA countries has actually fallen. The key differences are soaring imports into the United States from FTA partners and lower growth in U.S. exports to those nations than to non-FTA nations.
Why do we keep hearing arguments that more of the same will produce different results? Well, if you (or your corporate backers) wanted to Fast Track through Congress the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would expand the status quo FTA model, you might also find it convenient to parrot the standard FTA sales pitch of higher exports and lower trade deficits. In doing so, you would need to ignore these facts:
- Growth of U.S. goods exports to FTA partners has been 20% lower than U.S. export growth to the rest of the world over the last decade (annual average growth of 5.3 percent to non-FTA nations vs. 4.3 percent to FTA nations from 2004 to 2014).
- The aggregate U.S. goods trade deficit with FTA partners has increased by about $144 billion, or 427 percent, since the FTAs were implemented. In contrast, the aggregate trade deficit with all non-FTA countries has decreased by about $95 billion, or 11 percent, since 2006 (the median entry date of existing FTAs). See the chart below. Using the Obama administration’s net exports-to-jobs ratio, the FTA trade deficit surge implies the loss of about 780,000 U.S. jobs.
- The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) contributed the most to the widening FTA deficit – under NAFTA, the U.S. trade deficit with Canada has ballooned and a U.S. trade surplus with Mexico has turned into a nearly $100 billion deficit.
- More recent deals have produced similar results. Since the 2011 passage of the Korea FTA, the U.S. template for the TPP, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has already surged 72 percent.
“Higher Standards” Have Failed to Alter FTA Legacy of Ballooning Trade Deficits
Some proponents of status quo trade have claimed that post-NAFTA FTAs have included higher standards and thus have yielded trade balance improvements. But the Korea FTA included the higher labor and environmental standards of the May 10, 2007 deal, and still the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has grown over 70 percent in the three years since the deal’s passage. Meanwhile, most post-NAFTA FTAs that have resulted in (small) trade balance improvements did not contain the “May 10” standards. The evidence shows no correlation between an FTA’s inclusion of “May 10” standards and its trade balance impact. Reducing the massive U.S. trade deficit will require a more fundamental rethink of the core status quo trade pact model extending from NAFTA through the Korea FTA, not more of the same.
Corporate FTA Boosters Omit Imports, Use Errant Methods to Claim Higher Exports under FTAs
Members of Congress will invariably be shown data by defenders of our status quo trade policy that appear to indicate that FTAs have generated an export boom. Indeed, to promote congressional support for new NAFTA-style FTAs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) have funded an entire body of research designed to create the appearance that the existing pacts have both boosted exports and reversed trade deficits with FTA partner countries. This work relies on several methodological tricks that fail basic standards of accuracy:
- Ignoring imports: U.S. Chamber of Commerce studies regularly omit mention of soaring imports under FTAs, instead focusing only on exports. But any study claiming to evaluate the net impact of trade deals must deal with both sides of the trade equation. In the same way that exports are associated with job opportunities, imports are associated with lost job opportunities when they outstrip exports, as dramatically seen under FTAs.
- Counting “foreign exports”: NAM has errantly claimed that the United States has a manufacturing surplus with FTA nations by counting foreign-made goods as “U.S. exports.” NAM’s data include “foreign exports” – goods made elsewhere that pass through the United States without alteration before being re-exported abroad. Foreign exports support zero U.S. production jobs and their inclusion distorts FTAs’ impacts on workers.
- Omitting major FTAs: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has repeatedly claimed that U.S. export growth is higher to FTA nations that to non-FTA nations by simply omitting FTAs that do not support their claim. One U.S. Chamber of Commerce study omitted all FTAs implemented before 2003 to estimate export growth. This excluded major FTAs like NAFTA that comprised more than 83 percent of all U.S. FTA exports. Given NAFTA’s leading role in the 427 percent aggregate FTA deficit surge, its omission vastly skews the findings.
- Failing to correct for inflation: U.S. Chamber of Commerce studies that have claimed high FTA export growth have not adjusted the data for inflation, thus errantly counting price increases as export gains.
- Comparing apples and oranges: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has claimed higher U.S. exports under FTAs by using two completely different methods to calculate the growth of U.S. exports to FTA partners (an unweighted average) versus non-FTA partners (a weighted average). This inconsistency creates the false impression of higher export growth to FTA partners by giving equal weight to FTA countries that are vastly different in importance to U.S. exports (e.g. Canada, where U.S. exports exceed $260 billion, and Bahrain, where they do not reach $1 billion), despite accounting for such critical differences for non-FTA countries.