What Trade Statistics Can—and Can’t—Tell Us
Mercatus Center Senior Research Fellow Dr. Christine McDaniel explains why traditional trade statistics have not kept up with changes in how trade actually happens—and how this can distort our understanding of trade. She describes how two trends—trade in value added and trade in services—lead to misinterpretations of our trade data and discusses how our approach may need to change. She also walks through the unintended consequences of U.S. trade remedy regulations and describes her number one recommendation for changing U.S. trade law.
Opinions expressed on Trade Matters are solely those of the guest or host and not the Yeutter Institute or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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Jill O'Donnell: Welcome to Trade Matters. A podcast of the Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I am Jill O'Donnell. Our guest today is Dr. Christine McDaniel, a Senior Research Fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center focused on international trade, globalization, and intellectual property rights. She has also held several positions in the U.S. government including Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Treasury Department and Senior Trade Economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisors.
Christine McDaniel, thank you so much for being on Trade Matters today.
Christine McDaniel: Thank you so much for having me.
Jill O'Donnell: You are doing a lot of really interesting work on capturing trade flows and trade statistics and tariff exclusion processes that are in place. But I want to start with a bigger picture. The question here, stepping back for a moment. We have been awash in trade statistics over the last couple of years as trade policy changes in the trade war with China often have been front and center in the news. I'm really excited to talk with you about unpacking what some of those things actually mean and how we know what we know about where things go around the globe.
So to begin by talking about what we mean by trade statistics. We know certainly exports measure what a country sells abroad. Imports measure what a country buys from abroad. That sounds simple, but it can get a lot more complicated. I want to start by asking you when we see statistics in the newspaper about our U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China, for example, or overall deficit, how do we really know what's behind those numbers? How do we really know where things go, in what quantities, and with what degree of accuracy do we know them?
Christine McDaniel: That's a really good question, and I'm really glad you asked that question. We actually are awash in data. You're right. Big data. And over the past 5, 10, 15 years the amount of data we have available has increased exponentially. However, the meaning of data that we traditionally use is in many ways becoming meaningless over time. Our industries are changing what can flow across borders, how we measure what is flowing across borders, what we don't measure that's going across borders, and then how companies are recording those flows. It's all changing, and our traditional trade statistics have not kept up. And so, while we're really good at measuring containers and goods trade, containers that move across borders, and what's inside those containers in terms of quantity, volume, as well as unit values and prices. And then we also can see what happens with tariffs. And our tariff barriers were really, really good at understanding how different trade policies affect goods trade. We don't have that type of data on services trade. And that means we don't really know how services trade policy has affect services trade. And that's a problem because 80% of our economy is in services. And so we're using old measures for a new economy. And that concerns a lot of us.
Jill O'Donnell: So that's a perfect segue into the work that you're doing right now, as I understand it, that I wanted to ask you about. As you say, we're using old measures for a new economy. And I think it's a really good reminder that the majority of the US economy is services. 80% as you said. So I'd like to talk about the work you're doing on the trade that we don't track and what you're learning there. And you've mentioned that a lot of that has to do with research and development flows, intellectual property intensive services, digital flows. Tell us a little bit more about how you're approaching this task of tracking the trade that we don't in fact track and what's all involved there.
Christine McDaniel: Well, so I'm not really tracking the trade we don't track. But I'm trying to hold up mirrors to some of the activities to see what... To get us into what we're missing. So about 10 years or so ago... And we're really talking about a couple of things. One is trade and value-added. And that does apply to goods trade. And then we're talking about services as well. So these are two big issues going on that we know are leading to misinterpretations of our trade data.
So first let's talk about trade and value-added. Robert Cootman and some of his colleagues wrote a paper on this about over 10 years ago or so now. The idea here is for your listeners, so think about if you have your phone in front of you, look at that phone. Let's say your phone costs $500. And it turns out a while ago a group of researchers got together and they track the value of...like breaking up the value capture of that phone. Basically where the revenue, sales, and profits went back to. And then also compare that, track that against labor, assembly, capital, R&D, marketing, sales distribution, et cetera. And it turns out that a very small share of those sales actually goes back to the labor side, the assembly side. So while the majority of the labor is actually done in China, less than five percent of the revenues go back to China. Over 60% of the value capture goes to the United States. That's nearly all in design and marketing by Apple. So for policymakers, the take away here is that there's little value in assembly. There's little value in electronics assembly. So bringing high volume electronics assembly back to the United States is not necessarily the path to good jobs or economic growth.
