Remember the wonderful David Letterman show feature “Stupid Pet Tricks”? I couldn’t help but think of it while reading various news reports and analyses claiming that the demise of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will bring apocalyptic consequences to three signatory countries: the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But my parents always told me never to use the (needlessly harsh) word “stupid.” So instead, I’ll call them, “Silly NAFTA Studies.” Examining two that have attracted major attention will make clear why.
First, let’s look at findings released in August by a Colorado consulting firm called ImpactEcon, and revised in October, that was mindlessly written up by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN.com, The Los Angeles Times, and many other big news organizations. According to this report:
“Overall, the results show that the US’s reversal of NAFTA leads to a decline in real GDP, trade and investment in the US, Canada and Mexico, with most of the losses resulting from Canada and Mexico’s reciprocation. The losses in low skilled employment are most significant, with employment declining by 256,000, 125,000, and 951,000 in the US, Canada and Mexico respectively. Production and specialization of production across the NAFTA region declines, particularly in those sectors with the highest levels of vertical specialization across NAFTA. The motor vehicles and services sectors in all three NAFTA countries decline, along with production of US meat, food, and textiles; Canadian chemicals and metals; and Mexican textiles, wearing apparel, electronics and machinery.”
Sounds awful, right? And especially dumb for President Trump, who won the votes of many American workers without glitzy high tech skills.
But buried here – glossed over in the press accounts – are results that should be screamingly obvious to anyone knowing anything about intra-NAFTA trade balances, the Canadian and Mexican economies, and in particular their heavy dependence on exporting to the United States: Canada and Mexico take much greater growth and employment hits from NAFTA’s termination than does America.
The passage quoted above shows a major gulf between the projected job impacts. But the differential effects on real growth rates are even greater – and more threatening to Mexico and Canada. (The researchers assume that all three countries return their tariffs to pre-NAFTA levels.)
U.S.: -0.09 percent
Canada: -0.48 percent
Mexico: -0.88 percent
And keep in mind two other considerations: The Canadian and Mexican economies are much smaller than the U.S.’ So the jobs losses are much more important for them, relatively speaking. Moreover, Mexico is still a developing country with real political stability problems. Growth and employment shocks like this would spell big, and possibly fatal, trouble for its ruling classes.
In fact, the damage to Canada and Mexico is so great that the (closely related) policy conclusions couldn’t be clearer (except to economics reporters). First, America’s NAFTA partners simply can’t afford to retaliate against the United States if the treaty is terminated; and second, as a result, a walk-out by them is wildly improbable unless Washington’s demands are positively draconian.
The second silly study (and related press coverage) comes from the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA) – the trade association of an industry that has moved massive amounts of production and jobs to Mexico (much of it from the United States), largely to serve the American market, not the Mexican market or third country markets.
So obviously, the group’s findings should be viewed skeptically. Additionally, however, MEMA assumes (along with the ImpactEcon findings and another study – from another offshorers’ organization – the American Automotive Policy Council), that higher NAFTA requirements for origin rules will leave external tariffs low enough to enable auto manufacturers to ignore the standards and keep shipping product with lots of content from outside the hemisphere all around the free trade zone. Worse, without higher enforcement tariffs, the auto industry might also supply American customers to an even greater extent from even lower-cost economies, like those in Asia.
It’s true that the Trump administration hasn’t discussed raising those tariffs to levels that would bite. It’s also true that these moves would violate all three NAFTA countries’ World Trade Organization commitments on bound tariffs, and similar promises they’ve made in their other trade deals. But the folly of preserving that status quo is so clear cut that it’s entirely reasonable to expect a Trump-ian learning curve. And the President does prize his reputation as a disrupter.
Moreover, all he needs to do is look at the situation for sport utility vehicles and other so-called “light trucks.” Since their non-NAFTA U.S. tariff remains at 25 percent, even staunch opponents of a major treaty rewrite conceded that factories will return stateside if this status quo ante comes back. And P.S.: These products are increasingly dominating American passenger vehicle markets.
A second substantive reason for discounting this study concerns the auto parts makers’ claim that “Raising the automotive content thresholds and forcing automakers to verify the North American origin of more electronics and other parts now sourced from Asia would cause some parts manufacturers to forego NAFTA benefits.”
As just mentioned, the second fear is warranted if tariffs for the origin rules stay where they are. But the point about forcing the companies to verify where their inputs come from? Vehicle makers have already required to provide exactly this information for NAFTA’s entire life by the American Automobile Labeling Act. And they clearly view NAFTA as a huge success. Many companies in the parts supply chain are much smaller, and detailed reporting could indeed become an unreasonable burden for them. But many parts makers are plenty big enough to assume this responsibility easily (unless they don’t know where they themselves manufacture?). Much more important: The information would greatly aid policymakers and the public in (finally!) evaluating the impact of trade agreements and related policy decisions with a critical mass of precision.