By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new report on Monday credited imports with supporting 16 million U.S. jobs in a bid by business groups to improve the image of the ugly brother of trade.
While politicians from President Barack Obama on down love to tout the job-creating benefits of exports, they spend much less time praising imports, which many Americans associate with shuttered factories and the move of jobs overseas.
The report from a consortium of business groups said the facts are otherwise.
"Imports are not the bogeyman some Americans believe them to be," the report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, the Consumer Electronics Association and the American Apparel and Footwear Association concluded. "It is time to give imports the credit they deserve."
The report comes as several pieces of U.S. legislation that waive duties on imports are up for renewal in Congress.
Those measures include the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, which waives duties on a long list of raw materials and other products used by U.S. manufacturers, and the Generalized System of Preferences program, which eliminates duties on goods from poor countries.
In addition, the United States is negotiating free trade agreements with countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the European Union that are expected to phase out tariffs on nearly all imports from those areas.
The report was prepared by Trade Partnership Worldwide, a consulting firm, which looked at the economic impact of eliminating imports, which totaled $2.2 trillion in 2011, by imposing a prohibitive tariff.
It estimated the United States had about 3.76 million fewer jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and mining in 2011 than it would have had without any imports.
It also found the imports supported more than 19 million jobs throughout the rest of the economy in services sectors such as retail, finance, insurance, education, health care and utilities, and in construction and government employment.
The notion "that exports are good and imports are bad" is grounded in a 1960s view of the world, when companies were much less dependent on global supply chains, said Laura Baughman, president of Trade Partnership.
"It's really hard to find anything anymore that's completely made in the U.S. or in China. So, the whole picture about imports and the role they play in the U.S. economy (has evolved). They were always important, but now they are more important than ever," Baughman said.
More than 60 percent of U.S. imports are products such as machinery, industrial supplies and materials such as oil that either are not produced in the United States or are not available in sufficient quantity to meet demand, she said.
Imports also drive down costs for businesses and consumers, helping keep inflation low, and provide a "constant incentive to U.S. manufacturers to improve quality and develop new, more innovative products," the report said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is solidly behind Obama's goal of doubling exports in five years to more than $3 trillion by the end of 2014, said John Murphy, vice president for international affairs at the business group. "But it's a good thing to stop one week out of 52 to talk about the other side of the trade equation," he said.
The study also comes as many U.S. business groups are celebrating May as World Trade Month.
The chamber's chief executive, Thomas Donohue, was in Peru on Monday to promote trade flows with the United States and drum up support for an Americas-wide body of business groups designed to help shape economic policy-making throughout the hemisphere.
He planned to meet with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala before going to Uruguay to talk to President Jose Mujica. Economic growth in both countries has been exceeding that in many of their peers.
"Presidents Humala and Mujica both represent a pragmatic, pro-business mindset currently shaping the economic outlook of countries across Latin America," Donohue said.
(Additional reporting by Terry Wade in Lima; Editing by Chris Reese)