Jill O'Donnell: And what about what that tells us about our, in this case, our bilateral trade deficit with China? So as you mentioned, only a very small value of that iPhone is actually due to what happens in China. And yet when that phone is exported from China to the United States, the full value of that gets credited as an export from China. What does it say about our trade deficit in that case, and how might it look different if we could really capture trade and value-added accurately?
Christine McDaniel: So that changes from year to year, of course, because how companies sort themselves out in the value chains change. But we have seen, I think it was based on 2016 data, if we were to measure out trade deficit with China by value-added statistics, it would shrink by about 40%.
Jill O'Donnell: That's significant.
Christine McDaniel: Yeah, it's not trivial. For a trade economist, any economist really will tell me that looking at your trade balance is not necessarily a good measure of looking at the economic performance or the strength of a trading relationship. So if some of your listeners have taken micro and macro will remember current account, capital account. The current account is mostly our trade balance is literally of our capital account. The United States attracts a lot of dollars. We are a very attractive place for people around the world to put their money. And that brings a lot of dollars into the United States. We are also a largely consumer-driven economy. We have a capital account surplus. And remember, you don't export just for the sake of exporting. You're exporting for an exchange that you can use to buy things. And so by simply focusing on the current account side, you're missing the other side of the entire equation. But this particular administration is extremely focused on the trade deficit. And so that's why it's interesting now to really dive deep into these trade numbers and see what they are telling us and see what they're not telling us.
Jill O'Donnell: Right. Then what, if I can ask, what is preventing us from more accurately reporting trade and value-added? Because as you mentioned in the case of China, for example, that would make a bilateral deficit shrink by 40% in a given year. And that's really significant. It would look really different. So why do we not get a better handle on how this looks? Have our statistical methods just not caught up with this age of global supply chains yet or what's...? What would you say to that?
Christine McDaniel: Well, it will take a concerted effort in cooperation on the part of all countries that report their exports and imports. They will have to keep better track of value-added. They will have to keep better track of basically being able to trace the supply chain or at least be able to have a number on the value-added of each product and goods and services that are going in and out of their country. That means that all the participating countries, basically all of the WTO members, will have to tweak, for some it will be a tweak, for some it will be a huge change, on how they report their data, how they track their data. It might happen in my lifetime. I wouldn't be surprised if we got there. The OECD does have a trade and value-added database, so it can be done. Now, there are a lot of estimates or guesstimates in there, because not all countries trace their value-added as carefully as others. But it's definitely doable. And with new technologies, like blockchain technology, for example, it's looking more possible today than it did about a decade ago. And so it's exciting. There even are customs and border patrol here in the US. They're starting to think, What is the port of the future looking like? How is blockchain going to allow us to capture more information and data? So if enough countries do that, there could be enough momentum there to capture much better data.
Jill O'Donnell: And it sounds like what you're saying is that there may be a time when we do get there, where it becomes commonplace for countries perhaps report their trade statistics in the same way, in a coordinated way that captures trade and value-added. And then we'd all have a lot more insight into exactly where value and various products is coming from.
Christine McDaniel: That's right.
Jill O'Donnell: So on services, we even talked about this a little bit earlier, but I want to come back to that. Tell me a little bit more about what is being done to better track the flow of services, exports?
Christine McDaniel: The Bureau of Economic Analysis has evolved and made a lot of improvements on how they track services. Their counterparts in other countries have as well. The OECD, of course, is leading a lot of these efforts. What is a service? A service is like a haircut, it's an airplane ride, it's a detective service, it's buying Netflix for a year, or downloading a video. I can be a lot of things. It's basically I am paying money to get something that's not necessarily something tangible, but I'm getting value from it. That is much more easily measured when it's a domestic transaction than when it's a cross-border transaction.
