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The Rhode Island economy is stagnating. While other parts of the country are starting to recover from the recession, the Ocean State is stuck in place, with little job growth and an unemployment rate far above the national average.
But one part of the local economy has actually shown significant improvement in recent years, according to state Rep. Lisa P. Tomasso.
"Rhode Island’s exports have increased by 53 percent in the last two years," the Coventry Democrat said in a State House news release on April 5. "This is something we need to pay attention to. Exports are essential to economic growth, not only in the nation but here at home in Rhode Island."
Fifty-three percent. That’s quite an increase, a surprising one considering the well-known ills of the state economy. So naturally we wondered whether it’s really true.
"When I heard it, my reaction was the same," Tomasso said when we asked her about the increase.
She told us that she heard the figure at a recent meeting of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Economic Development in Rhode Island, of which she is a member. The information on exports was part of a presentation put together by the John H. Chafee Center for International Business at Bryant University.
While we waited for her to get us a copy of that PowerPoint presentation, we started our own research on the issue.
Information on Rhode Island’s exports, it turns out, is easy to find on the web. The International Trade Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, tracks all sorts of data on exports nationally and by state. We used a tool on the ITA’s website to create tables on Rhode Island’s exports for the past seven years.
Rhode Island has exported products to 184 countries since 2009. The state’s leading foreign market is Canada, which accounts for more than a quarter of the state’s exports in terms of dollar value. Germany and Mexico are second and third, respectively.
The state’s top exports are waste and scrap -- which account for 30.2 percent of total exports -- followed by manufactured metals (13.5 percent), chemicals (11.1 percent), miscellaneous manufactured products, including jewelry, medical equipment, sporting goods and office supplies (9.4 percent), machinery (7.3 percent) and electronic equipment (6.5 percent).
The total value of the state’s exports has nearly doubled since 2005, but what about in the last two years alone? In 2009, exports totaled $1.5 billion. In 2011, they were $2.3 billion, which is in fact a 53-percent increase.
With that question answered, we were curious about the reasons for the steep increase.
One reason has to do with the global recession. Exports around the world fell at the nadir of the economic downturn. It was no different in Rhode Island, where in 2009 exports plummeted by 24 percent compared with the previous year -- from nearly $2 billion to $1.5 billion. The state made up that ground by 2010 and the number increased again in 2011. Because the state’s exports had fallen so far, the recent gains were more dramatic than in typical years.
Another reason for the high percentage has a similar logic. Rhode Island’s exports, at $2.3 billion in value, are low compared with other states, such as Connecticut, where exports totaled $16.2 billion last year, or Massachusetts, with $27.7 billion in exports. So in Rhode Island, a large increase in volume can have an outsize effect in terms of percentage.
Meanwhile, Tomasso sent us the presentation put together by the Chafee Center at Bryant, which advises businesses on how to export their products overseas. Not surprisingly, the 53-percent figure in the presentation was based on the same numbers that we found on the ITA website.
We called Ray Fogarty, the director of the Chafee Center who also serves as the Rhode Island state trade director. He agreed that the recent increase in exports was more noticeable because the state had fallen so far.
In addition, on a national level, many manufacturers are moving their operations back to the United States from overseas as labor and other costs come down. Those companies are then exporting their products, said Fogarty. So that has helped drive the increase in Rhode Island and many other states.
We also asked Fogarty why our top export products are waste and scrap. He said the Port of Providence has become a regional shipping hub for scrap metal, with supplies coming in from Massachusetts and Connecticut and other nearby states and then sent to Canada, Turkey, China and other countries.
Tomasso said that exports from Rhode Island have increased by 53 percent over the past two years. According to federal trade statistics, she’s correct.
That improvement doesn’t mean the state’s economy is set to turn around anytime soon, but it may be a sign of hope.
We rate Tomasso’s claim True.
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RILIN.State.RI.US, "Tomasso impresses importance of exports in Rhode Island," April 5, 2012, accessed April 6, 2012
Interview and email, state Rep. Lisa Tomasso, D-Coventry, April 9, 2012
TSE.Export.gov, "TradeStats Express Home," International Trade Administration, accessed April 9, 2012
"The Importance of Exports to the Rhode Island Economy," John H. Chafee Center for International Business, Bryant University, presented to the Joint Committee on Economic Development on April 5, 2012, accessed April 9, 2012
Interview, Ray Fogarty, director, John H. Chafee Center for International Business, Bryant University, April 10, 2012
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