Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Economic Ties Between the United States and Mexico

by Shannon K. O'Neil
December 16, 2011

A truck of the Mexican company Olympics bearing Mexican and U.S. flags approaches the border crossing into the U.S., in Laredo (Courtesy Reuters).

It is worth reading the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute’s new study by Christopher Wilson, entitled “Working Together: Economic Ties between the United States and Mexico.” The report is packed with examples and statistical evidence of the deepening integration between the United States and Mexico since 1993 (the signing of NAFTA), and concisely explains why this relationship is so important and beneficial for the United States.

In terms of trade, for nearly half of U.S. states, Mexico is the number one or number two export destination. For border states such as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, up to a third of all exports head to our southern neighbor. But it isn’t just a border issue – export industries in states as far flung as New Hampshire, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri all depend on Mexican industries and consumers. And these are some of the most dynamic trading relations we have. Twenty U.S. states increased exports to Mexico by more than 10 percent each year over the last fifteen years. Investment also flourished. Mexican FDI in the United States, though starting at a low base, increased tenfold over the past two decades.

The report shows that trade with Mexico is particularly beneficial to the United States because these goods incorporate many parts and products produced in the United States. In fact, even though fully counted as imports in official trade data, an estimated 40 percent of the value of Mexican products is actually “made in the USA.” Only Canada comes close to this ratio (25 percent). In stark contrast, only 4 percent of the value of Chinese imports is made on U.S. soil.  This means that products coming from Mexico support homegrown industry and labor. In fact, 6 million American jobs – or 1 out of every 24 – depend on Mexican trade. The study breaks down employment by state – showing for instance that some 200,000 Georgians, 120,000 Indianans, and 100,000 Coloradans owe their jobs to Mexico. Other studies show that export oriented jobs pay more than others, further benefiting U.S. workers. And what is good for Mexico is good for the United States — Mexico’s strong 2011 economic growth should create 150,000 new U.S. jobs.

The report interestingly points out how the United States is now competing with China and others to supply parts and materials used in Mexican production. Here, worryingly, the United States is falling behind – losing market share to its Asian rivals. Part of the problem is the border. Overwhelmed infrastructure, and long and unpredictable wait times at crossings limit competitiveness, costing taxpayers billions in lost revenue and jobs.

There are some signs that these issues are at least appreciated. In 2010 three new border crossings opened, easing congestion along the dense 2,000 mile border, and under its “21st Century Border” project, the Obama administration is working to make commercial and other crossings more efficient and secure. But a conceptual shift is still needed. U.S. politicians, business owners, workers, and the general public need to understand that the path to improving U.S. global competitiveness –defending American industry in the process – runs through, rather than around Mexico (and Canada). Regional integration is vital for U.S. economic recovery and growth going forward.

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