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U.S. Trade by Industry Sectors and Selected Trading Partners

U.S. Trade by Industry Sectors and Selected Trading Partners

Changes in 2020 from 2019:

  • U.S. total exports: Decreased by $217.9 billion (13.3 percent) to $1.4 trillion
  • U.S. general imports: Decreased by $157.7 billion (6.3 percent) to $2.3 trillion

U.S. Exports

From 2019 to 2020, U.S. total exports decreased by $217.9 billion (13.3 percent) to $1.4 trillion.[1] This was the second consecutive year of export declines, following two years of increasing exports in 2017 and 2018. The 2020 decline in U.S. exports was significantly driven by supply and demand factors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the weakened U.S. and global economies. The drop in U.S. exports was steeper than the 3.5 percent contraction in U.S. GDP.[2]

The value of U.S. exports decreased for 9 of the 10 merchandise sectors included in this report.[3] The only exception was for the value of agricultural products, which increased by $6.9 billion (4.6 percent) to $157.2 billion. Transportation equipment suffered the largest absolute drop by value, declining $96.9 billion (28.5 percent) to $243.0 billion. Energy-related products experienced the second-largest absolute drop by value, falling $49.3 billion (23.9 percent) to $156.5 billion. Footwear, the smallest of the 10 merchandise sectors by value, had the largest percentage drop, declining 30.6 percent ($501 million) to $1.1 billion (table US.1).

U.S. Imports

From 2019 to 2020, the value of U.S. general imports decreased by $157.7 billion (6.3 percent) to $2.3 trillion. This was the second year in a row of U.S. import declines, after two years of increasing imports in 2017 and 2018. The 2020 decline in U.S. imports was substantially driven by supply and demand factors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the weakened U.S. and global economies.

The value of U.S. imports decreased for half of the 10 U.S. manufacturing sectors included in this report. Most of the drop was driven by two sectors, transportation equipment and energy-related products. Transportation equipment had the largest absolute decline, falling $89.3 billion (18.9 percent) to $382.8 billion. Energy-related products had the second-largest absolute decline, falling $78.7 billion (38.5 percent) to $125.9 billion. The sectors that saw increases in imports included chemical-related products, which grew by $9.1 billion (2.9 percent) to $329.0 billion, while the sectors of minerals and metals grew by $6.0 billion (3.0 percent) to $203.8 billion, and agricultural products grew by $3.6 billion (2.2 percent) to $163.3 billion (table US.2).

Trade with Major Trading Partners

China returned to its position as the top U.S. trade partner in 2020, after dipping below Mexico and Canada in 2019. In 2020, Mexico and Canada fell to second and third place, respectively. Japan and Germany were the fourth- and fifth-largest U.S. trading partners in 2020, respectively.

The two largest destinations for U.S. total exports continued to be the trading partners under the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement. Combined, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico accounted for nearly one-third of all U.S. merchandise exports in 2020. China continued to be the main supplier of U.S. imports and was the third-largest destination for U.S exports. Mexico and Canada were the second- and third-largest suppliers of U.S. imports. Japan and the United Kingdom ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, as destinations for U.S. exports; Japan and Germany ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, as suppliers of U.S. imports. (tables US.3 and US.4).

U.S. Exports to Major Trading Partners

U.S. total exports to most major trading partners declined in 2020. U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico decreased, dropping $37.4 billion (12.8 percent) to $255.4 billion and $44.8 billion (17.5 percent) to $211.5 billion, respectively. U.S. exports of merchandise to other major trading partners such as Japan, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom also decreased in 2020.

The only exception was China, which experienced an early economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. exports to China increased by $18.0 billion (16.9 percent) to $124.5 billion from 2019 to 2020. This increase was driven principally by exports of agricultural products, which were $12.4 billion (84.7 percent) higher than in 2019 and which became the largest U.S. export sector to China, surpassing electronic products.

