Decline In U.S. Exports Hurts Jobs At Home

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Exports graphic i

U.S. exports have been falling since July. Mor Vimmer/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mor Vimmer/NPR
Exports graphic

U.S. exports have been falling since July.

Mor Vimmer/NPR

The nation's unemployment rate continues to climb and it now stands at 8.5 percent. Government figures released on Friday show that 663,000 Americans lost their jobs last month.

It's a staggering number. But even more staggering is this figure: In the past 12 months, more than 5 million people have been given pink slips.

Just about every sector of the economy is reeling and that includes export-related industries. In a global recession, fewer people everywhere are buying American goods.

Speaking at the conclusion of the G20 economic summit this week, President Obama spoke of what he called the drastic decline in U.S. exports over the last several months.

"You look at a company like Caterpillar in my home state of Illinois, which up until last year was doing extraordinarily well. In fact, export growth was what had sustained it even after the recession had begun," he said, adding: "Caterpillar is now in very bad shape."

The company has shed more than 20,000 jobs this year.

All Quiet At A Cargo Hub

On a recent day at the Port of Tacoma, in Washington state, it was cold and blustery on the waterfront. The weather was a bit like the climate facing U.S. exporters.

Port spokeswoman Tara Metina says export traffic here — at one of the busiest cargo container facilities on the West Coast — is down nearly 28 percent for the first two months of 2009.

"And that's pretty significant," she says. "What we would normally see here are a lot of the raw materials that we produce in Washington or that come from inland markets that we would be sending to Asia. Things like paper and wood products."

It also includes steel and parts for automobiles and Boeing airplanes. But as worldwide demand for those products tumbles, workers in those industries get laid off. And there's less work for the truck drivers and longshoremen who would handle the cargo.

Seattle area economist Richard Conway says the decline in exports is a sharp reversal from the way things were in early 2008.

"Well, I think the thing that strikes me most is a year ago we were counting on exports to support the economy. Today exports are a drag on the economy."

U.S. Exports Decreasing

It wasn't that long ago that U.S. exports were increasing. Now they're falling off about 15 percent compared to last year, according to IHS Global Insight.

At a time when lots of American goods were being sold abroad, hundreds of thousands of trade-related jobs were created here.

But now those jobs and hundreds of thousands of others are disappearing.

The biggest factor affecting exports is, of course, the plunge in economic activity around the globe. But there are other problems, too.

Tim Schipke, who heads a government-funded export finance assistance program, says just as it is difficult to get credit in this country, it's also difficult to get credit in global markets.

"It's much more difficult — and in fact, harder sometimes — to get overseas credit lines," he says.

And Schipke says currency exchange problems also play a role. Foreign companies sometimes have trouble getting U.S. dollars, the currency they need to buy American goods.

"If they go to their bank, and their government has exchange controls and they can't get the dollars, they can't get the goods," he says.

Job Losses For Export-Related Workers

Right now the dollar is rising against the Euro and other currencies. That makes American goods more expensive.

Just ask Mike Schoppert of the Tomco Marine Group in La Conner, Wash. Some of his company's very high-end cruising yachts are sold in Europe, where the company has one European competitor.

"When the dollar is rising against the Euro, our boat costs more than the European boat, you bet," he says.

In short: It's a very difficult time for American companies trying to sell things abroad. And it's likely to get worse, which means still more export-related workers are likely to lose their jobs.

They won't be the only ones. While the Federal Reserve says unemployment is expected to reach 8.8 percent, many economists say it will rise above 10 percent before the U.S. economy turns around.

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