Feb 05, 2016 - 11:15am

The Year in Trade: Diving Into the 2015 Numbers


Senior Vice President for International Policy

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A truck sits parked and ready to roll next to a cargo ship docked last week at the Port of Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo credit: Ty Wright/Bloomberg

The Department of Commerce on Friday released the official U.S. trade statistics for 2015. The headline numbers aren’t pretty: For the first time since the 2008-2009 recession, U.S. exports declined, reflecting weakness in key foreign markets and a strengthening U.S. dollar – which makes American goods more expensive overseas.

But given that seizing the benefits of international trade and investment is a top priority for Chamber members, it’s worth taking a moment to dig a little deeper into the numbers:

  • Drop in Exports and Imports: For 2015, exports of goods and services reached $2,230 billion, down $113 billion from the year before, and imports declined $90 billion to $2,762 billion. For goods alone, exports were $1,514 billion and imports were $2,273 billion (each down by more than $100 billion).
  • Slower Growth for Exports: In the years after the recession of 2009, U.S. exports of goods and services rose by 16.6% in 2010, 14.5% in 2011, 4.4% in 2012, 2.8% in 2013, and 2.9% in 2014, but they fell 4.8% in 2015. Most recently, China’s slowing growth has had a knock-on effect as Chinese imports of commodities decline, weighing on commodity-producing economies in South America, Africa, and elsewhere — all of which in turn import less from the United States. This trend is likely to continue at least in the near term.
  • FTAs Make Big Markets: Goods exports to America’s 20 free-trade agreement (FTA) partners reached $712 billion. These 20 countries purchased nearly half (47.3%) of U.S. goods exports in 2015, up about one-half of one percent from 2014. This is a remarkable performance given that these countries represent just 6% of the world’s population outside the United States. On a per capita basis, these countries purchase 12 times as many U.S. goods and services as non-FTA countries.
  • Deficit Rises Slightly … The goods and services deficit was $532 billion in 2015, up from $505 billion in 2014. As a percentage of GDP, the goods and services deficit was unchanged at 2.9%, a level about half the 5.7% reached in 2006.
  • … While FTAs Add to Surplus … While the sectoral breakdown for 2015 isn’t yet available, data through November show the United States continues to run a trade surplus in manufactured goods with its FTA partners as a group. This surplus for manufactures again topped $50 billion in 2015 — roughly triple its 2010 level. While services data isn’t yet available, it appears that in 2015 the United States again ran an overall trade surplus with its 20 FTA partners.
  • … As Do Services … While goods exports declined in 2015, U.S. services exports increased $5.9 billion to $716 billion. The top categories are travel, transport, charges for the use of intellectual property, and financial services sectors. The U.S. trade surplus in services was $227 billion, underscoring the competitiveness of U.S. service industries.
  • … And the U.S. Energy Production Boom: U.S. net imports of petroleum continued their rapid decline. As Bloomberg reported, “the U.S. petroleum deficit, adjusted for changes in prices, was the lowest ever.” Crude oil imports decreased by $121 billion, and fuel oil imports fell by $17 billion. The U.S. evolution from being the world’s top energy importer to a potentially significant exporter is having a huge impact on the U.S. balance of trade and global energy markets.
  • Americas First: Canada again edged the EU as the top market for U.S. goods exports in 2015, and the Americas purchased 44.5% of U.S. goods exports — a total nearly equal to the sum of U.S. exports to the Pacific Rim (24.6%) and Europe (21.3%). The nations of the Americas accounted for over half the increase in U.S. merchandise exports in the 2009-2014 period — twice East Asia’s contribution. Again, America’s extensive network of FTAs in the Western Hemisphere is an advantage.
  • Transatlantic Ties Still Bind: As a single market, the EU remains America’s top trading partner (combining exports and imports) when services are included. While U.S. goods exports to the EU have risen by $52 billion over the past six years, the share purchased by the EU has fallen by about 3% in this period (and something similar is likely true for the EU as well). U.S. and EU leaders hope to reverse this trend through the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
  • Most Imports from Middle Kingdom: China reaffirmed its position as the top source of U.S. goods imports in 2015 ($482 billion), and it ranks third as a national market for U.S. goods exports (after Canada and Mexico). Before the recent slowdown in China, U.S. goods exports to China and Hong Kong topped $165 billion in 2014, an increase of 82% from 2009 — the fastest pace of growth among the top 10 U.S. export markets. This underscores the long-term potential of the Chinese market for American companies.

About the Author

About the Author

Senior Vice President for International Policy

Murphy directs the U.S. Chamber’s advocacy relating to international trade and investment policy.