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Do I Hear $6.50 for this iPhone?

December 16th, 2010 - 7:05 am

How do we calculate the trade deficit? Incorrectly, according to a report in today’s WSJ. Read:

Two academic researchers estimate that Apple Inc.’s iPhone—one of the best-selling U.S. technology products—actually added $1.9 billion to the U.S. trade deficit with China last year.

How is this possible? The researchers say traditional ways of measuring global trade produce the number but fail to reflect the complexities of global commerce where the design, manufacturing and assembly of products often involve several countries.

“A distorted picture” is the result, they say, one that exaggerates trade imbalances between nations.

Trade statistics in both countries consider the iPhone a Chinese export to the U.S., even though it is entirely designed and owned by a U.S. company, and is made largely of parts produced in several Asian and European countries. China’s contribution is the last step—assembling and shipping the phones.

So the entire $178.96 estimated wholesale cost of the shipped phone is credited to China, even though the value of the work performed by the Chinese workers at Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. accounts for just 3.6%, or $6.50, of the total, the researchers calculated in a report published this month.

And further down:

“The concept of country of origin for manufactured goods has gradually become obsolete.”

Mr. Lamy said if trade statistics were adjusted to reflect the actual value contributed to a product by different countries, the size of the U.S. trade deficit with China—$226.88 billion, according to U.S. figures—would be cut in half.

We’re using 19th Century accounting to track 21st Century design, manufacturing and trade. Something’s gotta give.

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