The New NAFTA Is One of the Most Trivial Trade Agreements Ever

I’ve finally read enough to be pretty sure I have a good understanding of our shiny new North American trade agreement, USMCA. The details, frankly, aren’t very interesting, and you can google them if you really want to. But here’s the nutshell:

  • It’s a very modest change to the original NAFTA.
  • Both Canada and Mexico had already agreed to about 90 percent of the new provisions years ago. That’s because they were included in the TPP agreement, which Donald Trump killed on his first day in office.
  • The net economic effect of the new agreement will be close to zero.
  • The agreement probably could have been concluded months and months ago. As near as I can tell, there were really no serious issues except for Trump’s comical insistence that Canada open its dairy markets further. This made no real sense since we already have a trade surplus with Canada in dairy products.
  • According to Catherine Rampell: “In return for greater American access to the Canadian dairy, poultry and egg markets, we gave Canada greater access to U.S. markets for dairy, peanuts, processed peanut products, sugar and sugar-containing products.” I confess I don’t get this. Peanuts? Canada doesn’t grow peanuts. In fact, according to the Peanut Bureau of Canada—which, and I am serious about this, is actually the “Canadian branch of the American Peanut Council”—the Canadian climate “isn’t very conducive to growing peanuts.” No kidding. They estimate that the total amount of peanuts farmed in Canada “may be as small as a couple hundred tonnes,” and that 85 percent of their peanuts are imported from the United States. So why would Canada want greater access to the US market for peanuts?

That’s about it. Really. The major provisions of USMCA relate to auto production and pharmaceutical patents, and even those aren’t very major. There’s just not much here. In the end, Justin Trudeau decided to give Trump his dairy provisions in return for Trump agreeing to a dispute resolution process more to Canada’s liking. The total value to the US of this stuff is about a millionth of one percent of GDP. Even among dairy farmers I doubt that it’s all that big a deal.

In any case, we already have an overall trade surplus with Canada, so the new agreement won’t have any effect on that score. This leaves Mexico, and just for the record, here’s our trade balance with Mexico over the past couple of decades:

There’s no special reason you should care about our trade deficit with Mexico, but if you do, this is our baseline. Tape it to your refrigerator and then check back in four or five years to see if the new trade deal has reduced it. My bet is that it will make no difference whatsoever.