Do traditional measurements misinterpret global trade?

global communicationsAs the world economy becomes more interconnected, it has become clear that import/export trade figures by themselves do not fully capture how much the US contributes to global commerce. Imports and exports merely measure the trade in completed products between nations and present a flawed picture. On the other hand, metrics such as US foreign affiliate sales provide information on longer-term investment and entrenchment in foreign markets, thereby giving a substantially different, and perhaps more accurate, look at what the US provides in goods and services.

Taking a look at exports trade data, a country like Ireland looks inconsequential to US trade with only $7,276 million (USD) in exported goods. However, Ireland is actually an important hub for transnational companies, and rakes in huge amounts of investment as shown by the foreign affiliate sales which puts Ireland at around $171,895 million, a number that eclipses Mexico at $143,478 million. Using only exports, Mexico is our number two trading partner for exports, but when we use the Sales/Export ratio, Mexico stands at 0.9, whereas Ireland is at 23.6.Without accounting for foreign affiliate sales, policy makers would have no idea of the importance of Ireland to US commerce. In addition, using foreign affiliate sales sheds light on other trade relationships, including Germany a country that many policymakers are worried about due to our supposed trade imbalance. In actuality, while US exports with Germany are only at $48,161 million, the US foreign affiliate sales are at $244,785 million and a ratio of 5.1. This means that the US is very much invested into Germany and the trade imbalance is not as nearly as significant when looking at both sets of metrics. This also presents an interesting note on the relative significance of trading partners. Policy-makers often stress the importance of China to US trade, but when looking at foreign affiliate sales, China is only at $138,991 million compared to Germany’s $244,785 million. This has the implication that the US actually has more trade interests in Germany, which is something that is completely unacknowledged when measuring using only export trade.

Using only export numbers presents an incomplete depiction of US trade. It is very difficult to make smart policy that improves US trade potential if the true trade relationships between the US and foreign countries are not understood. In terms of trade importance to the United States, opportunities lie with the newly proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade Agreement at almost $1,473,483 million in foreign affiliate sales. The United States must begin to rely more on foreign affiliate trade data or at least use it to supplement traditional import/export measurements to get a more accurate representation of US trade interactions.

Posted by: Matthew Goldberg

Sources: U.S. International Trade Commission, Vox, OECD, U.S. Census Bureau

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