U.S. Exports by Sector Digests[4]

U.S. domestic exports[5] of oilseeds—which are mostly soybeans, and which are especially used as animal feed in meat industries[6]—formed most of the net increase in U.S. exports of agricultural products.[7] The soybean increase was largely due to U.S. exports to China, which has an enormous pork production industry.[8] In 2020, U.S. domestic exports of oilseeds to China increased by $6.1 billion (75.9 percent) to $14.1 billion. This increase was likely due to, among other reasons, the re-building of China’s pig population (which had been devastated by the 2018–20 African swine fever outbreak) and the easing of U.S.-China trade tensions.[9] For similar reasons,[10] domestic exports of U.S. pork products to China jumped by 91.2 percent ($999 million).[11] U.S. domestic exports of cattle and beef to China also increased significantly,[12] as Chinese demand for beef increased as a partial substitute for pork which experienced higher prices.[13]

The decrease in U.S. transportation equipment exports reflected a large decline in aircraft, spacecraft, and related equipment, which dropped 41.2 percent to $69.5 billion in 2020.[14] U.S. exports within this digest were hampered by postponed and cancelled orders and deliveries stemming from repercussions of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft grounding due to safety concerns[15] and decreased demand for transport related to the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.[16]

U.S. exports of three of the four fossil fuel energy-related product digests[17] decreased in 2020: petroleum products dropped $31.6 billion (33.2 percent),[18] crude petroleum fell $14.7 billion (23.1 percent),[19] and coal, coke, and related chemical products dropped $4.1 billion (37.0 percent).[20] These drops reflected reduced global energy consumption related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic downturn.[21] The one exception was U.S. exports of natural gas, which had a modest increase of $1.5 billion or 4.5 percent;[22] the percentage increase by quantity was higher, but lower pricing reduced the growth in export value.[23] Of the top 10 destinations for U.S. fossil fuel energy-related products, only China imported more in 2020 compared to 2019.[24] Growth in China’s imports of U.S. fossil fuel energy-related products[25] was likely due to China’s early economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Economic and Trade Agreement between the United States and China (Phase One U.S.-China Trade Agreement),[26] which included lowered tariffs and enhanced market access for certain products in this sector.[27]

U.S. exports of forest products dropped overall, especially due to transportation service disruptions at international ports caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.[28] A notable exception to the drop in forest products was wood pellets, a product that has a purely energy-related purpose (like coal, wood pellets are burned to generate energy), which gained 3.6 percent to $981 million.[29] Since 2012, when the U.S. government began to collect data through a new HTS subheading,[30] U.S. exports of wood pellets have increased every year by quantity and seven of eight years by value.[31]

U.S. Imports from Major Trading Partners

 

The value of U.S. general imports of merchandise fell from each of the five largest U.S. trading partners—China, Mexico, Canada, Japan, and Germany—from 2019 to 2020. The decline in imports from these countries represented over 80 percent of the $157.7 billion net decrease in U.S. imports. The largest absolute drop in U.S. imports by value was from Canada, which fell $48.4 billion (15.2 percent). China remained the largest source of U.S. imports. U.S. imports from Vietnam, however—the sixth-largest source of U.S. imports after overtaking South Korea in 2020—increased $13.2 billion (19.8 percent) (table US.4).

U.S. imports from Canada dropped for 8 of the 10 merchandise sectors; the only exceptions were agricultural products and forest products. The two largest drops by value for U.S. imports from Canada were in energy-related products (which dropped $27.0 billion or 31.2 percent) and transportation equipment (which dropped $16.3 billion or 22.8 percent). The decline in U.S. imports from Mexico was largely driven by a $24.2 billion (17.8 percent) drop in imports of transportation equipment. The reduction in U.S. imports from China was broad, with the largest absolute declines by sector in electronic products ($6.1 billion or 3.7 percent) and footwear ($4.7 billion or 35.0 percent). Under electronic products, the largest absolute digest drop by value was for telecommunications equipment.[32] In contrast, and unsurprisingly in the year of masks to protect against transmission of COVID-19, U.S. imports of textiles and apparel from China increased $7.3 billion or 17.0 percent.[33]

U.S. imports from Vietnam grew for 9 of 10 merchandise sectors; the largest increase was in electronic products, which grew by $6.3 billion (27.4 percent). This appears to be part of a trend encompassing a modest shift of production from China to Vietnam—likely due to, among other reasons, lower labor costs in the latter and U.S.-China trade friction.[34] This trend was especially pronounced within footwear imports. China’s footwear exports to the United States reached a 21-year low in 2020 while the respective shares of other Asian suppliers—Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cambodia—continued to climb in 2020.[35]

