BERKELEY, Calif. (Project Syndicate) — As U.S. President Donald Trump receives bids to build his supposed “beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico, his administration is also poised to build some figurative walls with America’s southern neighbor, by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). Before U.S. officials move forward, they would do well to recognize some basic facts.
Trump has called Nafta the “single worst trade deal” ever approved by the United States, claiming that it has led to “terrible losses” of manufacturing production and jobs. But none of this is supported by the evidence. Even Nafta skeptics have concluded that its negative effects on net U.S. manufacturing employment have been small to non-existent.
Trump may prefer not to focus on facts, but it is useful to begin with a few. Bilateral trade between the U.S. and Mexico amounts to over $500 billion per year. The U.S. is by far Mexico’s largest trading partner in merchandise — about 80% of its goods exports go to the U.S. — while Mexico is America’s third-largest trading partner (after Canada and China).
The U.S. value-added trade deficit with Mexico in 2009 was only about half the size of the trade deficit measured by conventional methods.
After Nafta’s passage in 1994, trade between the U.S. and Mexico grew rapidly. America’s merchandise trade balance with Mexico went from a small surplus to a deficit that peaked in 2007, at $74 billion, and is estimated to have been around $60 billion in 2016. But, even as the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico has grown in nominal terms, it has declined relative to total U.S. trade and as a share of U.S. GDP (from a peak of 1.2% in 1986 to less than 0.2% in 2015).
Perhaps more important, the U.S. and Mexico aren’t just exchanging finished goods. Rather, much of their bilateral trade occurs within supply chains, with companies in each country adding value at different points in the production process. The U.S. and Mexico are not just trading goods with each other; they are producing goods with each other.
In 2014, Mexico imported $136 billion of intermediate goods from the U.S., and the U.S. imported $132 billion of intermediate goods from Mexico. More than two-thirds of U.S. imports from Mexico were inputs used in further processing — cost-efficient inputs that boost U.S. production and employment, and enhance the competitiveness of U.S. companies in global markets. Goods often move across the U.S.-Mexico border numerous times before they are ready for final sale in Mexico, the U.S., or elsewhere.
When cross-border trade flows are occurring largely within supply chains, traditional export and import statistics are misleading. The auto industry illustrates the point. Automobiles are the largest export from Mexico to the U.S. — so large, in fact, that if trade in this sector were excluded, the US trade deficit with Mexico would disappear.
Video: How long will the Nafta renegotiation take?
But standard trade figures attribute to Mexico the full value of a car exported to the U.S., even when that value includes components produced in the U.S. and exported to Mexico. According to a recent estimate, 40% of the value added to the final goods that the U.S. imports from Mexico come from the U.S.; Mexico contributes 30%-40% of that value; the remainder is provided by foreign suppliers.
When the value-added breakdown is taken into account, the U.S.-Mexico trade balance changes drastically. According to OECD and World Trade Organization calculations, the U.S. value-added trade deficit with Mexico in 2009 was only about half the size of the trade deficit measured by conventional methods.
Trump claims that high tariffs on imports from Mexico would encourage U.S. companies to keep production and jobs in the U.S. But such tariffs, not to mention the border adjustment tax that Congress is considering, would disrupt cross-border supply chains, reducing both U.S. exports of intermediate products to Mexico and Mexican exports — containing sizable U.S. value-added — to the U.S. and other markets.
That would raise the prices of products relying on inputs from Mexico, undermining the competitiveness of the U.S. companies. Even if supply chains were ultimately reconfigured, the U.S. and Mexico would incur large costs — to both production and employment — during the transition period.
Imports from Mexico support U.S. jobs in three ways: by creating a market for U.S. exports; by providing competitively priced inputs for U.S. production; and by lowering prices of goods for U.S. consumers, who then can spend more on other U.S.-produced goods and services. A recent study estimates that nearly five million jobs in the U.S. currently depend on trade with Mexico.
The Trump administration wants to strengthen Nafta’s rules of origin. As an illustration, current rules dictate that only 62.5% of a car’s content must originate within a Nafta country to qualify for a zero tariff. That has made Mexico an attractive location for assembling Asian-produced content into final manufactured goods for sale in the U.S. or Canada.
If the Trump administration succeeds in raising the share of content that must be produced within Nafta to qualify for zero tariffs, both the U.S. and Mexico could “reclaim” parts of the manufacturing supply chain that have been lost to foreign suppliers. Stricter rules of origin could also boost investment by these suppliers in production and employment in both Mexico and the U.S.
The Trump administration’s draft outline for Nafta renegotiation also sets objectives for stronger labor and environmental standards — important priorities for Congressional Democrats who share the president’s opposition to the current agreement. Stronger standards could create benefits for all of Nafta’s partners; but with the Trump administration actively dismantling labor and environmental protections at home, a U.S.-led effort to strengthen them within Nafta in any meaningful way seems farfetched. Perhaps Canada will take the lead.
Uncertainty over the fate of Nafta has already hit the Mexican economy. It has also weakened the position of the reformist and pro-market President Enrique Peña Nieto, just over a year before the general election in Mexico. This may aid the rise of right-wing populists riding the wave of anti-Trump nationalism.
A strong, stable Mexican economy, led by a government committed to working with the U.S., is clearly in America’s interests. Trump would be well-advised to work quickly to ensure that the Nafta renegotiations he has demanded generate this outcome.
Laura Tyson, a former chair of the U.S. President’s Council of Economic Advisers, is a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, a senior adviser at the Rock Creek Group, and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Gender Parity.
This article was published with the permission of Project Syndicate.