WASHINGTON—”America's Manufacturing Sector Continues to Show Momentum.”
This was the headline of a December 2013 statement released by Gene Sperling, assistant to the president on economic policy, and indeed this has been a consistent message from the White House recently: All the relevant economic indexes show U.S. manufacturing steadily gaining ground, if not rebounding.
The Obama administration has not lacked for programs to stimulate domestic manufacturing.
The most famous of these include the multi-billion-dollar stimulus package for Detroit's Big Three auto makers; the “Cash for Clunkers” program, designed simultaneously to stimulate new auto sales and get high-polluting vehicles off the road; and the administration's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, designed to establish public-private Manufacturing Innovation Institutes to facilitate the development of advanced manufacturing products and techniques.
How accurate is the Obama administration's message of a domestic manufacturing resurgence? It depends on whom you ask, and about which aspect of manufacturing that is being considered.
Is the Obama administration and Congress a help or a hindrance to manufacturing regaining its foothold in the U.S.? That, too, depends upon whom you're asking and what factors you consider that affect manufacturing.
There's no question that U.S. manufacturing has improved since the depths of the recession five years ago, according to Stan Johnson, international secretary-treasurer of the United Steelworkers union.
“Since that time, manufacturing and employment have stabilized and improved somewhat,” he said. “But the prospects facing manufacturing are far from being considered a renaissance.”
More than 60,000 U.S. production facilities are still closed, and U.S. manufacturing employment is down by about 5 million jobs, according to Johnson.
The U.S. bled an average of 40,000 manufacturing jobs every month between 2000 and 2009, according to Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Since 2010, however, some 600,000 manufacturing jobs have been reinstated.
“Part of that recovery is that our economy stopped tanking,” Paul said. “People started buying tires and other products again.”
Charles A. Cannon, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, said that by his estimation tire manufacturers are investing $4.7 billion in expanding their U.S. capacity.
“That's pretty impressive, even if you speculate that not all the money has been spent,” Cannon said.
But Alan Tonelson, research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, said the Obama administration's trade figures don't match its optimistic rhetoric.
In a March 19 news release, Tonelson quoted U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in a March 12 statement on the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement: “Since the Korea agreement went into effect, U.S. exports to Korea are up for our manufactured goods.”
But Tonelson said International Trade Commission figures show U.S. exports to South Korea falling to $2.95 billion in January 2014, the latest figures available, from $3.34 billion in March 2012, the month the trade agreement went into effect.
Tonelson followed up March 27 with a release on the federal government's figures on the Gross Domestic Product in fourth-quarter and full-year 2013.
“The new data add to the overwhelming evidence that the United States will not come close to meeting President Obama's goal of doubling U.S. exports during the first quarter 2009-fourth quarter 2014 time frame,” he wrote.
Tonelson said the basic problem is that international free trade agreements make it overwhelmingly attractive for corporations to move production offshore, particularly since trading partners choose not to play by the same rules the U.S. does.
“The U.S. is forced to be a much less attractive trading partner than its new trading partners,” Tonelson said. “And it's very difficult to see how purely domestic trade proposals can offset the arbitrage effect. The scale of the programs Obama has proposed is dwarfed by the subsidies provided by countries like China.”
For tire manufacturers, however, it is never a question of domestic vs. international manufacturing, according to Cannon.
“Our eight member companies, and other tire makers around the world who may join us, are truly global businesses,” he said. “If you look at new investment, most of those decisions are made in Clermont-Ferrand, Hanover, Tokyo and Seoul.”
Tire manufacturers look for a lot of things in deciding where to locate production, including availability of labor and natural resources, local transportation systems and a stable national business environment. Local and national regulations—including taxation, trade policies and environmental and safety regulations—play an important part, according to Cannon. Currently, all these various factors combine to make the U.S. an attractive place to invest, he said.