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The Prevalence of Intra-industry Trade Between Similar Economies

Intra-industry Trade Between Similar Economies: Introduction

Absolute and comparative advantages explain a great deal about patterns of global trade. For example, they help to explain the patterns noted at the start of this tutorial, like why you may be eating fresh fruit from Chile or Mexico, or why lower productivity regions like Africa and Latin America are able to sell a substantial proportion of their exports to higher productivity regions like the European Union and North America. Comparative advantage, however, at least at first glance, does not seem especially well-suited to explain other common patterns of international trade.

The Prevalence of Intra-industry Trade between Similar Economies

The theory of comparative advantage suggests that trade should happen between economies with large differences in opportunity costs of production. Roughly half of all world trade involves shipping goods between the fairly similar high-income economies of the United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, and China (see this table).

Where U.S. Exports Go and U.S. Imports Originate (2015) (Source)

CountryU.S. Exports Go to …U.S. Imports Come from …
European Union19.0%21.0%
Canada22.0%14.0%
Japan  4.0%  6.0%
Mexico15.0%13.0%
China8.0%20.0%

Moreover, the theory of comparative advantage suggests that each economy should specialize to a degree in certain products, and then exchange those products. A high proportion of trade, however, is intra-industry trade—that is, trade of goods within the same industry from one country to another. For example, the United States produces and exports autos and imports autos. This table shows some of the largest categories of U.S. exports and imports. In all of these categories, the United States is both a substantial exporter and a substantial importer of goods from the same industry. In 2014, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the United States exported $159 billion worth of autos, and imported $327 billion worth of autos. About 60% of U.S. trade and 60% of European trade is intra-industry trade.

Some Intra-Industry U.S. Exports and Imports in 2014 (Source)

Some U.S. ExportsQuantity of Exports ($ billions)Quantity of Imports ($ billions)
Autos$146$327
Food and beverages$144$126
Capital goods$550$551
Consumer goods$199$558
Industrial supplies $507 $665
Other transportation $45 $55

Why do similar high-income economies engage in intra-industry trade? What can be the economic benefit of having workers of fairly similar skills making cars, computers, machinery and other products which are then shipped across the oceans to and from the United States, the European Union, and Japan? There are two reasons: (1) The division of labor leads to learning, innovation, and unique skills; and (2) economies of scale.


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