The fall in U.S. imports of merchandise in 2020 was led by transportation equipment and energy-related products. U.S. imports of energy-related products—particularly crude petroleum—were mostly sourced from Canada and Mexico, as well as from three other key exporters of energy-related products: Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia.[36] U.S. imports of transportation equipment came mostly from major trading partners that are also some of the largest exporters of transportation equipment—Mexico, Japan, Canada, Germany, South Korea, and China. Those six countries combined supplied over 78 percent of the total U.S. imports within this sector.[37]

A product that was an exception to the transportation sector’s import decline was lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), which increased by $915.5 million to $4.1 billion in 2020.[38] LIBs are used for, among other purposes, powering electric vehicles and storing renewable energy. The increase was likely due to the growth in electric vehicle production.[39] China is currently the largest supplier to the United States of LIBs.[40]

Other sectors experienced increases in U.S. imports in 2020. In the agricultural products sector, the United States increased imports of fresh, chilled, or frozen vegetables,[41] and cattle and beef.[42] Beef imports increased from Mexico due to needed supply replacement following COVID-19-related disruptions at U.S. meatpacking plants[43] and depreciation of the Mexican peso relative to the U.S. dollar in the early stages of the pandemic, which made Mexican beef cheaper to import.[44] Imports of chemical products increased the most from European trading partners that were the primary sources of various products used to protect against, test, and treat COVID-19; Belgium, Germany, and Ireland were major suppliers of medicinal chemicals. Imports of minerals and metals increased due to larger imports of precious metals and non-numismatic coins,[45] particularly gold bullion from Switzerland. According to some sources,[46] the increase in gold imports occurred particularly in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic due to fears about the security of other investments.[47]

U.S. Merchandise Trade Balance

U.S. total exports and U.S. general imports both decreased from 2019 to 2020, primarily due to rapid shifts in supply and demand conditions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global economic downturn. Since U.S. exports fell more than U.S. imports, the overall merchandise trade deficit grew by $60.1 billion (7.1 percent) to $911.0 billion in 2020. This was in contrast with the previous year when the merchandise trade deficit had narrowed from $870.3 billion in 2018 to $850.9 billion in 2019.[48]

In 2020, the United States experienced a trade deficit in 9 of the 10 merchandise sectors included in this report. The only exception was energy-related products, which had a surplus of $30.6 billion, which was largely due to the drop in energy-related imports caused by COVID-19 pandemic associated declines in U.S. consumer and business demand as well as lower energy prices (table US.5).

For the nine sectors that had a trade deficit, seven had a widened deficit and two had a narrowed deficit compared to the prior year. The footwear trade deficit narrowed by $5.9 billion (23.3 percent) to $19.5 billion and the agricultural products trade deficit narrowed by $3.3 billion (35.4 percent) to $6.1 billion. Chemical-related products experienced the largest absolute trade deficit increase ($22.8 billion) and forest products had the largest percentage trade deficit increase (49.8 percent). In addition to impacts associated with the pandemic, output of U.S. forest products was constrained by damage caused by wildfires and Hurricane Laura.[49] The U.S. forest products trade deficit with Canada increased by $2.2 billion: this occurred largely because of higher lumber costs engendered by reduced supply in Canada due to growing infestation of mountain pine beetles and drought-related wildfires[50] and increased spending in the United States on home improvement materials.[51]

In 2020, the United States had trade deficits with seven of its eight largest trading partners, with the only exception being the United Kingdom. For the seven largest trading partners with which the United States has trade deficits, there was a narrowing of the trade deficit for four (China, Canada, Japan, and Germany) while three had expansions (Mexico, South Korea, and Taiwan). The trade deficit dropped the most with China, decreasing by $34.0 billion (9.9 percent). The U.S. trade deficit with China, however, at a total deficit of $310.3 billion, remained the largest single-country trade deficit. The largest percentage decline in trade deficit was with Canada, which decreased by 42.5 percent to $14.9 billion.

 

[1] The export data used in this section are total exports except where noted. For more information on trade terminology, please refer to USITC, “Special Topic: Trade Metrics,” Shifts in U.S. Merchandise Trade, 2014, 2015.

[2] For more information, see the Macroeconomic Conditions in 2020 and Special Topic sections of this report.

[3] The USITC divides merchandise industries into 12 sectors; 10 of these 12 are covered in this report. The 2 that are not covered, Miscellaneous Manufactures and Special Provisions, are broad categories of products not assigned to any of the 10 specific sectors.

