US Imports, Including Top Categories, Challenges, and Opportunities

Love Imported Goods, But Hate Losing American Jobs?

••• Photo: Funkystock/Getty Images

The United States imported $3.1 trillion in 2018. That includes $2.6 trillion in goods and $558 billion in services. 

America is the world's largest importer, according to the CIA World Factbook. Its imports vastly exceed those of the European Union, which imports $1.8 trillion and China, which imports $1.74 trillion. Combined, the top three imports take in $6 trillion, or 30% of the world's total imports of $20 trillion. They’re the world's best customers. 

Top U.S. Imports

The largest U.S. import category is capital goods at $693 billion. Businesses import $143 billion in computers and related equipment. They also import $128 billion in telecommunications and semiconductors.

The consumer goods category is almost as large, at $648 billion. Most of this is cell phones and TVs ($134 billion) and pharmaceutical preparations (also $134 billion). Next is apparel and footwear ($129 billion).

U.S. manufacturers import $576 billion of industrial supplies. Of this, $215 billion is oil and petroleum products. The United States also imports $372 billion worth of automobiles and $147 billion in food and feedstock.

Services is a large and growing category. In 2018, U.S. service imports totaled $558 billion. Almost half was travel and transportation services, at $253 billion. The next was computer services and other business services at $151 billion. Finance and insurance services were $69 billion. The government services category was $23 billion. 

Almost 60% of U.S. imports come from five countries: China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Germany. These imports continue to rise despite President Donald Trump's trade war.

Blame Imports for the Trade Deficit

The United States imports more than it exports. That's despite being the third-largest exporter in the world. The biggest exporters are the European Union and China. According to the U.S. Census, that creates a trade deficit of $621 billion.  Even though America exports billions in oil, consumer goods, and automotive products, it imports even more of those same categories. 

Low-Cost Imports Cost U.S. Jobs

Obviously, everything that is imported is not made in America. For that reason, a trade deficit increases U.S. unemployment.  

The biggest change occurred with the growth of imports from China. In 2007, 28% of all imports were from China and other low-income countries. This was a dramatic rise from 2000 when this value was only 15%.

At the same time, the United States was losing manufacturing jobs according to a study in the American Economic Review. It found that in 2000, more than 10% of the labor force worked in manufacturing. By 2007, it had dropped to 8.7%. Not all of these losses were from outsourcing. Some were from the rise in robotics.

The study also found that job losses hit some communities harder than others. The cities and towns that lost out to Chinese competition also experienced higher costs for unemployment compensation, disability payments, health care, and early retirement. A study by Illinois Wesleyan University showed that $1 billion in imports from China reduced U.S. manufacturing by 0.48%. 

At the same time, imports do create U.S. jobs in transportation, distribution, and marketing. For example, the Heritage Foundation estimated that imports from China created 500,000 of these jobs. But it's unlikely that these job gains offset the job losses in manufacturing. 

Why America Imports So Much

Although America CAN produce all it needs, China, Mexico, and other emerging market countries can produce it for less. Their cost of living is lower, which allows them to pay their workers less. That makes them better at producing what U.S. consumers want than American companies could. This is called the theory of comparative advantage.

For example, Indian technology companies can pay their workers just $7,000 a year, much lower than the U.S. minimum wage. In other words, there's a trade-off between plentiful U.S. jobs and low-cost products. That's just one of the ways IT outsourcing affects the economy.

Many people say we should only buy items that are "Made in America." That would solve the problem only if everyone were willing to pay higher prices. 

President Trump wants to force Americans to make this trade-off. He has threatened China and Mexico with higher tariffs on their imports. He has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatens to do the same with the North American Free Trade Agreement

 If Trump dumps NAFTA, it may create more U.S. manufacturing jobs but raise the price of many imports. Those higher costs may, in turn, put many U.S. companies out of business.

How the U.S. Imports Are Part of the Balance of Payments