Ribbon Cuttings and Political Ads
Announcements about plant openings and closings make good political fodder. Politicians from both parties are guilty of extracting trends from single events, leaving context behind: “Jobs are coming home!” “Traitorous companies are leaving the United States!”
A popular claim over the years is that Washington policies have succeeded in either shaming or incentivizing American companies to bring manufacturing “back” to the United States, even if manufacturing overseas had been additive to domestic production. How can we know whether such “re-shoring” is actually occurring, and to what degree?
A Reshoring Index
Kearney recently released the seventh edition of their annual Reshoring Index, which attempts to do just that. The U.S. Reshoring Index tracks total manufactured goods imports from 14 traditional offshoring partner countries including China, Taiwan, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, as a percentage of U.S. domestic gross output of manufactured goods.
After rising almost steadily over the last decade, imports from those 14 countries contracted 7.2 percent in 2019 while U.S. manufacturing output remained steady. The decline is due almost entirely to fewer imported goods from China in reaction to the U.S.-China trade war, which also suppressed U.S. manufacturing exports. Notwithstanding the shock of the trade war, China’s share of the U.S. import market declined for the sixth year in a row.
According to Kearney, the U.S. market imported 12.1 cents worth of offshore production from these Asia-based “low cost countries” (LCCs) for every $1 of domestic manufacturing gross output, down from 13.1 cents in 2018. On the basis of the index, the United States experienced a net reshoring in 2019, as producers chose to source more goods domestically.
Diversification Away from China
The Kearney report also began tracking the so-called “rebalancing” of American company-centered supply chains to understand whether U.S. manufacturing imports are diverting from China toward other Asian LCCs. Overall, the LCCs exported $31 billion more in manufactured goods to the United States in 2019 than in 2018, with Vietnam garnering almost half of the shifting imports. Troublingly, a portion of U.S. imports from Vietnam represent China-origin goods diverted through Vietnam to dodge U.S. tariffs.
Nearshoring: Buying More from Mexico
Not only are imports shifting away from China toward the rest of Asia, Kearney finds another trend: increased sourcing of goods from Mexico, characterized as “nearshoring”. Mexico has some advantages over LCCs in Asia and a longer relationship with many U.S. manufacturers through NAFTA.
Over the last seven years that Kearney calculated its near-to-far trade ratio, there were approximately 37 cents worth of manufacturing imports from Mexico for every dollar of U.S. manufacturing imports from Asia LCCs. Last year, however, that ratio increased to 42 cents as U.S. imports of manufactured goods from Mexico shot up 11 percent between 2017 and 2018 and another 4 percent in 2019 as tariffs on goods from China escalated.
But Not Necessarily for Economic Reasons
As economist Caroline Freund explains, reshoring does not necessarily reduce risk: “A better strategy to reduce the risk of potential supply-chain disruption would be for firms to reduce dependence on any individual supplier.” While it’s not clear the reduction in sourcing from China will benefit domestic suppliers, it does seem apparent that what’s motivating the shift in imports is diversification away from China.
As Freund says, firms will reshore if it is more profitable and less risky to move production close to the market. They will also reshore if compelled to do so through trade and other national policies such as “Buy America” requirements. The big question is whether supply chains restructured on that basis will make economic sense.
We’ll be watching the Kearney Reshoring Index to understand whether continued tension in the U.S.-China trade relationship and post-pandemic policies keep moving the reshoring needle.
Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fifteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.