Six Of Top 10 U.S. Imports Are Also Top 10 Exports
A look at the nation's top 10 imports and top 10 exports reveals something seemingly odd:
Six of the 10 are the same things.
That's right, appearing on both lists are motor vehicles, cell phones, computers, motor vehicle parts, gasoline and computer chips.
It is safe to assume that these are different things, with the exception of the cell phones and quite possibly some percentage of the computers. Both of those are likely able to save on overall duties required when the "combined" product is exported. But it is telling, nonetheless.
Here's a look at the nation's top 10 imports, the fourth post in a series on the nation's top 10 exports, top 10 trade partners, and top 10 airports, seaports and border crossings. All of the data is from the U.S. Census Bureau, as analyzed by WorldCity, the company where I serve as president.
Motor vehicles. The No. 3 ranked export and the top-ranked import since the precipitous decline in the price of a barrel of oil, motor vehicles accounted for 10% of all imports into the United States in 2017. Japan was the top importer, accounting for 23% of these imports, with another 38% coming from Canada and Mexico, a mixture of vehicles manufactured in those countries by American, Japanese, Korean and German manufacturers.
Oil. The value of oil imports increased 31% in 2017 over the previous year but the price of oil remains so far below its peak, and the United States is producing so much of its own oil domestically, that it still isn't close to reclaiming the throne as the nation's leading import, which it was regularly for most of the last two decades. It accounted for 7.8% of the nation's total imports. That's a big jump from the previous year, when it accounted for 6.5% and slipped behind cell phones to rank as the nation's third most valuable import. Oil isn't a top 10 export but very well may be in 2018; it ranked No. 11 in 2017, growing more than 165% in value.
Cell phones. Cell phones and related equipment, which slipped back into the No. 3 position in 2017, only recently surpassed computers on the list of top imports, a truer sign of the value we place on the portable and more powerful "computers." Where Chicago's O'Hare and Dallas-Fort Worth International once wrestled for dominance of this import, O'Hare clearly dominates today. In 2017, O'Hare accounted for 32% of all cell phone imports into the United States. Cell phones are the nation's No. 7-ranked export.
Computers. Computers share many characteristics with a cell phone -- both are, after all, gadgets that allow us to do many of the same things, gadgets that we use every day. They also have a few differences beyond size, weight and portability. First, while China acccounted for for about 60% of both imports, Mexico accounted for 24% of computer imports compared to only 10% for cell phones. O'Hare, while ranked No. 1 for computer imports as well as cell phones, only captured 19% of the computer import market. Finally, DFW, the gateway for 14% of all inbound cell phone shipments, handled only 2.3% of computer imports. Computers ranked No. 9 among exports in 2017.
Exports returned without change. This is a mixed bag of products that are returned for one reason or another. They can be returned for repair, for example, or because the customer was not satisfied with the shipment. But make no mistake: It's a big category -- the nation's fifth most valuable import category, with a value in excess of $66 billion in 2017. Canada and Mexico rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, accounting for more than 25% of the total.
Motor vehicle parts. This is the first top 10 import that is also a top 10 export where the outbound shipment outranked the inbound one: Exports ranked No. 4. Nevetheless, the value of motor vehicle part imports was more than 20% greater in 2017 than exports. Forty-eight percent come from Mexico and Canada, which rank first and third as sources and 14% from China, which ranks second.
Medicine. Medicine, largely in pill form, is the fourth of the second tier of 2017 top 10 imports, valued at less than $100 billion but more than $60 billion. It is the first top 10 import to be dominated by European trade partners, with eight of the top 10 from there. The top three, Ireland, Switzerland and Germany, accounted for 48% of all imports in 2017. Medicine exports have finished among the nation's top 10 exports but ranked No. 12 in 2017.
Gasoline. The value of gasoline imports increased 18% in 2017, after a 55% decline the previous three years. Like oil, it is being hit by both pricing pressures as well as domestic production, which is limiting the need for imports. It was the nation's second leading export in 2017.
Computer chips. Like quite a number of manufactured items once produced largely in this country, computer chips are now widely manufactured offshore and imported to the United States, even though they remain a top 10 export, at No. 5. The United States still exports more computer chips than it imports. That does not mean that most of the computer chips used in this country are U.S.-made, however, since most computer chips entering this country are already embedded in computers, phones, cameras, motor vehicles, TVs and other products. One of the most mobile of all manufactured imports, 38% of all 2017 inbound shipments came from Malaysia.
Commercial vehicles. For the fourth consecutive year, the value of commercial vehicles set a record in 2017 and for the second straight year the total was enough for the category to rank among the nation's top 10 imports. Eight-seven percent of these vehicles came from Mexico in 2017, with another 5.3% from Canada.