The Half-a-Loaf National Export Initiative

In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama announced a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years.  The “National Export Initiative” has since become the centerpiece of his administration’s trade policy, complete with its own Executive Order, organizational structure, and dedicated website.

Although I would be happy to see exports double in five years, I am skeptical of efforts to enshrine that goal as a national imperative.  I worry that Five Year Plans and the setting of export targets puts the United States on the slippery slope to industrial policy, which is being touted nowadays with growing vim and vigor by columnists, politicians and other analysts who wish the United States were more like China.

But the economic straight jacket of industrial policy is not an imminent outcome of the NEI.  And some of the reforms under consideration are sensible.  For example, efforts to clarify, simplify, and streamline U.S. export control procedures are likely to reduce regulatory obstacles and spur meaningful export growth without imposing new burdens or diverting resources from elsewhere in the economy.  Likewise, the administration’s discovery of the virtues of passing the long-pending bilateral trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama could lead to the reduction or elimination of artificial barriers to U.S. exports in a variety of economic sectors.

But while we might rejoice in export-led economic growth, the National Export Initiative suffers from myopia, as it institutionalizes public misperceptions about how trade bestows its benefits on consumers and businesses.  Just take a look at the program’s eight focus priorities:

(a) Exports by Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs). Members of the Export Promotion Cabinet shall develop programs, in consultation with the TPCC, designed to enhance export assistance to SMEs, including programs that improve information and other technical assistance to first-time exporters and assist current exporters in identifying new export opportunities in international markets.
(b) Federal Export Assistance. Members of the Export Promotion Cabinet, in consultation with the TPCC, shall promote Federal resources currently available to assist exports by U.S. companies.
(c) Trade Missions. The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the TPCC and, to the extent possible, with State and local government officials and the private sector, shall ensure that U.S. Government-led trade missions effectively promote exports by U.S. companies.
(d) Commercial Advocacy. Members of the Export Promotion Cabinet, in consultation with other departments and agencies and in coordination with the Advocacy Center at the Department of Commerce, shall take steps to ensure that the Federal Government’s commercial advocacy effectively promotes exports by U.S. companies.
(e) Increasing Export Credit. The President of the Export-Import Bank, in consultation with other members of the Export Promotion Cabinet, shall take steps to increase the availability of credit to SMEs.
(f) Macroeconomic Rebalancing. The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with other members of the Export Promotion Cabinet, shall promote balanced and strong growth in the global economy through the G20 Financial Ministers’ process or other appropriate mechanisms.
(g) Reducing Barriers to Trade. The United States Trade Representative, in consultation with other members of the Export Promotion Cabinet, shall take steps to improve market access overseas for our manufacturers, farmers, and service providers by actively opening new markets, reducing significant trade barriers, and robustly enforcing our trade agreements.
(h) Export Promotion of Services. Members of the Export Promotion Cabinet shall develop a framework for promoting services trade, including the necessary policy and export promotion tools.

Beside the amorphous, bureaucratese task descriptions — and the fact that several of the eight priorities seem to be redundant (really, what are the substantive differences between priorities (b), (c), (d), and (h)?) — the NEI systemically neglects a broad swath of opportunities to facilitate exports because it only contemplates the export-oriented activities of exporters.  It’s as if the administration believes that U.S. exporters are born exporters and never experience life as producers or as consumers of input.  It’s as if they incur no costs until their goods reach foreign ports — after which they face a gauntlet of taxes, regulations, and other barriers abroad.

The NEI enshrines the fallacy that it is exclusively foreign-borne obstacles that inhibit U.S. export potential, when it should be obvious that U.S. policies also undermine U.S. competitiveness.  Before U.S. companies are exporters, they are producers.  And as producers of goods, they are consumers of capital equipment, industrial components, other raw materials, energy, capital and labor.  And as consumers of all of those inputs, our producers face a host of U.S. taxes, tariffs, regulations, mandates, and other U.S. government-imposed impediments that reduce their competitiveness at home, and as exporters.  If the administration wants to get serious about doubling U.S. exports by 2015, everything should be on the table.  The scope of potential reforms should be broadened to include policies that affect the pre-export activities of U.S. exporters.

Otherwise, what’s the point of squandering resources on “export promotion,” “federal export assistance,” “trade missions,” or “commercial advocacy” when the exporters in question are getting hammered as manufacturers by U.S. policies that limit their access to imported materials?  What’s so great about the Secretary of Commerce accompanying prospective U.S. exporters of magnesium die-cast auto parts on a marketing trip to Asia when the cost structures of those companies are uncompetitive because antidumping restrictions render the U.S. price of magnesium more than double the world price?

U.S. producers account for over half of the value of U.S. imports, which means there is great potential to increase their competitiveness by improving their access to imports.  It also explains the strong correlation between imports and exports, between imports and GDP, and between imports and job growth — facts that too many politicians wish to expunge from the record.  But during the depths of the recent recession, both the Mexican and Canadian governments moved decisively to cut tariffs across the board on industrial inputs and capital equipment in an effort to make their producers more competitive.

The Obama administration, as part of the NEI, should press Congress to take a similar initiative to increase U.S. competitiveness by eliminating tariffs on all industrial inputs — not just those “non-controversial” tariff items in the Manufacturing Enhancement Act (also known as the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill) that just passed both chambers of Congress — for the purpose of making U.S. manufacturers more competitive.

Furthermore, the NEI should include a strong effort to compel Congress to change the U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty laws to require the International Trade Commission to consider the impact of trade restrictions on downstream U.S. industries.  Under the current statutes, the ITC is forbidden from considering such impact even though most of the approximately 300 existing U.S. antidumping and countervailing duty orders restrict imports of upstream raw materials and other industrial inputs required by downstream U.S. industries.  That statutory bias clearly undermines U.S. export competitiveness, particularly since downstream, consuming industries are much more likely to export than are firms in those industries that seek relief under the trade remedies laws.

Let’s change the name to the National “Economic” Initiative and make its mission the elimination of all political impediments in the international supply chain.