The map of county export gains, though, does not reveal any obvious patterns in this county performance. We note that many of the state's largest counties (by population or economic activity) were among those that lost exports over this period. Davidson and Hamilton counties were the exceptions. By the same token, the state's most service-oriented counties (Williamson, Anderson, and Sevier, along with Shelby and Davidson) also exported less in 2010 than in 2008, with Davidson again the exception. The gainers were largely more rural counties. In an irony, it was often the same counties devastated by trade-related plant closures over the past several decades that saw the largest export growth coming out of the crash. In most of these counties export growth surged ahead of total economic growth. In 45 state counties, in fact, exports grew even as the entire county economy shrank.
Changes in county-level export intensity support the view that the quickest export turnarounds were across the state's smaller counties. For these (usually) poorer counties, the ability to take advantage of world markets likely moderated the domestic impact of the economic slowdown. One doesn't often think of exporting as a hedge against declining domestic economic activity, but that was the situation for a number of Tennessee counties in the 2008-2010 period.
A second observable pattern here is the relative export success of the Chattanooga metro area. Most counties in the Chattanooga region increased both their exports and their export intensity over the 2008-2010 period. The cluster of increased export intensity in the outer rings of the Nashville metro area also points to the continuing importance of auto parts manufacturing in the state's export picture.
The recent pattern of county exporting in Tennessee is a little bit surprising. In general, the relative export performance of smaller counties has exceeded that of the state's major economic centers. This may be because the pattern of fewer but bigger exporting establishments that is more typical of rural counties was the most responsive to the rapid changes of a gyrating world economy and the first to take advantage of renewed global opportunities. In the next issue, we will look at county exporting patterns over a much longer period and see whether the past several years have been an anomaly.
[continued: TN international trade report »]