OUR OPINION: Trade pacts open deals for state

By NEMS Daily Journal

In an increasingly rare bipartisan vote, both the House and Senate this week passed trade pacts with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, with all three bills receiving the votes of Northeast Mississippi’s all-Republican delegation: Sen. Thad Cochran, Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Alan Nunnelee.

The general momentum behind the bills is the opening of increased trade opportunities – exports from all the states.

The free trade agreements were supported by several Mississippi industry and manufacturing groups, including farm interests eager for broader export markets.

The Senate voted late Wednesday and the House earlier in the day by decisive margins.

The Obama administration did not move as quickly as supporters like Cochran wanted, but he expressed hope, as did Nunnelee, that lost time can be made up with trade opportunities.

The three separate agreements were negotiated in 2006 and 2007, during the George W. Bush administration, and a five-year and four-year lag time seems excessive.

Passage of the bills ties in with the Port of Gulfport and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority approving last year memorandums of understanding with the Panama Canal Authority to cooperatively promote the Mississippi facilities as part of international trade routes. A $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal is expected to open in 2014, allowing larger vessels to pass between the eastern United States and Asia.

A group called the Joint Economic Committee said Mississippi exports to the three nations have increased steadily since 2004, particularly to Panama and Colombia. Mississippi’s exports to Panama, the JEC reported, increased from $23.5 million in 2004 to almost $722.3 million in 2010. The state’s trade with Colombia and South Korea was valued at $223 million and $72.4 million, respectively, in 2010.

Mississippi’s overall shipments of export merchandise in 2010 totaled $8.2 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce International Trade Administration. Most of Mississippi’s exporters are small-to-medium-sized firms.

The pacts’ passage was backed by firms and organizations that included Toyota, Mississippi Farm Bureau, Mississippi Poultry Association and the Mississippi Soybean Association.

Mississippi holds enormous production capacity for many agricultural products, like chickens, and strong market demand will spur new investment and jobs in our state. China, as has been noted, is the largest consumer of chickens in the world, and its market is among the fastest growing. Processed chicken trade between the U.S. and China dates from the 1960s, before the two countries had formal diplomatic relations.

The opportunities now are even larger than in those closed-door trade days.