Third Way (h/t TPM), a Democratic pro-trade think tank, has released a new study, “Are Modern Trade Deals Working?” It examines the various “free trade” deals the U.S. has signed since 2000 to conclude that 13 of 17 have led to an improvement in our goods (not including services; see more below) trade balance with the countries involved, giving a net improvement over the 17 agreements studied of $30.2 billion per year.
I did a similar analysis of this very question (though in less detail than the Third Way study) in 2012. Unlike the Third Way report, my post included all U.S. free trade agreements (rather than starting in 2001 like Third Way) as well as the effect of the 2000 agreement for Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) with China. So, compared to the Third Way study, my post includes the FTAs with Israel, Canada, and Mexico, but did not consider the Panama FTA, which had not yet come into effect when I posted. My conclusion was essentially the same as Third Way’s, that the effects of the agreements on our trade in goods were usually positive, but of small size (the effect of the Israel FTA was also small). Because the Third Way study begins in 2001, however, it omits the impacts of NAFTA and PNTR with China. However, as my post showed, they are the most important by far.
This fact is not lost on opponents of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Lori Wallach of Public Citizen Global Trade Watch told the Associated Press that “studies such as Third Way’s make a big deal out of modest trade improvements with countries like Panama, and gloss over huge trade deficits with major trading partners such as South Korea, Mexico and Canada.” She’s right.
In 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, the United States had a surplus with Mexico on trade in goods of $1.7 billion. In 1995, it went to a deficit of $15.8 billion, and in 2014 the goods trade deficit was $53.8 billion, down from 2007’s peak of $74.8 billion. This was in sharp contrast with the analysis of Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott, who predicted trade surpluses on the order of $9-12 billion through the 2000s, even as they admitted that the peso was overvalued (it collapsed in value in the December 1994 “Tequila crisis”).
Meanwhile, the balance of trade in goods with Canada went from a deficit of $10.8 billion in 1993 to $34.0 billion in 2014. Note that the U.S. had a peak deficit of $78.3 billion in 2008, which collapsed to $21.6 billion in 2009.
In 2000, the year PNTR was adopted, the United States had an $83.9 billion goods trade deficit with China. In May of that year, the International Trade Commission (h/t David Cay Johnston) released a report estimating that the trade balance would worsen by a further $4.3 billion. According to the article, the U.S. Trade Representative and the White House both criticized this study strongly. And in fact, the 2001 deficit fell to $83.1 billion. However, in 2002 it was $103.1 billion, an increase more than four times the ITC prediction, and by 2014 it had grown to $342.6 billion.
By including trade in goods but not trade in services, Third Way is admirably the stacking the deck against its own position. It points out that the U.S. has a global surplus in trade in services of $232 billion in 2014, including a $45 billion surplus with Canada and Mexico. However, it doesn’t mention that the U.S. goods trade deficit was $737 billion in 2014, or that the country’s overall 2014 trade deficit was $505 billion, up from $477 billion in 2013.
The ultimate question is whether TPP and TTIP are going to be more like the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, or more like NAFTA and PNTR. Considering that the TPP includes all the NAFTA countries, Australia, Chile, Japan, and six others, comprising “nearly 40 percent of global GDP,” I think it’s safe to assume that it will have a much bigger impact than the FTAs with Australia or Chile, for instance. Similarly, since the European Union has an economy about the same size as the U.S. economy, I believe the TTIP will also have big consequences.
Moreover, we have to remember that these are much more than trade agreements. Both of them have increased protections for investors, patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property, and in both of them the U.S. is advocating the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement so companies can sue governments through arbitration rather than courts, something that has proven more favorable for companies vis-a-vis both governments and consumers. So, in addition to the negative effects on U.S. workers that we would expect on the basis of the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem, all signatory countries are likely to suffer from higher prices for medicine and assaults on their regulations through investor-state dispute settlement.
Thus, while the Third Way study is right as far as it goes, what it leaves out is far more significant and worrisome.