Report | Trade and Globalization

A Conservative Estimate of ‘The Wal-Mart Effect’: Wal-Mart’s growing trade deficit with China has displaced more than 400,000 U.S. jobs

Press release

In the long history of false promises made by trade negotiators, the claim that China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 would reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China and create good U.S. jobs stands out. The total U.S. goods trade deficit with China reached $324.2 billion in 2013. Between 2001 and 2013, this growing deficit eliminated or displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs (Kimball and Scott 2014). As the world’s largest retailer, U.S.-based Wal-Mart is a key conduit of Chinese imports into the American market. This paper updates earlier work (Scott 2007) to provide a conservative estimate of how many jobs have likely been displaced by Chinese imports entering the country through Wal-Mart:

  • Chinese imports entering through Wal-Mart in 2013 likely totaled at least $49.1 billion and the combined effect of imports from and exports to China conducted through Wal-Mart likely accounted for 15.3 percent of the growth of the total U.S. goods trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013.
  • The Wal-Mart-based trade deficit with China alone eliminated or displaced over 400,000 U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2013.
  • The manufacturing sector and its workers have been hardest hit by the growth of Wal-Mart’s imports. Wal-Mart’s increased trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013 eliminated 314,500 manufacturing jobs, 75.7 percent of the jobs lost from Wal-Mart’s trade deficit. These job losses are particularly destructive because jobs in the manufacturing sector pay higher wages and provide better benefits than most other industries, especially for workers with less than a college education.
  • Wal-Mart has announced plans to create opportunities for American manufacturing by “investing in American jobs.” To date, very few actual U.S. jobs have been created by this program, and since 2001, the growing Wal-Mart trade deficit with China has displaced more than 100 U.S. jobs for every actual or promised job created through this program.

China has achieved its rapidly growing trade surpluses by manipulating its currency: it invests hundreds of billions of dollars per year in U.S. Treasury bills, other government securities, and private foreign assets to bid up the value of the dollar and other currencies and thereby lower the cost of its exports to the United States and other countries. China has also repressed the labor rights of its workers and suppressed their wages, making its products artificially cheap and further subsidizing its exports. Wal-Mart has aided China’s abuse of labor rights and its violations of internationally recognized norms of fair trade by providing a vast and ever-expanding conduit for the distribution of artificially cheap and subsidized Chinese exports to the United States.

China trade and U.S. job loss

Exports support jobs in the United States, and imports displace them. Thus, the net effect of trade flows on employment must be based on an analysis of the trade balance. This Briefing Paper calculates the employment effects of growing goods trade deficits by using an input-output model that estimates the direct and indirect labor requirements of producing output in a given domestic industry. The model includes 195 U.S. industries, 77 of which are in the manufacturing sector.1

The model estimates the labor that would be required to produce a given volume of exports, and the labor that is displaced when a given volume of imports is substituted for domestic output.2 The job losses presented here represent an estimate of what total employment levels would have been in the absence of growing trade deficits.3

U.S. exports to China in 2001 supported 161,400 jobs, but U.S. imports displaced production that would have supported 1,127,700 jobs, as shown in the bottom half of Table 1. Therefore, the $84.1 billion goods trade deficit in 2001 displaced nearly 1 million jobs in that year. Net job displacement rose to 4,123,400 in 2013. Growth in trade deficits with China has reduced demand for goods produced in every region of the United States and has led to job displacement in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The overall China trade and job loss estimates in this report are based on the findings reported in Kimball and Scott (2014).

Table 1

Wal-Mart – China goods trade and U.S. job displacement, 2001–2013

2001 2013 Change, 2001–2013
U.S. total Wal-Mart U.S. total Wal-Mart U.S. total Wal-Mart
Goods trade with China ($ billions, nominal)
U.S. domestic exports* 18.0 0.1 114.0 1.0 96.0 0.9
U.S. imports for consumption 102.1 11.4 438.2 49.1 336.1 37.6
U.S. trade balance -84.1 -11.4 -324.2 -48.1 -240.1 -36.7
Wal-Mart share of U.S. imports 11.2%
U.S. trade-related jobs supported and displaced (thousands of jobs)
U.S. domestic exports–jobs supported 161.4 0.5 767.5 6.5 606.1 6.1
U.S. imports for consumption–jobs displaced 1,127.7 126.3 4,890.9 547.8 3,763.2 421.5
U.S. trade balance–net jobs displaced 966.3 125.8 4,123.4 541.3 3,157.1 415.4
Wal-Mart share of U.S. Job loss 13.2%

