Lies, Damned Lies, and Trade Statistics

If you want to understand how global integration and cross-border investment have left U.S. trade policy in need of a new purpose, check out today’s Wall Street Journal article about the Apple iPhone’s complex production-supply chain.  (And then see this analysis for more depth and detail.) The story is both testament to the benefits of globalization and the latest indictment of a decrepit international trade flow accounting system that nourishes misleading trade skeptics and misinforms policy.

Following in the footsteps of a groundbreaking and widely-cited 2007 UC-Irvine study, which disaggregated the components of a Chinese-assembled Apple iPod and assigned its constituent value to the companies and countries responsible for their production, two researchers at the Asian Development Bank Institute applied a similar analysis to the Apple iPhone. Like the UC-Irvine iPod study before it, the ADBI analysis found that just a tiny fraction of the cost of producing the iPhone is Chinese value-added. The only Chinese input is labor, which is used to assemble the components manufactured in other countries. The value of that labor accounts for $6.50 or 3.6 percent of the total cost of $178.96 to produce an iPhone (about the same percentage as the iPod). The other 96.4 percent of that total is the cost of components produced (and the labor and overhead employed to produce those components) in Japan, Germany, South Korea, the United States, and several other countries. This breakdown is very similar to that found for the iPod in 2007, and the punch lines are identical.

While firms in Japan and Germany account for the most expensive parts (and quite obviously benefit from the advent of the iPhone), most of the value of the iPhone (like the iPod) accrues to Apple, which reaps the lion’s share of the approximately 100 percent markup. When iPhones sell for $399 in the United States, the difference between that retail price and the $178.96 cost of production goes to retailers, distributors, marketers, other firms in the supply chain, and to Apple, which distributes some earnings to its shareholders and retains some for research and development, supporting engineering and design jobs higher up the value chain so that the virtuous circle can continue.

Rather than appreciate how this complementary process harnesses the benefits of our globalized division of labor, some begrudge iPod and iPhone sales in the United States for adding to the bilateral trade deficit. Technically, for every $399 iPhone sold in the United States, the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China increases by $178.96. Even though only $6.50 of that iPhone is Chinese value, under our antiquated, pre-globalization, method of tallying a nation’s imports and exports, the entire $178.96 is chalked up as an import from China because that was the product’s final point of assembly. According to the authors of the ADBI study, iPhones added $1.9 billion to the politically volatile U.S. trade deficit with China in 2009. Alas, this is the basis of the claim—popular among the most shameless trade critics—that America has a “high-tech” trade deficit with China.

Should we lament a trade deficit in iPhones or any other products assembled abroad, particularly when those products comprise U.S. value-added and support high-paying U.S. jobs? I think not.  As I wrote last year:

U.S. factories and workers are more likely to be collaborating with Chinese factories and workers in production of the same goods than they are to be competing directly. The proliferation of vertical integration (whereby the production process is carved up and each function performed where it is most efficient to perform that function) and transnational supply chains has joined higher value-added U.S. manufacturing, design, and R&D activities with lower-value manufacturing and assembly operations in China. The old factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders. Though the focus is typically on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, legions of American workers and their factories, offices, and laboratories would be idled without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. Without access to lower-cost labor in places like Shenzhen, countless ideas hatched in U.S. laboratories—which became viable commercial products that support hundreds of thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing—might never have made it beyond conception because the costs of production would have been deemed prohibitive for mass consumption. Just imagine if all of the components in the Apple iPod had to be manufactured and assembled in the United States. Instead of $150 per unit, the cost of production might be multiple times that amount.

Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would have sold; how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution, and sales would have supported supported; how much lower Apple’s profits (and those of the entities in its supply chains) would have been; how much lower Apple’s research and development expenditures would have been; how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be; how many fewer jobs those industries would support; and the lower profits those industries would generate. Now multiply that process by the hundreds of other similarly ubiquitous devices and gadgets: computers, Blu-Ray devices, and every other product that is designed in the United States and assembled in China from components made in the United States and elsewhere.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows characterizes the complementarity of U.S. and Chinese production sharing as following the shape of a “Smiley Curve” plotted on a chart where the production process from start to finish is measured along the horizontal axis and the value of each stage of production is measured on the vertical axis. U.S. value-added comes at the early stages—in branding, product conception, engineering, and design. Chinese value-added operations occupy the middle stages—some engineering, some manufacturing and assembly, primarily. And more U.S. value-added occurs at the end stages in logistics, retailing, and after-market servicing. Under this typical production arrangement, collaboration, not competition, is what links U.S. and Chinese workers.

The proliferation of cross border investment and global production-supply chains is a major reason the world averted a global trade war of 1930s proportions during and in the wake of the recession, as described in this paper; it explains why Chinese currency appreciation between 2005 and 2008 did not reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China during that period, and why Yuan appreciation, alone, going forward will have no discernible impact on the deficit in this paper; and, it explains why the world should rejoice in China’s becoming the world’s largest exporter in 2009, in this oped.

Global integration requires new thinking about trade statistics, which should be reported on a constituent value-added basis, if at all.  It also requires that trade policy get with the times and consist of goals that are not mired in the old  “Us” versus “Them” way of thinking.  Relying on old-fashioned trade statistics for 21st century policy decisions is a recipe for disaster.