By Ken Oplinger
President/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry
I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.
Not that the last few years of economic woe haven’t brought challenges to my view of the world, but I just can’t help always trying to find the silver lining.
So I was pleased to recently sit in on a discussion with Rogers Weed, the director of Washington state’s Department of Commerce. While it’s true that Mr. Weed went through about 45 minutes of demonstrating exactly how bad the economy is, he went on to provide a great picture about how the private sector can and will help grow our way out of this fiscal crisis.
There were several bright spots in his presentation, including growth in aerospace and clean energy. But the one that I was most interested in was the significant portion of the presentation he spent on how the possibilities in foreign trade can bring tremendous benefit to our state.
The goal, as Mr. Weed outlined it, is to grow the number of companies in Washington that are exporting by 30 percent in the next five years. That would bring the total number of firms involved in exporting to 10,500.
And where will these companies be exporting to? The region that we currently export mostly empty shipping containers to: the Asia-Pacific region. Here are just a few examples from the Economist magazine (one of my favorites) about why exporting to Asia makes “cents.”
• Since 1995, Asia’s economy (real GDP) has grown more than twice as fast as that of America or Western Europe.
• Adjusting for currency differences, three of the world’s four biggest economies (China, Japan and India) are in Asia.
• Asian stock markets now account for 34 percent of global market capitalization, ahead of the U.S. (33 percent) and Europe (27 percent).
• Asia was the world’s biggest market for automobiles (35 percent) and mobile phones (43 percent) last year.
• Asia has accounted for 2/3 of world increase in energy demand since 2000.
• In 2009, 40 percent of global capital investment took place in Asia, more than in the U.S. and Europe combined.
• Eight of the top 10 IPOs in 2009 were Asian firms – more than twice as much IPO capital was raised in China/Hong Kong last year as in the U.S.
• Asia accounted for more than half of world output in 18 of the last 20 centuries.
The state is looking at several options to help increase trade with Asia, and the governor has recently returned from a trade mission to Asia that saw several interesting new opportunities created. But for many small businesses, especially the vast majority that have never engaged in foreign trade, starting this effort by trading with China or Japan is intimidating, to say the least.
For these companies, maybe something a little more accessible. Maybe something where there won’t be a language barrier. Maybe something like Canada.
Last year, trade between the U.S. and its closest friend topped $430 billion. Director Weed pointed out in his comments that Canada is a country with which we can easily work to increase our trading relationship, especially for smaller manufacturers and for agriculture.
No one knows the benefits of trade with Canada better that we do in Whatcom County. In fact, our unique relationship is one that can be used not just to our advantage, but to the advantage of the entire state economy.
So thanks to the work of Tom Dorr and the staff at the Center for Economic Vitality, the chamber will begin providing that assistance to businesses across Washington state looking to export products to Canada. We will be marketing this service through local chambers of commerce across Washington, and will be using our contacts and chambers and boards of trade across British Columbia to create trading relationships with interested companies.
The grant that will be paying for this new service is coming from, you guessed it, the state Department of Commerce. So, it appears my optimism is well-founded. Our state has identified a need to help small businesses find new markets as a way of solving the state’s long-term economic issues. They’ve agreed to partner with a private-sector organization (the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry) to help find these markets, and they’ve provided the funding to make it happen.
Maybe that glass is more than half full.