1st Quarter 2014

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In Tennessee, the number of exporters has risen 10% since the recovery began in 2009.

Mapping Tennessee Exporters

by Steven G. Livingston | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Tennessee is home to more than 7,000 exporters. On average, each exports dramatically more than a decade earlier. In 2012, the average Tennessee exporter shipped goods valued at just over $4 million, nearly doubling the amount of 2003. The number of importers is somewhat smaller (5,430 in 2012), but at $11 million per firm, the average value of their imports is even larger. (These figures are for the entire firm, which in many cases may have more than one plant.)

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The state broadly mirrors trade trends across the U.S. The number of firms involved in foreign trade has been rising steadily, though punctuated with large drops after the dotcom bust of 2000 and then the financial meltdown of 2008. In Tennessee, the number of exporters has risen 10% since the recovery began in 2009 and 20% since the start of the century. The average state exporter still lags its national counterpart in the value of its exports, with the chart indicating that it was perhaps harder hit by the more recent crisis.

More recently, the federal government has begun tracking the export performance of so-called "small and medium sized" exporters (SMEs), those that employ fewer than 500 workers. Here the Tennessee profile diverges substantially. Smaller firms obviously export at lower volumes and disproportionately to Canada or Mexico. But Tennessee SMEs export at substantially lower levels than the average American SME. In 2012, they exported about $724,000 per firm compared to the national rate of $1,509,000. Moreover, Tennessee's SMEs account for only about 15% of total state exports. Nationally that figure is 32%. The state actually ranks 48th in that department, with only Delaware's and Nevada's SMEs contributing a smaller portion of their state's exports. To put it another way, exporting in Tennessee is unusually dominated by large firms.

Two maps provide some insight into the geography of Tennessee trade. [See dashboard.] The first displays the location of state exporters by ZIP code. The map underscores the discussion of state exporting in other issues of Global Commerce. We can see the bands of heavier exporting in the "automotive" ring around the Nashville MSA, the Chattanooga-Knoxville corridor, and Memphis. A second map adjusts the number of exporters by the total number of firms in the ZIP code. This provides us with some measure of "export intensity," i.e., the scale of exporting relative to the amount of economic activity in the ZIP code. We see an association of export intensity with these same geographical bands, but perhaps the most interesting feature of this map is the dearth of color in East Tennessee between Knoxville and the Tri-Cities and in West Tennessee between Jackson and Nashville. These are areas of low economic activity but even lower international engagement.