Supply Chains and Value Chains, Explained



Joshua Kendall, Gabe Horwitz & Zach Moller | Third Way

Over the years, the United States has at times pursued targeted policies to promote self-sufficiency and limited trade (also known as autarky in its extreme). For example, the CHIPS Act acknowledges that semiconductors are too important to the American economy to rely predominantly on international suppliers. The act has incentivized billions of investment dollars to build factories and hire Americans. Further, the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included a provision which preferences American materials and manufactured products. These bills had clear tradeoffs on cost, security, and promotion of local jobs.

However, there are some goods or materials we simply cannot produce here. Americans love coffee, but the nation’s climate prohibits us from growing enough to satisfy our habit. Devoting all of Hawaii’s land to coffee cultivation wouldn’t come close.

Further, trade gives the US economy flexibility—in what we consume, produce, and prioritize in the sectors and skills at which we are comparatively skilled. Our workforce has exceptionally skilled scientists, engineers, and managers, which allows many Americans to focus on those jobs while other countries focus on different parts of the production process. The value chain demonstrates how these indirectly related fields contribute to trade-supported jobs, as they provide some of the value that makes trade efficient enough to employ longshoremen, truck drivers, and factory workers.

Policymakers must also recognize how trade can sometimes lead to job loss for domestic workers. Programs like Trade Adjustment Assistance are key aspects of trade policy that support the entire US workforce, and even more can be done to help workers with job and skill training before economic change happens. 

Friend/Near shoring

In the debate over where to make things, there is a push by some to do more “friend-shoring” and “nearshoring.” These phrases refer to prioritizing trade with neighboring countries (nearshoring) or our formal or informal allies (friend-shoring). Both efforts are responses to some of the vulnerabilities found in international trade—from COVID-induced shipping snarls to war.

Friend-shoring helps our supply/value chains be more transparent and, hopefully, reliable. The United States’ existing relationship with friendly nations enables better communication on trade issues and lets investors from both nations feel comfortable financing new ventures. Further, friend-shoring ensures that the value chain rewards our allies instead of our geopolitical and economic competitors.

Alternatively, nearshoring can spur bilateral trade that will employ Americans in both import- and export-heavy sectors. The proximity lowers transportation costs and potential disruptions while simultaneously encouraging cooperation in border regions. For example, Texas exports more than any other state, with Mexico being its primary recipient. Both border regions invest billions in each other’s productive capacity and pursue complementary parts of the value chain (aircraft parts, computer parts, and semiconductors in Texas, and trucks, automotive parts, and finished computers in Mexico).

Of course, policies that change existing supply chains have some tradeoffs along with their benefits. Our friends and neighbors have the capacity to satisfy much of our demands, but they do not have the same competitive advantages as others. A YETI tumbler made in Sweden or Canada would be much more expensive than one made in Thailand.

Trade Policy in Action

The best example of both friend-shoring and nearshoring is the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The policy has been largely successful as the two nations are our biggest trading partners—doubling US-Chinese trade—and are our largest export markets.

Beyond the numeric volume of North American trade, what we import and export between each country illustrates the value chain’s symbiotic nature. Looking at US-Mexico trade numbers, we often trade the same products back and forth (machinery, fuel, vehicles, etc.). However, each partner imports and exports specific kinds of goods, enabling each economy to specialize in how they add value. We export machinery like integrated circuits, office machinery, and engines, while we import machinery such as computers, video screens, and broadcasting equipment. American intermediate manufacturers, designers, and raw material extractors contribute their expertise to the products we export to Mexico, and the more finished goods we import enable our workforce to utilize their skills. Put simply, we export materials to Mexico, who builds them into productive products, which lets us add value and create more materials we can export.



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