Why is global trade important to the United States, and how is it measured?
No longer just an option, having a global vision has become a business imperative. Having a global vision means recognizing and reacting to international business opportunities, being aware of threats from foreign competitors in all markets, and effectively using international distribution networks to obtain raw materials and move finished products to the customer.
U.S. managers must develop a global vision if they are to recognize and react to international business opportunities, as well as remain competitive at home. Often a U.S. firm’s toughest domestic competition comes from foreign companies. Moreover, a global vision enables a manager to understand that customer and distribution networks operate worldwide, blurring geographic and political barriers and making them increasingly irrelevant to business decisions. Over the past three decades, world trade has climbed from $200 billion a year to more than $1.4 trillion.1 U.S. companies play a major role in this growth in world trade, with 113 of the Fortune 500 companies making over 50 percent of their profits outside the United States. Among these companies are recognizable names such as Apple, Microsoft, Pfizer, Exxon Mobil, and General Electric.
Starbucks Corp. is among the fastest growing global consumer brands and one of the most visible emblems of U.S. commercial culture overseas. Of Starbucks’s 24,000 total stores, almost 66 percent are international stores that contribute a substantial amount to the company’s revenues, which have grown from $4.1 billion in 2003 to $21.3 billion in 2016.
Go into a Paris McDonald’s and you may not recognize where you are. There are no Golden Arches or utilitarian chairs and tables and other plastic features. The restaurants have exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, and armchairs. Some French McDonald’s even have faux marble walls. Most restaurants have TVs with continuous music videos. You can even order an espresso, beer, and a chicken on focaccia bread sandwich. It’s not America.
Global business is not a one-way street, where only U.S. companies sell their wares and services throughout the world. Foreign competition in the domestic market used to be relatively rare but now occurs in almost every industry. In fact, U.S. makers of electronic goods, cameras, automobiles, fine china, tractors, leather goods, and a host of other consumer and industrial products have struggled to maintain their domestic market shares against foreign competitors. Toyota now has 14 percent of the U.S. auto market, followed by Honda at 9 percent and Nissan with 8 percent.4 Nevertheless, the global market has created vast new business opportunities for many U.S. firms.
The Importance of Global Business to the United States
Many countries depend more on international commerce than the United States does. For example, France, Great Britain, and Germany all derive more than 55 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) from world trade, compared to about 28 percent for the United States.5 Nevertheless, the impact of international business on the U.S. economy is still impressive:
Trade-dependent jobs have grown at a rate three times the growth of U.S.-dependent jobs.
Every U.S. state has realized a growth of jobs attributable to trade.
Trade has an effect on both service and manufacturing jobs.6
These statistics might seem to imply that practically every business in the United States is selling its wares throughout the world, but most is accounted for by big business. About 85 percent of all U.S. exports of manufactured goods are shipped by 250 companies. Yet, 98 percent of all exporters are small and medium-size firms.7
The Impact of Terrorism on Global Trade
The terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, and the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 have changed the way the world conducts business. The immediate impacts of these events have included a short-term shrinkage of global trade. Globalization, however, will continue because the world’s major markets are too vitally integrated for globalization to stop. Nevertheless, terrorism has caused the growth to be slower and costlier.8
Companies are paying more for insurance and to provide security for overseas staff and property. Heightened border inspections slow movements of cargo, forcing companies to stock more inventory. Tighter immigration policies curtail the liberal inflows of skilled and blue-collar workers that allowed companies to expand while keeping wages in check. The impact of terrorism may lessen over time, but multinational firms will always be on guard.
Measuring Trade between Nations
International trade improves relationships with friends and allies; helps ease tensions among nations; and—economically speaking—bolsters economies, raises people’s standard of living, provides jobs, and improves the quality of life. The value of international trade is over $16 trillion a year and growing. This section takes a look at some key measures of international trade: exports and imports, the balance of trade, the balance of payments, and exchange rates.
Exports and Imports
The developed nations (those with mature communication, financial, educational, and distribution systems) are the major players in international trade. They account for about 70 percent of the world’s exports and imports. Exports are goods and services made in one country and sold to others. Imports are goods and services that are bought from other countries. The United States is both the largest exporter and the largest importer in the world.
Each year the United States exports more food, animal feed, and beverages than the year before. A third of U.S. farm acreage is devoted to crops for export. The United States is also a major exporter of engineering products and other high-tech goods, such as computers and telecommunications equipment. For more than 60,000 U.S. companies (the majority of them small), international trade offers exciting and profitable opportunities. Among the largest U.S. exporters are Apple, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Procter & Gamble, and Cisco Systems.