*Domestic exports are goods produced in the United States and exclude foreign exports (re-exports), i.e., goods produced in other countries and shipped through the United States. Total exports as reported by the U.S. International Trade Commission include re-exports. Total exports were estimated to be $121.7 billion in 2013, and U.S. re-exports to China represent 6.33 percent of total exports. The employment estimates shown here are based on domestic exports only. See Scott and Kimball (2014), "Methodology" Appendix and endnotes 5 and 6 there for additional details on data sources and models used.  This analysis assumes job gains and losses due to Wal-Mart trade are proportional to the shares of trade in each year for domestic exports and imports for consumption.

Source: Author's analysis of U.S. Census Bureau (2013), U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC 2014), Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2014), BLS-EP 2014a, BLS-EP 2014b, and Scott and Kimball (2014).

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Wal-Mart’s role

Given its enormous size and the fact that it sells manufactured goods, which have been the primary Chinese export to the U.S. in recent years, it is natural to try to estimate the role of Wal-Mart as a conduit for Chinese trade. We find that a conservative estimate is that Wal-Mart accounted for approximately 11.2 percent of total U.S. goods imports from China between 2001 and 2013. This estimate is based on published reports on Wal-Mart trade with China between 2001 and 2004, including Wal-Mart’s own estimates of its imports from China, on more recent published data on ocean trade (by company), and on the relationship between total Wal-Mart sales in the United States and personal consumption expenditures on goods from the GDP accounts (BEA 2015).

Wal-Mart provided its own estimate for the value of imports from China in its fiscal year ending January 31, 2004 (Wal-Mart 2007). Most of these goods were imported in 2003, and the Wal-Mart share of total imports from China in that year was 11.9 percent. Bianco and Zellner (2003) and Bianco (2006) have also attempted to construct estimates of Wal-Mart’s imports from China and have reported imports that yield shares that are similar to Wal-Mart’s own estimates, with the lowest share reported as 11.2 percent in 2004. Since 2007, evidence strongly suggests that this share has not shrunk (and may have risen). For example, The Journal of Commerce produces annual reports of total U.S. imports and exports of goods via ocean container transport.4 While this is a partial and incomplete accounting, it does show that Wal-Mart was the top U.S. importer of ocean container freight in every year between 2001 and 2013, and its share of top 100 imports remained stable in a range from 12.1 percent to 14.8 percent of total imports of the top 100 importers.5

Limited data on total imports by company are also available from shipments data collected by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.6 Data on Wal-Mart imports are available for only two comparable months in the study period: November 2007 and 2012. The available information reports total imports in both kilograms and container equivalents (twenty-foot equivalent units or TEUs). The Wal-Mart share of total imports from China increased in both kilograms and TEUs in this period (Panjiva.com 2015). In short, the 2003 share of imports accounted for by Wal-Mart as estimated by the company itself (11.2 percent) has likely only grown since then. However, for this report we make the conservative assumption that it has remained stable.

But a stable share of Wal-Mart imports implies rapid growth in volumes. U.S. goods imports from China increased $336.1 billion between 2001 and 2013, as shown in the top half of Table 1, an increase of 329 percent. If Wal-Mart’s share of U.S. imports from China remained stable in this period at 11.2 percent, this implies that its imports increased from $11.4 billion in 2001 to $49.1 billion in 2013, an increase of $37.6 billion. As it is a retailer and not a manufacturer, Wal-Mart likely exports only a negligible amount to China. Our best estimate is that Wal-Mart accounts (at most) for roughly 1.0 percent of total U.S. exports to China.7 This in turn implies that Wal-Mart was responsible for a $36.7 billion increase in the U.S. trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013.