For instance, if you think of accounting services firm, and they have a headquarters in the United States. It's all around the world. And they provide services to their affiliates. And then their affiliates provide services to others. But the question is where is that actual original value, that knowledge getting generated? Where is the original service getting generated, coming from, versus where it's showing up in the data? And so when accounting company X, Y, and Z in the US sells a service to their affiliate in Japan, and their Japanese affiliate sells a service to say just a regular domestic Japanese company, even if the headquarters in the US is providing that service it may show up as a sales by an affiliate or a subsidiary. And for that accounting firm, that really is an export for them. But it doesn't necessarily show up as an export.
In contrast, if you're a soybean farmer, whenever you sell soybeans across the border it's very clearly in the data. You can go to your representative, your Senator, even go to USTR with your trade numbers clearly stating how much you sold. You can clearly show, Look that country changed the regulation on this date, and you can clearly see it in our trade data. They stopped buying from us. It's harder for services firms to show how rules and regulations and laws abroad and rule of law abroad may or may not affect their ability to sell their services abroad.
Its sort of like services firms are going up to the hill, going to USTR with one hand behind their back because increasingly policymakers rely on export data to look at the "value" of a particular industry or how important a policy change should be or how to prioritize your asks across the table. I know you had Andrea Durkin on the other day, and she does a lot of our trade negotiations. And trade negotiators have to prioritize. They have 100 different people at the door any given day. 100 different asks. Where do they start prioritizing? They have to find some way to measure the payoffs. And so for services firms, like I said, I think they largely come with one hand tied behind their back. Because they don't necessarily have the data that soybean farmers have or good producers have when they want to show their economic contribution or the contribution to US trade.
Jill O'Donnell: So it's important to remember, as you well know, that the US typically runs a surplus in trade and services. Is there any sense of how much larger that surplus would be if we were able to capture all of the economic contributions that services exporting firms are making to US exports overall?
Christine McDaniel: That's a great question. That would be a great topic for somebody to explore. I remember looking at the S&P 500 back in the 70s, 80s. If you look at the ratio of book value to market value of the S&P 500... I think it was like mid-70s or early 80s. It was about book value to market value was at about 80 to 20. So, in other words, their book value 80%, their market value at 20%. Today it's flipped. Today the market value is so much greater than the book value. And that spread is even bigger for tech firms, firms that are knowledge-intensive. And there's this firm-specific knowledge capital, firms like that have a much bigger spread on the book to market value in the S&P 500 and on the stock exchanges in general. And I think that it reflects the difficulty, number one, the difficulty of measuring intangibles, but also the importance of intangibles. The market is definitely putting a big value on those intangibles. And it's not showing up in the book value. But the market clearly sees it and is reacting to it, and it's putting a value on it. So it's a bit elusive, but it's definitely there.
Jill O'Donnell: That's a really interesting way of looking at that. And this is clearly an interesting and timely area of inquiry, so we will be following this at Trade Matters, and following up with you at a later date I'm sure, Christine.
Jill O'Donnell: I do want to switch gears because I want to cover a really interesting paper that you wrote recently at Mercatus Center allow with your colleague, Veronique de Rugy, called, The Downstream Costs of Trade Remedy Regulations. Just as a little background here for listeners, trade remedy regulations are laws the US has in place as a way for domestic firms to seek foreign competition through import restrictions. And as you've pointed out in your paper, these laws were put in place almost a century ago. US trade remedy laws also require the US government to consider only the affected restrictions on the petitioning firm. But the government is not required to consider the impact on the downstream industry, which are American manufacturers and workers along the supply chain. That's the critical point in your paper that you're exploring.
So in an era of global supply chains where there's a lot of intermediate inputs that go into final goods. So the US imports a lot of intermediate inputs that manufacturers need to use. And if there are protective measures in place that raise the cost of those intermediate inputs to help a domestic producer of those same inputs, that can hurt a lot of downstream users as you were pointing out in your paper. So walk us through this a little bit more about how you see this problem.
