Trends In Major Commodities

Trends In Major Commodities

The commodity mix of U.S. international merchandise trade has changed appreciably during the past two decades and continues to shift in response to changes in U.S. consumer preferences and global economic integration. Since 1980, manufactured goods share of U.S. international merchandise trade has increased,37 influencing the growth in containerization and the demand for intermodal transportation. Manufactured goods portion of the value of U.S. international merchandise trade jumped from 62 percent in 1980 to 85 percent in 200138 (figure 16).

Meanwhile, natural resources and raw materials share of the value of U.S. merchandise trade declined, even though the United States continues to produce, export and import, and consume vast quantities of such products. Between 1980 and 2001, agricultural goods share of the value of trade fell from 13 percent to 5 percent. Mineral fuels (oil and petroleum products) share declined from 19 percent to 7 percent, in part due to relative declines in oil prices. While the commodity mix changed, the volume of U.S. trade in manufactured and other goods and the transportation required to carry it grew, affecting the shipment tonnage carried by all the freight modes.

Just five commodities, valued at about $1 trillion, accounted for over half (54 percent) of the value of U.S merchandise trade in 2001, and these five commodities have remained fairly stable since 1990.39Table 28 shows the top 20 traded commodities and their relative annual growth rates since 1990. Only measuring and testing instruments (i.e., optical, photographic, precision, and parts) entered the top five during the 1990s, pushing aircraft, spacecraft, and parts down into the sixth slot in the process. Other than this category, the top commodities for exports and imports were similar during this period. However, aircraft, spacecraft, and parts are among the leading exports.

Between 1990 and 2001, the value of all the major traded commodities grew at average annual rates of 4 percent to 19 percent. Higher value goods grew more rapidly than lower value goods, most notably pharmaceutical products and furniture, furnishings, and lighting products (commodity code 94), which moved from outside the top 20 in 1990 to the 14th and 13th positions, respectively, in 2001. The strong growth in U.S. trade of pharmaceuticals and furniture is indicative of a general increase in the U.S. trade of high-value commodities. The growth in trade of high-value commodities in turn has contributed to the rise in air transportations share of U.S. international trade value, since it is generally more cost-effective to transport smaller, higher value, and lower weight goods by air. Another notable change in the commodity mix was a drop in the ranking for cereal grain and iron and steel. In 1990, cereal grain and iron and steel were ranked 13th and 14th, respectively. By contrast in 2001, iron and steel was ranked 21st and cereal grain, 28th. Such changes in commodity mix could affect the volume of bulk cargo handled by U.S. ports.

The commodity mix of U.S.-NAFTA surface trade is somewhat different from that of U.S. international trade overall due to transborder shipments of the automotive industry and trade in raw and semi-processed materials. Motor vehicles, parts, and accessories (commodity code 87) were the leading commodity for U.S. trade with Canada and Mexico, followed by electrical machinery and equipment (table 29). An overwhelming proportion of these commodities moved by surface modes. In 2001, motor vehicles, parts, and accessories were transported mostly by truck ($60 billion) and rail ($55 billion). The movement of commodities in this category by rail accounted for 59 percent of all U.S.-NAFTA rail trade. Raw and semi-processed commodities (e.g., paper products, wood products, and articles of iron and steel, aluminum, and rubber) are more important components in U.S.-NAFTA trade than they are in overall U.S. international trade. The reverse is true for finished and processed goods (e.g., optical, photographic, and precision instruments; chemicals; and pharmaceutical products), which factor more highly into total U.S. international trade than in U.S.-NAFTA trade.

During the past decade, changes in the demand for and supply of particular commodities affected both the geographic pattern of U.S. trade and our top trading partners. For example, in 1990, Japan was the leading U.S. trade partner for commodity code 84 (primarily machinery and mechanical appliances), the most traded commodity group by value. By 2001, Canada had become the top U.S. trading partner for this commodity group, while Japan dropped to second. A similar switch occurred with electrical machinery and equipment (commodity code 85). In 1990, Japan was the leading trade partner with $23 billion, followed by Canada and Mexico. By 2001, Mexico had taken the lead with $58 billion, followed by Japan and Canada with $31 billion each (USITC 2002). For mineral fuels (commodity code 27), Canada has maintained its top position during the last decade, but trade with other countries for this commodity has shifted. For example, Venezuela passed Saudi Arabia to the second position in 2001. Such changes affect the volume of crude petroleum and related products handled by U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast ports. A change also occurred in trade in motor vehicles and parts and optical and precision instruments (commodity code 90). For both of these catagories of goods, Mexico passed Germany to move into the third position, behind Canada and Japan. Such changes in trade or leading commodities affect transportation modes, services options, and system requirements.

Trade in Transportation-Related Goods

In 2001, the U.S. traded $290 billion worth of transportation-related commodities (e.g., cars, trains, and airplanes) with its partners, nearly twice the value of these commodities traded in 1990.40 Despite this overall increase, the share of transportation-related goods relative to all U.S. traded commodities fell slightly from 16.5 percent in 1990 to 15.5 percent in 2001 (table 30). While motor vehicles and parts constitute by far the largest share of U.S. international trade in transportation-related goods, trade in aircraft, spacecraft, and parts was valued at $66 billion in 2001 (figure 17, p. 73).

As is the case with overall international trade, the United States had a merchandise trade deficit in transportation-related exports and imports, totaling $76 billion in 2001. The deficit arose from the over $100 billion U.S. trade deficit for automotive vehicles and parts, which represented the second-largest deficit of total traded commodities and accounted for nearly one-quarter of the total U.S. merchandise trade deficit of $411 billion41 (figure 18). Over one-third of the automotive vehicles and parts deficit involved U.S. trade with Japan, while about one-fifth was with Canada.

In contrast, the United States had trade surpluses in 2001 in other transportation-related commodities. The $24 billion surplus in aircraft, spacecraft, and parts trade was the single highest surplus of any commodity in U.S. international trade (figure 18) and was due to surpluses with several trading partners, particularly the United Kingdom. The only deficits for aircraft products were with France and Canada, both countries that have large aviation manufacturing sectors (see appendix table C-18, p. 136). The U.S. international trade surplus for ships, boats, and floating structures was $693 million and for railway locomotives and parts it was $149 million in 2001. The trade surplus for railway locomotives and parts was in sharp contrast to the $416 million deficit in 2000 and was the first surplus since 1990. The 2001 surplus can largely be attributed to the United States supplying railcars and parts to Canada, the largest U.S. trade partner for railway products. The U.S. trade surplus in railway locomotives and parts was $257 million with Canada alone.


37 Merchandise trade encompasses all trade. Manufactured goods are one type of commodity group and are a subset of overall merchandise trade.

38 It is not possible to determine these shares by weight, because data on the weight of U.S. exports by land modes are not collected.

39 Based on the Harmonized Tariff Schedule-2 (HTS2) commodity classification code.

40 This includes merchandise trade only. Transportation-related services are discussed in the next section.

41 Mineral fuels, oils, and waxes, including crude oil and petroleum products, had the largest trade deficit of $110 billion in 2001.