U.S.-Mexico: Trump’s Misguided Approach to NAFTA Renegotiation

By Robert A. Blecker*

Three people stand at podiums with flags behind them

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and Mexican Minister of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo (L to R) participate in the fourth round of NAFTA negotiations in Washington, DC in October 2017. / State Department / Flickr / Creative Commons

President Trump has characterized NAFTA as a “win” for Mexico and a “loss” for the United States; his administration is currently working on a renegotiated “deal” that would allegedly reduce the U.S. trade deficit and recapture lost manufacturing employment, but his nationalistic approach fails to recognize the fundamental causes of both U.S. and Mexican economic problems.  In fact, NAFTA was a huge success for President George H.W. Bush and his administration, as it achieved their fundamental goal of enabling U.S. corporations to make products in Mexico with low-cost labor – without fear of expropriation, regulation, or other loss of property rights – and export them to the United States duty-free.  The Mexican government went along because it thought NAFTA would bring in desperately needed foreign investment and provide a growth stimulus, while U.S. and Canadian workers rightly feared that they would lose jobs as a result.  While much discussion has focused on which country “won” or “lost” in NAFTA, that is the wrong way to evaluate a trade agreement.  The two key criteria for judging the accord are which sectors, groups, or interests won and lost in each country, and how it, in conjunction with other policies, has affected long-term growth, development, and inequality in each.

  • Under NAFTA, U.S.-Mexican trade in goods and services has grown exponentially, reaching $623 billion (with a U.S. deficit of $69 billion) last year. However, NAFTA (along with other causes and policies) has contributed to worsening inequality in both the United States and Mexico.  Less-skilled U.S. workers definitely lost, with wage losses up to 17 percent in local areas most exposed to NAFTA tariff reductions.  In Mexico, although consumer gains from trade liberalization were widespread, upper-income groups and the northern region benefited the most.  Real wages for Mexican manufacturing workers have stagnated since 1994.  Labor shares of national income have fallen in both countries since the late 1990s.
  • Domestic policies, exchange rates, financial crises, and the impact of China can make the impact of NAFTA difficult to identify, but effects in some sectors are clear. Mexico gained jobs in automobiles and parts, appliances, electrical and electronic equipment, and seasonal produce.  The United States gained in basic grains, soybeans, animal feed, and paper products.  Although about a half million jobs in automobiles and related industries have “moved” to Mexico, total U.S. job losses in manufacturing (5 million since 2000) have been much more affected by China and technology than by Mexico.  What Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric ignores is that U.S. companies capitalized on these dislocations to raise their profit margins and increase their bargaining leverage over workers and governments both within North America and globally.

Trump’s aggressive posture about NAFTA exploits political discontent with these sectoral effects and the overall worsening of inequality, but the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)’s key demands in the renegotiation appear unlikely to remedy either problem.  USTR Lighthizer is focused on protection for the auto sector, by requiring higher U.S. content (or higher wages for Mexican auto workers), and on changes to dispute resolution procedures that would favor investment in the United States instead of in Mexico.  At best, these measures could bring back a small number of U.S. jobs; at worst, they could make some U.S. industries less competitive (if costs increase).

All of this debate in the United States ignores the fact that NAFTA has been a huge disappointment for Mexico.  Although export industries like automobiles have prospered, the gains to domestic sectors of the Mexican economy have been limited, resulting in sluggish growth (only 2.5 percent per year since 1994, far below the 7.6 percent achieved in East Asia) and leaving millions in poverty while millions more emigrated to the United States.  Of course, other policies and events (including Chinese competition) played into these outcomes, but NAFTA (and related liberalization policies) didn’t turn out to be the panacea for the Mexican economy that then-President Carlos Salinas promised in 1993.  Yet, in the short run the Mexican economy remains highly dependent on foreign investment and exports to the U.S. market, so Trump’s demands for a revised NAFTA and his threats to withdraw are undermining Mexico’s current economic prospects.  Instead of following Trump’s nationalistic approach, the three NAFTA members should focus on making all of North America into a more competitive region with rising living standards for workers in all three countries.  This would start with policies at home, such as public investment in infrastructure, education, and R&D, that could foster industrial growth, along with redistributive measures like higher minimum wages consistent with each country’s economic conditions.

May 11, 2018

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

Mexico and NAFTA: Lessons Learned?

By Robert A. Blecker*

Photo credit: Alex Rubystone / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit: Alex Rubystone / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Twenty years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, it is clear that the promises made by Mexican President Carlos Salinas and U.S. President Bill Clinton – that the accord would make Mexico “a first-world country” and halt the migration of Mexican workers to the United States – have not been fulfilled.  In Salinas’s famous words, Mexico would “export goods, not people.”  But the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States rose by a conservatively estimated 3 to 4 million during the first two decades of NAFTA, and millions more were apprehended at the border and deported.  The reasons why immigration flows accelerated post-NAFTA are not hard to discern.

