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Import and export trade today affects almost every person in the world. Imports and exports enable each country to make the best use of its most abundant resources. By exporting its surplus, whether raw materials such as coal, semifinished products such as cotton stuffs, or finished products such as computers, a country earns the money to import another nation's surplus. Import-export trade involves the building of offices or plants in foreign countries, sending technical or other specialists abroad, and expanding the distribution of a product into the international market.
About 38 million jobs, or one-fifth of persons in private employment, are engaged in activities linked to import or export, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Each type of import or export arrangement requires several jobs to organize, develop, and maintain the deal. The jobs vary with the product or service offered and with the company's goals for the product overseas. Many overseas jobs are temporary, as when companies send people skilled in setting up a manufacturing process or researching a new market for a few years.
The industry also involves transport companies and the worldwide network of ports, rail terminals, truck depots, and airports through which merchandise passes. Import-export trade is heavily influenced by government policies that affect the value of currency, set import duties that must be paid, set quotas limiting imports, impose standards on imported merchandise (such as safety requirements or inspection for pests), arm our allies with American weaponry, impose embargoes against rogue nations, or create demand for goods that domestic producers cannot meet.
The total dollar value of all the goods and services that America imports outweighs the value of what we export. Nearly 60 percent of what we buy now is imported. However, this balance varies among the different categories of products that we trade. For agricultural goods and for services, the balance tilts heavily toward exports, but for manufactured goods the balance tilts heavily toward imports, as a stroll down the aisles of any big-box store will demonstrate.
The overall imbalance toward imports is called a trade deficit, and ours has been above $100 billion since 1996. A very large trade deficit is considered an indication of bad economic health, and the high numbers of recent decades (although they have been on a downward slope for a couple of years) have spurred policymakers to take actions that will improve the situation. In previous eras, the favored policy was to reduce imports by imposing tariffs and setting quotas, but that policy has mostly been replaced by the principle of free trade, which allows goods and services to flow freely between nations.
The free trade policy opens opportunities in the import-export industry, but it does not guarantee security for jobs in this field. The industry is sensitive not just to changes in government trade policy, but also to fluctuations in the economies of importing and exporting trade partners. For example, our monthly exports to the European Union peaked at $24.8 billion in June 2008 and then declined as the worldwide recession set in. The recession has lingered in Europe far longer than it has here, and by mid-2013 our exports still lagged behind their peak of five years earlier.