The Export Imperative And Where We Stand

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May 27, 2011

David Albrecht, Director, International Programs & Business Research

The Chamber’s 2011 Economic Update was highlighted by Emilia Istrate’s keynote, based on a Brookings Institution report entitled “Export Nation”.  For lack of a better name, I’ve named her her call to arms the “export imperative”.

The United States still exports more goods and services than any other country in the world, despite ferocious competition from developing giants like China and established rivals like the EU.  But to retain our economic strength and substantially increase the speed of recovery, we need to be doing much more as a nation to sell what we make and know to the rest of the planet.

If you take only one simple stat away from this post – or Ms. Istrate’s presentation – let it be this:  doubling American exports would create two million jobs – about a quarter of all those lost since the onset of the Great Recession.

So, where do we start?  What rests at the center of our collective export sector?  The answer is simple – cities; major metropolitan areas like ours with the people, knowledge, institutions and infrastructure needed to make things happen globally.

American cities are the export engines of their states:  Detroit – 48% of all Michigan exports; Baltimore – 51% of all Maryland exports; Denver – 55% of all Colorado exports;  Seattle – 72% of all Washington exports.  What about us?  The Missouri side of the metro cranked out 17% of all Missouri exports, the Kansas metro area rang up 28% of Kansas exports and collectively, we were responsible for 29% of the total of both states’ exports (all percentages 2009).

Fine and dandy as far as lists of figures go.  But where do we stand now in exports, and how do we rank compared with other metros as a welcome but still sluggish recovery continues?  First things first.  2008’s numbers rank Kansas City as 29th in population but only 33rd among major cities for exports as a percentage of the regional economy – not outstanding, but not downright terrible either.

The other portion of our Update, though, was somewhat less encouraging.  Frank Lenk’s report drew on more recent data to compare Kansas City to peer metros.  Though Frank used only one statistical measure – employment growth – it was an eye-opening citation.  City after city, from Denver to  Salt Lake City and from Omaha to Austin, have outdistanced Kansas City in job creation from the beginning of the recession through the beginning of this year.  Kansas City also lags behind US job creation for the same period.

To pull an unusually blunt bullet from Frank’s slideshow, “Whatever economic strategy we’ve been following isn’t working well enough to keep up.”

But a concerted, metro-wide effort to promote and encourage regional exports could be  a very big part of a long-term, sustainable solution.  Just such an effort is already under way in Los Angeles, a sprawling metro area with a political and economic landscape far more complex and fractured than we could imagine.  And if LA can pull together to expand its exports, there’s absolutely no reason the Kansas City civic and business communities can’t do the same.

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