The Wal-Mart trade deficit displaced 125,800 jobs in 2001 and 541,300 jobs in 2013.8 Thus, Wal-Mart was responsible for displacing at least an additional 415,400 U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2013, as shown in the bottom half of Table 1 and in Figure A. While Wal-Mart was responsible for 11.2 percent of U.S. imports in this period, it was responsible for 13.2 percent of the U.S. job losses due to growing trade deficits with China (Table 1). Since Wal-Mart’s exports to China were negligible, the rapid growth of its imports had a proportionately bigger impact on the U.S. trade deficit and job losses than overall U.S. trade flows with China (since the rest of U.S. trade with China does include significant U.S. exports to that country). On average, each of the 4,835 stores Wal-Mart operated in the United States in fiscal 2014 (Wal-Mart Stores Inc. 2014) was responsible for the loss of about 86 U.S. jobs due to the growth of Wal-Mart’s trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013.

Figure A

Wal-Mart share of jobs lost due to growth of U.S. goods trade deficit with China, 2001–2013

Category Jobs
Other U.S. trade 2,741,700
Wal-Mart 415,400
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The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Source: Author's analysis of U.S. Census Bureau (2013), U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC 2014), Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2014), BLS Employment Projections program (BLS-EP 2014a and 2014b), and Scott and Kimball (2014).

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These job loss estimates are conservative because goods sold at Wal-Mart are primarily durable and nondurable consumer goods, such as furniture, apparel and textiles, toys, and sporting goods. These are particularly labor-intensive manufacturing industries and support more jobs per $1 billion of imports than more capital-intensive goods such as machine tools, motor vehicles and parts, and aircraft and parts imported by other U.S. firms.

Job losses in manufacturing account for 75.7 percent of total jobs displaced due to the growing U.S. trade deficit with China in this period (Kimball and Scott 2014, Table 3). Jobs in the manufacturing sector pay higher wages and provide better benefits than most other industries, especially for workers with less than a college education. Manufacturing also employs a greater share of such workers than other sectors (Scott 2013).

The job displacement estimates in this study are conservative. They include only the jobs directly or indirectly displaced by trade, and exclude jobs in domestic wholesale and retail trade or advertising; they also exclude re-spending employment.9 They also do not account for the fact that during the Great Recession of 2007–2009, and continuing through 2013, jobs displaced by China trade reduced wages and spending, which led to further job losses.

Further, the labor-market effects of the U.S. trade deficit with China are not limited to job loss and displacement and the associated direct wage losses. Competition with low-wage workers from less-developed countries such as China has driven down wages for workers in U.S. manufacturing and reduced the wages and bargaining power of similar, non-college-educated workers throughout the economy, as previous EPI research has shown (Bivens 2013). The affected population includes essentially all workers with less than a four-year college degree—such workers make up roughly 70 percent of the workforce, or about 100 million workers (U.S. Census Bureau 2015).

The workers affected by this job displacement include millions whose jobs were not lost but whose wages were held down because of increased labor market competition with the job losers. As earlier EPI research has shown, trade with China between 2001 and 2011 displaced 2.7 million workers, who suffered a direct loss of $37.0 billion in reduced wages alone when re-employed in non-traded industries in 2011 (Scott 2013). In addition, the nation’s 100 million non-college educated workers suffered a total loss of roughly $180 billion due to increased trade with low-wage countries. These indirect wage losses were nearly five times greater than the direct losses suffered by workers displaced by China trade, and the pool of affected workers was nearly 40 times larger (100 million non-college-educated workers versus 2.7 million displaced workers).10

Wal-Mart’s U.S. manufacturing promises

In 2013 Wal-Mart announced a plan to purchase “$250 billion in products that support the creation of American jobs” by 2023 by increasing purchases of U.S. manufactured goods (Loeb 2013, Wal-Mart 2015a).11 To date, very few actual U.S. manufacturing jobs have been created as a result of this commitment. Wal-Mart remains, by far, the top importer of ocean shipping containers in the United States with total imports of more than 775,000 container-equivalents (TEUs) in 2014, exceeding total imports by Target, the number two importer, by more than 250,000 TEUs (48.7 percent, more than total Target imports) (Journal of Commerce 2015). In addition, about two-thirds of what Wal-Mart calls American-made goods are actually groceries, which support few U.S. manufacturing jobs (Alliance for American Manufacturing 2015).

