International Trade Report 2nd Quarter 2015

Tables and Graphs

Exports and Changing Markets

Tennessee's Largest Markets

Under the circumstances, Tennessee exporters had a remarkably good second quarter in 2015.

A 1 percent gain over last year (to $8.6 billion in exports) might not sound like much, but in the context of sharply declining global trade—and a 5.6 percent fall in total American exports—it wasn’t a bad performance at all. A basic summary of why the state fared relatively better than most elsewhere involves substantially increased foreign sales of cotton and pharmaceuticals, the continued solid performance of the automotive sector, and dodging the bullet of China’s economic slowdown.

Cotton sales gained dramatically, from $133 million in the 2nd quarter of 2015 to $237 million this past quarter. China and Vietnam accounted for more than half of that gain, with South Korea and the other Southeast Asian nations right behind. Medicaments and pharmaceuticals were almost as strong, growing 44 percent to just over $200 million. The lion’s share of these gains were in Europe. The related medical equipment sector, reliably one of the state’s largest export sectors, gained a far more modest $10 million for the quarter (to $707 million).

The automotive sector, while not turning in the gangbuster performance of a few quarters back, still posted some pretty credible numbers. Vehicle exports rose from $732 to $768 million, while auto parts exports also increased by about $50 million. Both gas and diesel engines again made strong gains. Even tire shipments were up 40 percent. The last reason for the state’s ability to survive the general downturn was China. Tennessee exports to China continued to rise for the quarter, by 8 percent in fact. This was not just cotton. Car exports were up, as were car engines and various analytic and engineering instruments.

The most unusual aspect of last quarter’s Tennessee trade picture is its volatility. No quarter in recent memory had so many industries either posting very solid gains or very sharp losses. The gainers included, besides those already mentioned, laptop computers, iron and steel goods, vacuum pumps, and scientific and analytic instruments. Significant reverses, however, were seen in the line telephony, chemical (especially cellulose-related and dye exporters), aluminum, nonwoven fabric, and waste and scrap industries.

Neither the gains nor the losses were geographically focused. In fact, Tennessee exports were up across most global regions. Thanks to cotton and aircraft exports, shipments to Southeast Asia were particularly strong, gaining more than $100 million. The Philippines stood out due to a $76 million purchase in the aircraft sector. Korea and Japan both grew about 10 percent. There were smaller gains in Europe, where total state exports rose to $1.1 billion in the EU (up about 4 percent) while holding steady in the U.K. South America also was up a bit (to $516 million) because of strong gains in Chile and Peru. The one region defying the trend was the Middle East, where state exports dropped some 21 percent (a $68 million loss) with a steep drop in car exports and aluminum plating.

Closer to home, Tennessee shipments were up in Mexico and down in Canada. Computers were the major reason for the $60 million gain in Mexico, while continued gains in car exports could not offset losses elsewhere as exports to Canada dipped 4 percent. Those losses were spread over a significant number of goods stretching from DVD/CD sales to mechanical shovels.

So what’s the future? Can the state continue to defy gravity? Maybe not. Tennessee’s July exports were down, though not nearly as much as exports from other states. Nationally, export orders were off 4 percent in July and 7 percent in August. One gloomy sign comes from what were known until recently as the “emerging markets.” Tennessee exports were flat or down to Brazil, Colombia, Turkey, Taiwan, and India, among other such markets. Combined with the gains in the dollar, Europe’s stalled economies, and loss of purchasing power by a number of commodity-based economies (including Canada!), the circumstances are such that it is hard to imagine strong export performances in the coming quarters. However, we can hope that Tennessee’s competitiveness and industry mix will enable its exporters to continue the outperformance of the second quarter and buck at least some of these headwinds.