Despite our impressive list of resources and great variety of products, imports to the United States are also growing. Some of these imports are raw materials that we lack, such as manganese, cobalt, and bauxite, which are used to make airplane parts, exotic metals, and military hardware. More modern factories and lower labor costs in other countries make it cheaper to import industrial supplies (such as steel) and production equipment than to produce them at home. Most of Americans’ favorite hot beverages—coffee, tea, and cocoa—are imported. Lower manufacturing costs have resulted in huge increases in imports from China.
Balance of Trade
The difference between the value of a country’s exports and the value of its imports during a specific time is the country’s balance of trade. A country that exports more than it imports is said to have a favorable balance of trade, called a trade surplus. A country that imports more than it exports is said to have an unfavorable balance of trade, or a trade deficit. When imports exceed exports, more money from trade flows out of the country than flows into it.
Although U.S. exports have been booming, we still import more than we export. We have had an unfavorable balance of trade throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. In 2016, our exports totaled $2.2 trillion, yet our imports were $2.7 trillion. Thus, in 2016 the United States had a trade deficit of $500 billion.11 America’s exports continue to grow, but not as fast as our imports: The export of goods, such as computers, trucks, and airplanes, is very strong. The sector that is lagging in significant growth is the export of services. Although America exports many services—ranging from airline trips to education of foreign students to legal advice—part of the problem is due to piracy, which leads companies to restrict the distribution of their services to certain regions. The FBI estimates that the theft of intellectual property from products, books and movies, and pharmaceuticals totals in the billions every year.
Balance of Payments
Another measure of international trade is called the balance of payments, which is a summary of a country’s international financial transactions showing the difference between the country’s total payments to and its total receipts from other countries. The balance of payments includes imports and exports (balance of trade), long-term investments in overseas plants and equipment, government loans to and from other countries, gifts and foreign aid, military expenditures made in other countries, and money transfers in and out of foreign banks.
From 1900 until 1970, the United States had a trade surplus, but in the other areas that make up the balance of payments, U.S. payments exceeded receipts, largely due to the large U.S. military presence abroad. Hence, almost every year since 1950, the United States has had an unfavorable balance of payments. And since 1970, both the balance of payments and the balance of trade have been unfavorable. What can a nation do to reduce an unfavorable balance of payments? It can foster exports, reduce its dependence on imports, decrease its military presence abroad, or reduce foreign investment. The U.S. balance of payments deficit was over $504 billion in 2016.
The Changing Value of Currencies
The exchange rate is the price of one country’s currency in terms of another country’s currency. If a country’s currency appreciates, less of that country’s currency is needed to buy another country’s currency. If a country’s currency depreciates, more of that currency will be needed to buy another country’s currency.
How do appreciation and depreciation affect the prices of a country’s goods? If, say, the U.S. dollar depreciates relative to the Japanese yen, U.S. residents have to pay more dollars to buy Japanese goods. To illustrate, suppose the dollar price of a yen is $0.012 and that a Toyota is priced at 2 million yen. At this exchange rate, a U.S. resident pays $24,000 for a Toyota ($0.012 × 2 million yen = $24,000). If the dollar depreciates to $0.018 to one yen, then the U.S. resident will have to pay $36,000 for a Toyota.
As the dollar depreciates, the prices of Japanese goods rise for U.S. residents, so they buy fewer Japanese goods—thus, U.S. imports decline. At the same time, as the dollar depreciates relative to the yen, the yen appreciates relative to the dollar. This means prices of U.S. goods fall for the Japanese, so they buy more U.S. goods—and U.S. exports rise.
Currency markets operate under a system called floating exchange rates. Prices of currencies “float” up and down based upon the demand for and supply of each currency. Global currency traders create the supply of and demand for a particular currency based on that currency’s investment, trade potential, and economic strength. If a country decides that its currency is not properly valued in international currency markets, the government may step in and adjust the currency’s value. In a devaluation, a nation lowers the value of its currency relative to other currencies. This makes that country’s exports cheaper and should, in turn, help the balance of payments.
In other cases, a country’s currency may be undervalued, giving its exports an unfair competitive advantage. Many people believe that China’s huge trade surplus with the United States is partially because China’s currency was undervalued. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a fact sheet detailing how it accused China of dumping steel on the U.S. market as well as providing financial assistance to Chinese companies to produce, manufacture, and export stainless steel to the United States from the People’s Republic of China.