Advancing Global Competitiveness

The HBS Report

The Harvard Business School conducted a study on America’s competitiveness within the global economy. The study defines competitiveness this way: [i]

A nation is competitive to the extent that firms operating there can compete successfully in domestic and foreign markets while also lifting the living standards of the average citizen.

One way to measure a nation’s competitiveness is by following that nation’s balance of trade – the difference in value of that nation’s exports and imports. An excess of exports over imports yields a positive balance, while an excess of imports over exports yields a negative balance, or “trade gap”.

The Bureau of the Census has this to say about America’s balance of trade: [ii]

The trade gap in the United States increased to $42.6 billion in October 2016, up $6.4 billion from a downwardly revised $36.2 billion in September. Exports recorded the biggest decline since January due to lower shipments of food, industrial supplies and materials, automobiles, consumer goods and soybeans while imports reached the highest in 14 months. Balance of Trade in the United States averaged negative $13.521 billion from 1950 to 2016, reaching an all time high of positive $1.946 billion in June of 1975 and a record low of negative $67.823 billion in August of 2006.

This graphic puts that into rather vivid perspective:

U.S. Balance of Trade Graph

As you can see, America’s balance of trade was roughly even from 1950 until 1975, when the balance turned sharply negative following a rapid increase in imported crude oil prices. Matters got much worse after about 2000.

To beg the obvious, America’s persistently large and negative trade gap, especially since the millennium, indicates that America does not “compete successfully in domestic and foreign markets”. Accordingly, “lifting the living standards of the average citizen” has not occurred. This is not surprising, since a trade gap is paid for by exporting cash in lieu of goods, bleeding the U.S. economy. Quite obviously, this is not sustainable.

It is my personal conviction that the dramatic decrease in the price of crude oil experienced in the latter half of 2014 is the key trigger to the relative improvement in the performance in the U.S. economy since that time. That reduction in international crude oil prices is directly attributable to the corresponding sharp increases in U.S. crude oil production, due to “fracking”.

What to Do?

Crude oil imports are an important part of America’s trade gap, but only a part. Manufactured goods are another major portion. Many other economically developed countries have positive balances of trade in the manufactured goods sector – it is not impossible. Nor is it easy. Action is needed at all levels, from individual manufacturing firms to the federal governments. Many earlier posts to this blog address competitiveness, especially for smaller manufacturing firms, as will future posts.

The Harvard study mentioned above offers an eight-point plan for policy improvements at the federal level. That plan, believe it or not, strikes me as a starting point that the incoming Trump administration might actually find actionable:

Eight-Point Plan

  1. Simplify the corporate tax code with lower statutory rates and no loopholes
  2. Move to a territorial tax system
  3. Ease the immigration of highly-skilled individuals
  4. Aggressively address distortions and abuses in international trading systems
  5. Improve logistics, communications and energy infrastructure
  6. Simplify and streamline regulation
  7. Create a sustainable federal budget, including reforms to entitlements
  8. Responsibly develop America’s unconventional energy advantage

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.


[i] Michael E. Porter et al, Problems Unsolved and a Nation Divided  – A Harvard Business School Survey on U.S. Competitiveness, Harvard Business School, Cambridge MA, September 2016. The study is available for download at: http://www.hbs.edu/competitiveness/research/Pages/research-details.aspx?rid=81. It is well worth reading.

[ii] This quotation is from www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states/balance-of-trade (a service of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, accessed 31 December 2016). In the interest of clarity, some figures have been restated from millions to billions and the terms “negative” and “positive” have been substituted for the corresponding “-“ and “+” symbols.