Wednesday, June 7, 2017
On May 18, Trump informed Congress of his intent to renegotiate NAFTA, triggering a 90-day consultation period with Congress over the negotiations. This formal move is mandated by the trade promotion authority that governs NAFTA. So we’re looking at a new era of U.S.-Mexico trade relations. Should you care?
If you use banks, then yes, you should care a great deal. What happens to Mexico will happen to your money. Here’s why.
In and Out and In Again on NAFTA
Then on April 27, he announced he had decided not to withdraw from the pact “at this time,” although the justification is unclear. Trump said publicly it was out of respect for Canada and Mexico, but other news reports suggest that he may have been more influenced by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s map showing the overlap between agricultural regions and Trump voter regions.
The High Stakes of Mexico Trade on the U.S. Economy
As Trump is no doubt hearing from advisors and legislators, decisions about U.S.-Mexico trade are high stakes. And it will affect you personally, even if you’re not a farmer and don’t live near the border.
We have to backtrack a few steps to see why you and your money should care about this. First, we all know that trade doesn’t flow only one way, and U.S.-Mexico trade is no exception. In the agricultural sector, for example, the Peterson Institute for International Economics reported that U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico increased from $3.6 billion in pre-NAFTA 1993 to $7.9 billion in 2003 (we may get avocados and mangos from them but they get fruit juices, vegetables, and grains and feeds from us). Moreover, U.S. foreign direct investment in the Mexican food industry more than doubled from $2.3 billion in 1993 to $5.7 billion in 2000, mostly in pasta, confectionery, and canned and frozen meats. (Mexican agricultural trade to the U.S. increased by a larger percentage but a smaller total dollar value in roughly the same period, from $2.7 billion in 1993 to $6.3 billion in 2003.) That means there’s a lot of apple juice and feed corn flowing south across the border because of NAFTA.
But it’s not just farmers that Trump has to worry about. Hurting farmers would have ripple effects that Trump cannot afford because of one important fact of political life, and it’s not the farm lobby; it’s farm debt.
Your Money, Working on the Farm
Although agriculture employs only about two percent of the U.S. population, 51 percent of the U.S. land base was used for agricultural purposes as of 2007. And that land is heavily mortgaged: USDA’s Economic Research Service predicted that farm real estate debt will reach a historic high of $240.7 billion in 2017, with a 7.3 percent increase in real estate mortgage loans. ERS says farmland owners are also increasingly using real estate as collateral to secure nonreal estate borrowing. All this means the banks are in deep on the farms.
So if farms struggle, farm mortgage lenders struggle. And when the banking and lending industry gets hit, Congress hears about it in no uncertain terms – either that or our bank accounts do. As one agricultural lobbyist explained to a reporter, “‘We are different from Microsoft or Fannie Mae. … When groups with ag interests come to us we ask, ‘Who are the mortgage bankers in your district?’” If farmers want to get attention on Capitol Hill, they go arm-in-arm with the lenders they are dependent on.
We've seen this at work before; it's one of the main reasons why repeated attempts to phase out farm subsidies have failed. As soon as commodity prices go down, farmers face default and lenders beat down Congressional doors to make sure supports get put back into place. Collin Peterson, former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told a reporter, “‘It’s hard to explain to people, but [direct payments to farmers are] built into the whole farming structure now. … It’s the bankers and the landlords and everything else that wants them. You get everybody stirred up if you try to do something. The farm credit people and the local bankers are more vociferous about direct payments than the farmers.”
Factoring in Farm Lending in the NAFTA Negotiations
Mexico’s trade dependence on the U.S. is not one-sided. Without NAFTA, U.S. farmers will lose big, and when they do, many of them will default on mortgages and other debts. Lenders who rely on that income will make sure Congress hears about it. If Senators and Representatives who depend on the support of the banking and lending industry for reelection start hearing drumbeats, Trump’s hard line on NAFTA may have to soften considerably.