In 2015, Wal-Mart’s publicly available list of manufacturing jobs that have been or will be created in the United States includes fewer than 4,100 specific U.S. manufacturing jobs, and many of those are promised jobs that firms “will create” up to 10 years in the future (Wal-Mart 2015c). Since 2001, Wal-Mart’s growing trade deficit with China has displaced more than 100 U.S. jobs for every job that Wal-Mart has created in the United States through its “Invest in American Jobs” program.” Meanwhile, the U.S. goods trade deficit with China increased by $23.9 billion (7.5 percent) in 2014 (Scott 2015). Continuing growth in that trade deficit and in Wal-Mart imports will likely displace many times more manufacturing jobs than Wal-Mart creates in the United States over the next decade.

Conclusion

The growing goods trade deficit with China displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs in the United States between 2001 and 2013, and it has been a prime contributor to the crisis in manufacturing employment over the past 15 years. Due to its own growing trade deficit with China, Wal-Mart alone was responsible for the loss of more than 400,000 U.S. jobs, 13.2 percent of total U.S. jobs lost in this period. The current unbalanced U.S.-China trade relationship is bad for both countries, and Wal-Mart has played a major role in creating that imbalance. The United States is piling up foreign debt, losing export capacity, and facing a more fragile macroeconomic environment.

Meanwhile, China has become dependent on the U.S. consumer market for employment generation, has suppressed the purchasing power of its own middle class with a weak currency, and, most importantly, has purchased trillions of dollars of hard-currency reserves in low-yielding, government securities and other financial assets, instead of investing these funds in public goods that could benefit Chinese consumers and workers. In order to artificially and illegally hold down the value of its currency, and thereby lower the cost of its exports to the United States and other countries, China has purchased nearly $5 trillion in U.S. Treasury bills and other government securities and private assets (IMF 2015, SWFI 2015) since it entered the WTO in 2001. It has also repressed the labor rights and wages of its workers, making its exports artificially cheap, further subsidizing its exports. Wal-Mart has aided China’s abuse of labor rights and its violations of internationally recognized norms of fair trade behavior by providing a vast and growing conduit for the distribution of artificially cheap and subsidized Chinese exports to the United States.

The U.S. relationship with China needs fundamental change: addressing the exchange rate policies and labor standards issues in the Chinese economy should be important national priorities. Wal-Mart’s huge reliance on Chinese imports illustrates that many powerful economic actors in the United States benefit from China’s unfair trading system. Wal-Mart’s gain, however, is not the country’s gain, as Wal-Mart’s imports have contributed to the ever-growing trade deficit that imperils future economic growth.

—The author thanks Josh Bivens and Ross Eisenbrey for comments; Elizabeth Glass for research assistance; and Molly McGrath, Kevin Rudiger, and Aditya Pande for data analysis.

About the author

Robert E. Scott is director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the Economic Policy Institute. He joined EPI as an international economist in 1996. Before that, he was an assistant professor with the College of Business and Management of the University of Maryland at College Park. His areas of research include international economics and trade agreements and their impacts on working people in the United States and other countries, the economic impacts of foreign investment, and the macroeconomic effects of trade and capital flows. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California-Berkeley.

Endnotes

1. See Kimball and Scott (2014, 6 and “Appendix: Methodology,” 25–27) for further details.

2. This report distinguishes exports produced domestically and re-exports—which are goods produced in other countries, imported into the United States, and then re-exported to other countries, in this case to China. Re-exports do not support domestic employment because they are not produced domestically and they are excluded from the model used here. See Table 1 for information about the levels of U.S. re-exports to China in this period.

3. This model assumes that everything else is held constant; the trade and job loss estimates shown here are based on counterfactual simulations.

4. The complete list of Journal of Commerce citations for 2004–2015, covering calendar year trade between 2003 and 2014, is available on request.

