U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

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Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

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