Christine McDaniel: There's actually a fun backstory here if I can just take 60 seconds. So when I first got to Mercatus, it was over a year and a half ago now, I guess, my colleagues took me out to lunch as you do to new colleagues. And said, What could be your moonshot? If there was one thing you could change in international trade, trade policy, and basically feel good about dropping the mic, walking away, and doing something totally different, feeling like you achieved something, what would that be? And I didn't even hesitate. I said, "Oh that's easy. It would be to allow the international trade commission to consider downstream effects of anti-dumping countervailing duties and their decision-making process." So anyway, Vera was there and the rest is in this paper. So we went off and wrote this paper. Of course, we're not the first ones to think about this, to write about this. A lot of people thought we were crazy. That, Oh this will never happen. And I don't know. It might not ever happen, but like Vera said, "It definitely won't happen if nobody talks about it or writes about it."
And then at that time, the incoming administration came to exercise more authority over tariffs. It became obvious very timely also. So the idea here is that trade regulations encompass a number of things, anti-dumping countervailing duties, one. But there are other trade regulations as well as were seeing now. Section 232 being applied. 301 has reemerged. But not all the time is it written into the rule book for the deciding agency to consider downstream effects. By downstream effects I mean, for example, if you're making ice cream, and there's a milk industry and the milk industry wants imports to have a big tariff on them, would the government be allowed to consider the effect on you, you the ice cream maker. Because you're going to be needing that milk or that cream.
So in some of our trade laws, it is allowed, but in most, it's not required. In fact, for the international trade commission when they look at anti-dumping countervailing duties, it's not even allowed. They are not even allowed to consider downstream effects. So this means that there's a huge chunk of the economy often that is completely being ignored when a small group of people come and ask for protection. And we can see this in the data looking backward. Remember during the Bush administration, when President Bush imposed steel tariffs. 20, 20 hindsight and having all the data now we see that 200,000 American manufacturing workers in steel-consuming sectors lost their jobs because of those higher steel prices and those tariffs. And that's more than even existed in the steel industry in the first place, which was like 187, 188,000 at the time. And it's even less now. So in other words, more people lost their jobs because of those steel tariffs than even existed in the steel industry in the first place.
Now it could be the case even with the ability to consider downstream effects the deciding government agency would still go ahead and do it and that's fine. But we're just saying at least let them consider the downstream effects and allow that to be one point of consideration in their broader decision-making process.
Jill O'Donnell: So it sounds like a question of proportion because you're comparing and contrasting the employment numbers say in industries that use certain inputs versus the one firm or the small group of firms that might be seeking the protection, who also make those inputs. Because you could argue that you might be risking trading one problem for another if they are allowed to consider downstream users and don't offer them protection to that firm. But if you're really talking about a sense of proportion here, then maybe that's not the case. Does that make sense?
Christine McDaniel: Exactly.
Jill O'Donnell: Okay. I think it's also really interesting that you point out that trade remedy laws when they do result in protection from foreign competition for a firm, that does not necessarily change the behavior of the offending foreign firm. Does that ever happen or is that more a job for a multi-lateral forum like The World Trade Organization to apply pressure through some other channel to change behavior?
Christine McDaniel: That's a really good point, Jill. Well, I would argue that and anti-dumping countervailing duty cases, there's very little evidence or zero to none that it affects the behavior of the accused firm. If it did affect behavior, then we wouldn't be seeing the repetition of these cases in the same countries and the same products year over year over year over year. And that's exactly what we're seeing. In multi-lateral forum, however, like the WTO, the WTO just given the structure of the multi-lateral framework, it does seem that it has more of an effect on the accused entity's behavior.
So for instance, look at Boeing and Airbus. Over the years they take turns taking each other to the WTO because remember our large similar craft subsidies agreement in WTO. And then one year Boeing would say, Hey you guys, you guys are violating this particular provision and that and that. And then they'll fight it out in the WTO. And Airbus will say, Okay well your right. We'll change that. And then another 5, 10 years later Airbus will say, Hey Boeing you guys, you shouldn't have gotten that big R&D job from so-and-so, because it's a subsidy. That not allowed. And they'll fight it out. And Airbus will win. And Boeing will say, Okay yeah, your right. So we're going to change that.
