Cheat Sheet: NAFTA’s Mixed Track Record Since 1994
NAFTA’s Mixed Track Record
Cheat sheet sums up the results of North American trade since 1994
The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.
On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) officially came into effect, virtually eliminating all tariffs and trade restrictions between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Bill Clinton, who lobbied extensively to get the deal done, said it would encourage other nations to work towards a broader world-trade pact. “NAFTA means jobs. American jobs, and good-paying American jobs,” said Clinton, as he signed the document, “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t support this agreement.”
Ross Perot had a contrary perspective. Lobbying heavily against the agreement, he noted that if it was ratified, Americans would hear a giant “sucking sound” as jobs went south of the border to Mexico.
It’s a Complicated World
Fast forward 20 years, and NAFTA is a hot-button issue again. Donald Trump has said he is working on “renegotiating” the agreement, and many Americans are sympathetic to this course of action.
However, coming to a decisive viewpoint on NAFTA’s success or failure can be difficult to achieve. Over two decades, the economic and political landscape has changed. China has risen and created a surplus of cheap labor, technology has changed massively, and central banks have kept the spigots on with QE and ultra-low interest rates. Deciphering what results have been the direct cause of NAFTA – and what is simply the result of a fast-changing world – is not quite straightforward.
In today’s chart, we break down a variety of metrics on the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to give a “before” and “after” story. The result is a mixed bag, but it will at least paint a picture of how the nations have fared comparatively since the agreement came into effect in 1994.
NAFTA: A Mixed Track Record
On the plus side, NAFTA created the world’s largest free trade area of 450 million people, where trade between the three members quadrupled from $297 billion to $1.14 trillion during the period of 1993-2015.
Further, the agreement likely had the effect of lowering prices for consumers, especially for food, automobiles, clothing, and electronics. It also reduced U.S. reliance on oil from OPEC. In 1994, the United States got 59% of its oil imports from OPEC, but that number is reduced to 44% today as trade with Canada has ramped up. Canada is now the #1 source of foreign oil in the United States.
NAFTA has also unequivocally led to the movement of auto jobs. While the amount of autos manufactured in North America has increased from 12.5 million (1990) to 18.1 million (2016), the share of that production has shifted.
North American Auto Production by Share
|Year||Canada||Mexico||USA||Total Car/Trucks Produced in North America|
Mexico now produces 20% of all vehicles in North America – and U.S./Canadian shares have shifted down accordingly over the years. The ultimate result is the destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs in both Michigan and Ontario, Canada.
As a final note, we also looked at comparing macroeconomic indicators from 1980-1993 (“Pre-NAFTA”) with those from 1994-2016 (“Post-NAFTA”).
For the U.S. in particular, here’s what has changed:
|Metric||Pre-NAFTA (1980-1993)||Post-NAFTA (1994-2016)||Change|
|Avg. Real GDP Growth||2.8%||2.5%||-0.3%|
|Avg. Unemployment Rate||7.1%||5.9%||-1.2%|
|Annual Growth in Exports||5.7%||4.9%||-0.9%|
|Annual Growth in GDP per Capita (PPP)||5.9%||3.3%||-2.6%|
|Average Gini Coefficient (Inequality)||34.2||37.4||3.2|
This is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis, but it gives a snapshot of what has changed since NAFTA was ratified.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt?
Foreign investors hold $7.3 trillion of the national U.S. debt. These holdings declined 6% in 2022 amid a strong U.S. dollar and rising rates.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt in 2022?
Today, America owes foreign investors of its national debt $7.3 trillion.
These are in the form of Treasury securities, some of the most liquid assets worldwide. Central banks use them for foreign exchange reserves and private investors flock to them during flights to safety thanks to their perceived low default risk.
Beyond these reasons, foreign investors may buy Treasuries as a store of value. They are often used as collateral during certain international trade transactions, or countries can use them to help manage exchange rate policy. For example, countries may buy Treasuries to protect their currency’s exchange rate from speculation.
In the above graphic, we show the foreign holders of the U.S. national debt using data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Top Foreign Holders of U.S. Debt
With $1.1 trillion in Treasury holdings, Japan is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
Japan surpassed China as the top holder in 2019 as China shed over $250 billion, or 30% of its holdings in four years.
This bond offloading by China is the one way the country can manage the yuan’s exchange rate. This is because if it sells dollars, it can buy the yuan when the currency falls. At the same time, China doesn’t solely use the dollar to manage its currency—it now uses a basket of currencies.
Here are the countries that hold the most U.S. debt:
|Rank||Country||U.S. Treasury Holdings||Share of Total|
|3||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||$655B||8.9%|
|6||🇰🇾 Cayman Islands||$284B||3.9%|
|11||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||$221B||3.0%|
|16||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||$120B||1.6%|
|17||🇰🇷 South Korea||$103B||1.4%|
As the above table shows, the United Kingdom is the third highest holder, at over $655 billion in Treasuries. Across Europe, 13 countries are notable holders of these securities, the highest in any region, followed by Asia-Pacific at 11 different holders.
A handful of small nations own a surprising amount of U.S. debt. With a population of 70,000, the Cayman Islands own a towering amount of Treasury bonds to the tune of $284 billion. There are more hedge funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands per capita than any other nation worldwide.
In fact, the four smallest nations in the visualization above—Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Luxembourg—have a combined population of just 1.2 million people, but own a staggering $741 billion in Treasuries.
Interest Rates and Treasury Market Dynamics
Over 2022, foreign demand for Treasuries sank 6% as higher interest rates and a strong U.S. dollar made owning these bonds less profitable.
This is because rising interest rates on U.S. debt makes the present value of their future income payments lower. Meanwhile, their prices also fall.
As the chart below shows, this drop in demand is a sharp reversal from 2018-2020, when demand jumped as interest rates hovered at historic lows. A similar trend took place in the decade after the 2008-09 financial crisis when U.S. debt holdings effectively tripled from $2 to $6 trillion.
Driving this trend was China’s rapid purchase of Treasuries, which ballooned from $100 billion in 2002 to a peak of $1.3 trillion in 2013. As the country’s exports and output expanded, it sold yuan and bought dollars to help alleviate exchange rate pressure on its currency.
Fast-forward to today, and global interest-rate uncertainty—which in turn can impact national currency valuations and therefore demand for Treasuries—continues to be a factor impacting the future direction of foreign U.S. debt holdings.
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