The Idaho Department of Commerce announced a new record for foreign exports in 2012. But a closer look shows that the uptick also obscured declines in several top sectors for the state.
During 2012, Idaho exports grew to $6.1 billion, an increase of 3.5 percent from $5.9 billion in 2011. One sector accounted for a significant part of this growth.
According to a department news release, “Global sales of civilian aircraft and related parts jumped over 2,000 percent from 2011 totals to almost $531.7 million due to significant fourth-quarter sales.”
But the release failed to mention declines in other industries. For instance, of the 14 top categories listed, exports fell in 10 of them for a total drop in value of $504.6 million.
Sectors with export declines in 2012 included semiconductors and industrial products; mining products; fertilizer and pesticides; paper, pulp and printing; building materials; personal care products; hides, leather, fur and cork; apparel; and textiles.
A regional trade expert said this pattern of state exports could be cause for worry. Andrew Cassey, assistant professor in the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University, said by phone, “It didn’t look like exports were robust. It looked like one industry exported a lot, and that was swamping decreases in everything else.”
It’s also tough to tell if the surge in exports of civilian aircraft and parts will be a sustained trend or a one-off event, said Cassey.
Research from the Aerospace Industries Association, a national trade association in Arlington, Va., paints a mixed picture. Demand for large business planes from Asia and the Middle East will make up 40 percent of the U.S. industry over the next decade. But sales of light and medium jets have been depressed for several key manufacturers.
Calls to the Idaho Aerospace Alliance and local civilian aircraft and parts manufacturers were not returned.
State export data on manufactured goods, such as civilian aircraft and semiconductors and commodities that have been processed to any degree, tend to be reliable, according to Cassey. But certain numbers are less accurate. He said, “Unprocessed agriculture, I wouldn’t bet my life on that number. Unprocessed mining, that’s another one.”
Cassey said the undercounting of basic commodities stems from where the federal government records exports. U.S. Census Bureau data is derived from U.S. Customs reports at the port of exit, which is not necessarily the point of origin. For instance, Idaho goods that are shipped overseas typically leave through the ports of Portland or Seattle.
Despite this quirk in reporting, Cassey added that year-over-year comparisons of a state’s exports are consistent.
“If the problems in counting exports do not change over time, then data on growth of exports is reliable,” he said.