And so it kind of works out over the long run, because if countries use that agreement that everyone agreed to as the governing set of rules and regulations, and when one thinks the other is going outside the bounds, it's a nice check. Check and balances. You can make sure everyone's still playing inside the rules that everyone agreed on. And that does seem to work. But anti-dumping countervailing duties it's hard to make the case that it really does change behavior. And if the issue is subsidies, which largely is in a lot of these cases, and China is one of the most popular respondents in these cases, then the question is can we create a framework, would put in the right incentives for China to change their behavior so it did not necessarily result in excessive subsidized enterprise? Just given China's sheer size, whenever they decide to pump in some extra capital and labor in a particular industry, given their sheer size it's...the global, world market and it causes ripple effects. Sometimes pretty big tidal waves in other markets.
And so it is really disruptive having countries subsidize their industries, especially large ones like China and move markets. So it's understandable why countries might want to have these tools in place. It's just some tools are more effective than others.
Jill O'Donnell: Right. Switching gears just a little bit. I want to talk about how all of this relates to the work you've done on the tariff exclusion request process that was set up by the United States as a result of the 232 steel tariffs and the 301 China investigation. And just to fill in our listeners and remind them, this was done because the US imports a lot of capital goods and intermediate goods that manufacturers use to make what they make here. So the tariffs that were put in place on our trading partners as a result of the 232 investigation on steel and the 301 investigation on China hit the supply chain. And companies in the US can make the case that these tariffs would harm them so they can formally request that a product be excluded from the tariffs. And the whole existence of that process, the tariff exclusion process, that seems to be a really clear indication that our supply chains are truly global. And the downstream industries and users in the supply chain are being impacted by these import tariffs that resulted from these two investigations.
So first question is, should the change you purposed to US trade remedy laws to consider the downstream impact to protection also apply to 232 and 301 cases?
Christine McDaniel: Well, yes, to me that's obvious it should. Whenever the U.S. government is making a decision that will have economic effects, why wouldn't they consider the national economic interests? Why wouldn't they consider? And that would include downstream effects. Now, we know that there are a lot of non-economic reasons that governments make the decision they make. And being in government you see that. And as an economist, my job is just to provide the best data and information analysis I can to the decision-maker and then you walk away. That's what I was trained to do. And sometimes it goes one way, sometimes it goes another way. But I have seen, though, that over time better and more effective decisions are made when the broader picture is taken into account.
Now, the section 232 and 301 those are interesting because the 232 process does... They both include this room for firms to request waivers to get out of paying the tariff if they can make the case that, for example in the China situation, if they can show that they would be severely harmed if they had to pay this tariff, that their product is not related to China's made in 2025 plan, and so on. Oh, and if there's no other place they can get that product from. And the 232 for steal aluminum, it's similar. You have to show that you would be severely harmed if you have to pay the tariff and that you can not get it anywhere else, and you can not get it in the United States, and a few other things. So what we did was we started scrapping the website when they started reporting all the data in all the cases. And that was really interesting. It was the first time we did that. And we found out that we had to basically change the algorithm to put in 5 or 10-second delays between cases because we were crashing the website of the government.
So we did that, and we figured out how to scrape enough data to understand what was going on. And we found that over time we saw that wow, there are a lot more exclusion requests being filed than the government thought there would be. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, when this whole thing started, thought they would get about 4500 exclusion requests. Well, fast forward to today and there's over... What is it? Like over, what is it? 50, 100,000. It's multiple times that. And to me that indicates, or at least it's consistent with the notion that they severely underestimated the downstream effects. If you thought you would only get 4500 exclusion requests and you end up getting nearly, I think it's nearly up to 100,000 now, that's an indication of underestimating the downstream effects.
We also found with the steel and aluminum, what was really interesting was the way they have the process set up is that... So let's say I'm a manufacturer of, say nails. But I import steel or aluminum to make those nails. And so I make my request and show that it's nothing to do with China's made in 2025 or 2030 plan. I can't get it anywhere else. And if I have to pay this tariff, it will severely harm my business. But if a US steal company objects to my request, then my chances of getting that waiver basically go to zero. And the data on that was really surprising because the objections really seemed to matter. And then we looked at the objection data and we found that the US steal makers who are filing these objections, the quantity that they were objecting to outweighed their annual production. So in other words, they were objecting to unrealistic amounts. And their objections were consequential in that they blocked US manufacturers from accessing globally competitive price inputs.