  • NAFTA fostered integration of Mexican industries into global supply chains targeted at the U.S. market, accelerating Mexico’s transformation into a major exporter of manufactured goods.  Nearly one million manufacturing jobs were created there in the first seven years of NAFTA (1994-2000).  But this job growth was offset by similar job losses in agriculture, and manufacturing employment has fallen by about a half million since 2001.  The net increase in manufacturing employment from 1993 to 2013 was only about 400,000, less than half of the annual growth in the Mexican labor force.
  • Real hourly earnings in Mexican manufacturing were no higher in 2013 than in 1994, and Mexico’s per capita income has stagnated relative to that of the United States.  In 2012, typical Mexican manufacturing workers received only 16 percent as much per hour as their U.S. counterparts, down from 18 percent in 1994.  Even adjusted for the lower cost of living, workers without a college degree in Mexico still earn only about one-quarter to one-third of what they can earn by moving to the United States.

The benefits of NAFTA for Mexico have been attenuated by several factors.  First, Mexican export industries still largely follow the maquiladora model of doing assembly work using imported inputs, so their value-added is only a fraction of the gross value of their exports and they have few “backward linkages” to the domestic economy.  Second, the Mexican government has frequently allowed the peso to become overvalued, making Mexico less competitive and driving multinational firms to locate in other countries.  Third, the tremendous penetration of Chinese imports into all of North America (Canada, Mexico and U.S.), especially since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, has displaced significant amounts of actual or potential Mexican exports.  A revaluation of China’s currency, rising Chinese wages and increasing global transportation costs have recently led to some “reshoring” of manufacturing to Mexico, but employment in Mexican export industries has grown only modestly as a result.

The increased integration of North American industries through NAFTA has proved to be a mixed blessing for Mexico.  U.S. booms have helped Mexico grow, but only for temporary periods, and being dependent on the U.S. market has held Mexico back since the U.S. financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the ensuing “Great Recession” and sluggish recovery.  Of course, NAFTA is but one of Mexico’s constraints.  The country’s restrictive monetary and fiscal policies, frequent currency overvaluation, monopolization of key domestic markets and inadequate investments in physical and human capital have also held it back.  The Mexican economy still suffers from a profound dualism, in which only about one-fifth of all non-agricultural, private-sector workers are employed in large, highly productive firms, while the vast majority are employed in small- or medium-sized enterprises with low, stagnant or even falling productivity.  Mexico’s experience under NAFTA certainly argues against portrayals of international trade agreements, such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, as panaceas for the economic ills of Mexico or any other country.  Whatever one thinks of the “reform” agenda of President Enrique Peña Nieto – which is focused on areas such as energy, education, and telecommunications – these reforms are unlikely to help Mexico break out of its slow growth trap if the foundations of the country’s trade and macroeconomic policies remain untouched.

*Dr. Blecker is a professor of economics at American University.

Mexico: A hard road for reforms

By Tom Long

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

During the campaign, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proclaimed in thousands of advertisements, “Me comprometo y cumplo” – I make a promise and I keep it.  Offering a list of potentially transformative reforms – regulations, security, telecommunications, energy, and more – he began with one of the most intractable:  the struggling public education system.  In December, at his instigation, the Mexican congress passed a constitutional reform to create stricter standards for teachers and move hiring authority from the teachers’ union to the government.  Enough states had ratified the amendment by the end of February to make it law.  After years of stagnation and interest-group politics, education reform suddenly became politically expedient, passing with support from the PRI, PAN, and PRD.  Last week, the government put an exclamation point on the reform by arresting the teachers’ union boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, on charges of using her post for illicit gains surpassing $100 million.  A PRI apostate whose opposing alliance was credited with helping former President Felipe Calderón win his razor-thin victory in 2006, she was not just expendable, but an obstacle.

According to OECD education data, just 45 percent of Mexican students complete their secondary education, though the rate has improved over the last decade.  Mexico spends 3.7 percent of GDP on primary and secondary learning, — less than Chile, Argentina, and Brazil but in line with the OECD average.  Experts believe that Mexico’s educational  problems are largely political, not budgetary.  A full 97 percent of spending goes to salaries, feeding a teachers’ union that has a history of patronage and graft.  The problem has deep roots in the clientelistic structure through which the old PRI governed during its 70 years in power before losing in 2000 – and with which the PAN governments coexisted for 12 years.

The storyline shares certain similarities with PRI President Carlos Salinas’ sacking of the head of oil workers’ union in the 1990s, presaging limited reforms in that sector.  Peña Nieto probably intends the removal of the most visible representative of old-style patronage politics as a clear signal that the PRI will not bring back the bad old ways – despite the possible appearance of the firing and arrest being driven by revenge – but the reform legislation is widely seen as a positive step forward.  Rhetorically at least, the major parties have agreed to a multi-pronged effort for more reforms in the “Pact of Mexico.”  However, forging consensus on further reforms will be more difficult, as entrenched PRI politicians at the local level are already resisting many of the president’s proposals.  The PAN and PRD are already criticizing Peña Nieto for being too cozy with media barons and for handling telecommunications reform behind closed doors.  Security policies and proposed energy reforms are more contentious still.  Reforming other sectors will require going after harder targets than Gordillo and will pose greater tests of Peña Nieto’s ability to win votes in the Mexican Congress.