Ten Facts about U.S. Trade
President Obama’s top priority is to make sure the United States builds on its economic momentum by continuing to grow businesses, create jobs, and expand the middle class. That is why the President is committed to free and fair trade agreements that level the playing field and benefit American businesses and workers.
A new report released this morning by the Council of Economic Advisers presents original empirical evidence, alongside a summary of the extensive economic literature, on a broad range of effects of enhanced U.S. trade and U.S. free trade agreements (FTAs). Highlights from this report include:
1. U.S. businesses must overcome an average tariff hurdle of 6.8 percent, in addition to numerous non-tariff barriers (NTBs), to serve the roughly 95 percent of the world’s customers outside our borders. The United States is already one of the most open markets in the world, meaning that the main impact of new trade agreements would be to decrease foreign barriers to U.S. exports. In 2014, almost 70 percent of U.S. imports crossed our borders duty-free, but many of our trading partners maintain higher tariffs that create steep barriers to U.S. exports.
2. Exporters pay higher wages, and the average industry’s export growth over the past twenty years translated into $1,300 higher annual earnings for the typical employee. Studies of U.S. manufacturing industries document that, on average, export-intensive industries pay workers up to 18 percent more than non-export-intensive industries. Controlling for industry, location, and worker characteristics, CEA finds that the average industry’s increase in exports in the 1990s and 2000s translated into an additional $1,300 in annual earnings for the typical middle-class worker.
3. Middle-class Americans gain more than a quarter of their purchasing power from trade. Trade allows U.S. consumers to buy a wider variety of goods at lower prices, raising real wages and helping families purchase more with their current incomes. This is especially important for middle-class consumers who spend a larger share of their disposable income on heavily-traded food and clothing items. Compared to a world with no trade, median-income consumers gain an estimated 29 percent of their purchasing power from trade.
4. Over the past twenty years, the average industry’s increase in exports translated into 8 percent higher labor productivity, or almost a quarter of the total productivity increase over that time. About half of all U.S. imports are inputs that businesses use to produce final goods, which lowers firms’ production costs by making a greater variety of inputs available at lower prices. Additionally, economic research shows that trade increases productivity for businesses and the economy as a whole.
5. When countries make trade deals with China, outsourcing of American jobs increases, while U.S. trade agreements do not change the rate of U.S. investment abroad. Trade agreements with China offer countries preferential access to the vast Chinese market while accepting low labor and environmental standards. U.S. FTAs, on the other hand, raise standards across the board and help U.S. businesses export to foreign markets while still producing goods here. U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in FTA partner countries shows little to no change after completion of a trade agreement. However, China’s completion of a trade agreement increases U.S. FDI in China’s FTA partners.
6. Trade raises labor standards and incomes abroad, helping developing countries lift people out of poverty and expanding markets for U.S. exports. Research suggests that trade has helped decrease poverty by raising wages around the world and also finds that expanding U.S. market access promotes higher-quality employment in less-developed countries as workers shift from informal to formal employment. Enforceable labor standards, which form a central part of trade agreements the United States is currently negotiating, have also complemented trade’s direct effects.
7. For every 1 percent increase in income as a result of trade liberalization, pollution concentrations fall by 1 percent. This happens because the adoption of clean technologies spread through trade more than offsets emissions resulting from increased transportation or production. Current trade agreements amplify these effects: the Administration includes environmental commitments as a core part of its values-driven trade approach, including commitments to protect oceans, combat wildlife trafficking, and eliminate illegal logging.
8. Trade helps lower the gender wage gap, with a 10 percentage point decrease in tariffs leading to a 1 percentage point drop in the wage gap. CEA studied the relationship between tariffs and the gender wage gap, finding that industries with larger tariff declines saw greater reductions in the wage gap. Trade also decreases discrimination based on race and immigration status and is correlated with better human-rights conditions.
9. The United States has a $43 billion surplus in agricultural trade and is a worldwide leader in agriculture, employing almost 1.5 million American workers. In 2014, one-half of the wheat, rice, and soybeans produced in the United States was exported, along with over two-thirds of almonds and walnuts and four-fifths of cotton and pistachios. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that every $1 in agricultural exports stimulates another $1.22 in related business activity, so that agricultural exports increased total economic output by almost $350 billion in 2014.
10. The United States is the global leader in services exports. Over the past 34 years, real U.S. services exports have grown more than seven-fold, particularly in areas like insurance and financial services. As a result, knocking down barriers to services trade is especially important for the American workforce. Compared to the average across 40 other countries, including most advanced economies and large emerging markets, the United States has lower trade barriers in 14 out of 18 different service sectors. By one estimate, if U.S. services reached the same export potential as manufactured goods, total U.S. exports could increase by as much as $800 billion.