[4] The USITC divides most of the 10 merchandise sectors into digests. Each USITC sector digest encompasses various 8-digit subheadings in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTS), which classifies tradeable goods. For a complete list of HTS subheadings classified in a particular digest or sector, see here.

[5] The export data in this sub-section are domestic exports.

[6] Philpott, Perilous Bounty, 2020, 76.

[7] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest AG032, accessed August 2, 2021.

[8] Statista, “Number of Pigs Worldwide in 2021,” April 20, 2021.

[9] Braun, “Slow Growth in China’s Soybean Demand,” March 26, 2021.

[10] Braun, “China Exchanges U.S. Pork for Soybeans,” September 15, 2020.

[11] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest AG003, accessed August 2, 2021.

[12] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest AG002, accessed August 2, 2021.

[13] For more information, see the Agricultural Products section.

[14] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest TE013, accessed August 2, 2021.

[15] Johnson, “Boeing Limps Into 2021,” January 12, 2021.

[16] Josephs, “Boeing Slashes Forecast,” October 6, 2020. For more information, see the Transportation Equipment section of this report.

[17] Fossil fuel energy-related products are a subset of the overall Energy-Related Products sector, and contained in digests EP003, EP004, EP005, and EP006.

[18] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest EP005, accessed August 2, 2021.

[19] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest EP004, accessed August 2, 2021.

[20] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest EP003, accessed August 2, 2021.

[21] U.S. Energy Information Agency, “U.S. Crude Oil Exports Have Fallen,” September 22, 2020.

[22] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest EP006, accessed August 2, 2021.

[23] Jaremko, “U.S. Natural Gas Exports Grew,” May 11, 2021.

[24] USITC DataWeb/Census, digests EP003, EP004, EP005, and EP006, accessed August 2, 2021.

[25] Fix, “Asia’s Oil Buying Spree,” May 21, 2021.

[26] USTR, Economic and Trade Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the People’s Republic of China (Phase One Trade Agreement), January 15, 2020.

[27] For more information, see the Energy-Related Products section of this report.

[28] Muhammad and Taylor, “Implications of COVID-19 on Tennessee Exports of Forest Products,” 2020, 7. See also the Forest Products and Special Topic sections of this report.

[29] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 4401.31, accessed August 2, 2021.

[30] HTS subheading 4401.31 was added in 2012.

[31] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS 4401.31, accessed August 2, 2021.

[32] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest EL0002, accessed August 2, 2021.

[33] For more information, see the Textile and Apparel section of this report.

[34] Reed, “Vietnam Prepares for Supply Chain Shift,” December 28, 2020.

[35] For more information, see the Footwear section of this report.

[36] USITC DataWeb/Census, Energy-related Products sector, accessed August 2, 2021.

[37] USITC DataWeb/Census, Transportation Equipment sector, accessed August 2, 2021.

[38] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS statistical reporting number 8507.60.0020, accessed August 2, 2021. For more information, see the Transportation Equipment section of this report.

[39] Horowitz, Coffin, and Taylor, “Supply Chain for EV Batteries,” January 2021; Scott and Ireland, “Lithium-Ion Battery Materials,” June 2020.

[40] Hering and Hozman, “US Lithium-Ion Battery Imports Jump,” March 29, 2021.

[41] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest AG018, accessed August 2, 2021.

[42] USITC DataWeb/Census, digest AG002, accessed August 2, 2021.

[43] Yearby, “Meatpacking Plants Have Been Deadly,” February 26, 2021.

[44] Mexperience, “Mexico’s Peso Roller-Coaster Ride,” January 19, 2021.

[45] “Non-numismatic coins” are valued for the precious-metal content rather than as historical or collectors’ items.

[46] Zhang, “Gold, Silver and Other Precious Metals,” March 3, 2021.

[47] For more information, see the Agricultural Products, Chemicals and Related Products, and Minerals and Metals sections of this report.

[48] The standard calculation for a merchandise trade balance is to subtract general imports from total exports.

[49] Muhammad, “The US Timber Industry,” November 20, 2020.

[50] Meyer, “Why Dead Trees Are ‘the Hottest Commodity,’” April 27, 2021.

[51] For more information, see the Forest Products section.

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