5. Wal-Mart (2007) reports that it “estimates about $18 billion worth of products were purchased from China [in the fiscal year ending 2004] … about $9 billion imported from direct sources and about $9 billion from indirect.” These data are for Wal-Mart’s fiscal year ending on January 31, 2004, and were 11.9 percent of U.S. consumption imports from China in 2003, when most of those goods were imported. The following estimates all assume that Chinese imports are for Wal-Mart fiscal years (FY), and are compared with total U.S. imports in the preceding calendar years. Bianco and Zellner (2003) report that Wal-Mart imports from China totaled $12 billion (11.8 percent of U.S.-China imports) in FY 2002. Bianco (2006) reports that Wal-Mart imports from China were $22 billion in FY2005 (11.2 percent of China imports). Bianco’s estimates for FY 2004 replicate the estimate provided by Wal-Mart (2007) for its FY2004 imports from China. Based on these estimates, Table 1 assumes, conservatively, that Wal-Mart maintained a stable 11.2 percent share of U.S. goods imports from China between 2001 and 2013.

Between 2003 and 2013, overall Wal-Mart net sales in the United States rose from $208.8 billion to $336.6 billion (Wal-Mart Stores Inc. various years), rising from 7.7 percent of total U.S. personal consumption expenditures on goods in 2003 to 8.8 percent in 2013 (BEA 2015). Thus, Wal-Mart was a major and growing channel for the distribution of both domestic and imported goods in the United States in this period. Wal-Mart was also the single largest U.S. importer of goods imported from all countries via ocean container freight in 2014 (Journal of Commerce 2015), and was responsible for 12.1 percent of the total containers imported by the top 100 companies in that year. These data suggest that Wal-Mart’s share of total China imports likely increased between 2003 and 2013. Thus, the estimate of jobs displaced by Wal-Mart’s China trade in Table 1 likely represent a lower-bound estimate of actual jobs displaced.

6. Under U.S. rules, companies are allowed to petition Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to avoid disclosure of company names on bills of lading that accompany each shipment. Periodically, gaps appear in these disclosure petitions, making importing companies known for short periods of time. Comparable Wal-Mart data are available only for November 2007 and 2012 from this database.

7. This calculation is based on the ratio of total Wal-Mart international sales per square foot times an estimate of total Wal-Mart square footage in China, in various Wal-Mart fiscal years (Wal-Mart Stores Inc. 2002, 2006, 2014). Wal-Mart reports state that “over 95 percent of the merchandise in our stores in China is sourced locally” (Wal-Mart 2015b). Export estimates in this paper assume that sales per store in China were equal to the average per square foot for all Wal-Mart international stores times estimated total Wal-Mart square footage in China, and that all Wal-Mart imports into China came from the United States (the average Wal-Mart store in China was 2.3 to 2.8 times larger than the average Wal-Mart international store, based on data reported by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (various years)). This is clearly an upper bound on total Wal-Mart exports to China because it assumes that all Wal-Mart imports into China originated in the United States, which is highly unlikely.

Wal-Mart had 6,107 international stores at the end of FY2014 and total international sales of $136.5 billion in 2014, or about $22.3 million per store. Wal-Mart had 405 stores in China, with estimated total sales of $25.6 billion in FY2014, and total imports of $1.0 billion (reported as U.S. exports in 2013 in Table 1). Assuming that all these imports were shipped from the United States, Wal-Mart was responsible for 0.9 percent of total U.S. exports to China in 2013.

8. These estimates assume that jobs supported and displaced by Wal-Mart’s China trade were directly proportional to total jobs supported and displaced by total U.S. exports to and imports from China in 2001 and 2013, as estimated by Kimball and Scott (2014).

9. Direct jobs displaced refer to jobs displaced within a given industry, such as motor vehicles and parts. Indirect jobs displaced are those displaced in industries that supply inputs to that industry, such as primary metal (e.g., steel), plastics and rubber products (e.g., tires and hoses), transportation, and information. Re-spending employment results from the spending of wages by employed workers. It is one form of a macroeconomic multiplier.

10. Author’s calculations from the estimated $1,800 wages lost by a median-wage non-college educated worker per year (Bivens 2013) times the 68.1 percent of the workforce made up of workers with less than a four-year college degree (U.S. Census Bureau 2015) times total number of U.S. workers employed (on average) in 2014 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015) (yielding roughly 100 million non-college educated workers).

11. The initial Wal-Mart commitment was to purchase $50 billion in “U.S. products,” a figure that was subsequently increased to $250 billion (Loeb 2013, Walmart 2015a).

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