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. As Visual Capitalist's Jeff Desjardins reminds readers:
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.
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:
This is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis, but it gives a snapshot of what has changed since NAFTA was ratified.