So that's another concern for an economist that when the process results in US firms not being able to access globally competitive price inputs when you're up in Asia and all your other competitors out there who sell abroad and in the US, by the way, when they can access globally competitive priced steal, then that's putting our own US manufacturers in an uncompetitive position.
Jill O'Donnell: That is really fascinating, Christine, to hear about what you're finding by looking into this process and really examining it very deeply. One follow-up to that is, given that the number of exclusion requests filed far, far exceeded what some policymakers anticipated, does that bolster the chances of your moonshot becoming a reality would you say?
Christine McDaniel: I don't know, Jill. It's sometimes that we'll continue working on. And I hope that the next generation economists will continue working on it after we leave here. I don't know if it will happen in our lifetime or not, but I do know that if we don't keep trying then it won't happen. It's surprising. We go up to the hill and speak to members of Congress and their staffers one on one. They will all tell you that they... Once you explain it to them, they either already know or they get it. And it's not a different concept to grasp, but some of them are under quite a lot of political pressure. And over time, these industries that have received so much protection and special treatment, including the steel industry, over time they've just really garnered and accumulated a lot of political power.
And it was interesting. What was it? About a couple of months ago, Senator Grassley, on the senate floor, was complaining about the economic harm of the steel tariffs, because there are a lot of manufacturers in his district that were getting hit pretty hard. And he said, "You know, whenever I talk to my colleagues about rolling these tariffs back, all I hear is about, well we're going to get a lot of blowback from the supporters of those tariffs." I guess that's more of a question for some of your political economy students to look into. But in terms of the economics, it's pretty clear.
Jill O'Donnell: Right. That's interesting because the users of some of these products in the supply chain could be in lots of different industries and aren't unified perhaps as a political block, if you will, in terms of how they might voice their concerns on these the way one industry is.
Christine McDaniel: Exactly.
Jill O'Donnell: So that an interesting point. We could talk much longer, so you'll have to come back on Trade Matters. Last question, which I ask every guest on this show, and that is what have you read lately about trade? A book or an article, a report other than what you've written, Christine, that is particularly striking to you?
Christine McDaniel: Well, I think one thing I've read that really crystallized a lot of my thinking about global value chains was, The Great Convergence, by Richard Baldwin. And for your listeners and your students or just even interested armchair economists who are interested in trade and globalization issues, this is such a great book. Baldwin has this amazing... First of all, the book is so well written. And his graphics and charts and data visualizations they could all be on their own. So he always includes a little blurb about exactly what you're looking at, what the key take away is. It's such a great book. But for me, it really crystallized my thinking on the flows of goods, services, and digital flows across borders over time.
When I was in grad school, I was thinking about things country to country level. Which country and in which sector? And that could explain a lot of trade flows. And then over time it became more a firm level analysis. But with Baldwin it really brought this finer [inaudible] and that how international competition is becoming even more individual. It's not necessarily country, and it's not even necessarily firm anymore. It's almost becoming an individual level of international competition. Once knowledge can move across borders so easily, it's really individuals competing against other individuals. And then it really puts the highlight on any of the constraints or opportunities that affect that individual in that location. And so that's why I think trade rules will be so exciting over the next century because we're basically going to have to rewrite them. The things that can move across borders today very different than what can move across borders when we wrote the WTO. Even remember NAFTA, 1995, there was this little company called Amazon that was just about to go public. And that was when NAFTA was being signed. So it was, I would say, definitely overdue for a modernization. And I would say the WTO is also due for a modernization.
Jill O'Donnell: Well, that sounds like an interesting, timely, and forward-looking book. Thank you for mentioning that. And thank you, Christine McDaniel. Thank you so much for sharing all of this insight with us today on Trade Matters.
Christine McDaniel: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Jill O'Donnell: That's it for this episode of Trade Matters. Thanks for listening. And a big thank you to Bryce Doeschot and Brianne Wolf for helping produce this podcast. Please subscribe to Trade Matters on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have ideas or topics you would like to hear about on Trade Matters, we'd love to hear from you. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's Y-E-U-T-T-E-R institute at U-N-L dot E-D-U. Or follow us on Twitter at @YeutterUNL [corrected]. Opinions expressed on Trade Matters are solely those of the guest or host and not the Yeutter Institute or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.