The United States is experiencing higher-than-typical export levels. Despite a trade war with China and brewing trade troubles with the European Union, the U.S. doubled oil exports in 2018 and saw record-high pork production and exports. Even with a rollback on civilian aircraft exports, the United States is tightening the trade gap—in part due to the increased strength of the global economy.
From 2013 to 2018, the United States export portfolio grew by 5.4%. While that portfolio is improving overall, there are certain sectors outpacing others. These include obvious products like space rockets and military arms as well as non-obvious items, like human hair. As America is a service-based free market economy, its export portfolio includes products of services rendered (such as chemical manufacturing and ore refinement) and useful waste from the nation's manufacturing and agricultural sectors.
Using the Census Bureau's USA Trade Online tool, Stacker has examined 97 commodity groups to determine which had the largest 5-year growth from 2013 to 2018.
The Census' commodity group labels represent buckets that may contain disjointed or unrelated products that happen to share a single common characteristic. Stacker will attempt to explain what the commodity groups are and why they are relevant, when applicable.
Stay tuned to find out why the United States exports animal guts and human hair.
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2/ Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 16.2%
- 2013 exports: $2.7 billion
- 2018 exports: $3.2 billion
Base metals refer to tungsten, molybdenum, tantalum, magnesium, cobalt, bismuth, cadmium, titanium, zirconium, antimony, manganese, and beryllium waste and scraps. This also includes the waste and scraps of heat-resistant materials made of ceramics and metal compounds. This Census category further includes the term "nesoi," which refers to “not elsewhere specified or indicated”—items that are exported between nations under an export license, but not necessarily reported as part of a nation's official export portfolio. This can include waste to be processed elsewhere.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 16.3%
- 2013 exports: $2.6 billion
- 2018 exports: $3.0 billion
The United States' emergence as a major salt exporter is a change in national policy. The second-largest salt producer in the world, the United States traditionally held its salt in reserve instead of exporting it. The vastness of America's resources was thought necessary to support American industry and infrastructure, including new construction projects, road salting, and chemical formulation. New synthetic materials and new trading policies, however, have changed this thinking.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 16.7%
- 2013 exports: $3.5 billion
- 2018 exports: $4.1 billion
Stone art includes not just sculptures, but also mosaics, plaster moldings, wall paneling, wall finishes, ceilings, HVAC gratings, ornamental inlays, walkway paving, and applied art techniques like plaster on canvas. This category, however, excludes tools, lithographs, impregnated fabrics, coated or impregnated papers, clocks, furniture or furniture fixtures, drawing tools, or toys.
5/ Saaleha Bamjee // Flickr
- 2013–2018 export growth: 17.8%
- 2013 exports: $16.8 million
- 2018 exports: $19.8 million
This category refers to vegetable textile fibers, paper yarns, and woven fabrics made of paper yarns. Flax, coconut, jute, coir, and hemp raw and processed material, as well as waste, are included in this category.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 21.1%
- 2013 exports: $1.9 billion
- 2018 exports: $2.3 billion
Despite the recommendations of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which sought to reduce tobacco production worldwide to limit demand, the United States has been steadily increasing tobacco exports. The United States is a signatory to the WHO treaty, but has yet to ratify it.
7/ Jetstar Airways // Flickr
- 2013–2018 export growth: 21.1%
- 2013 exports: $114.9 billion
- 2018 exports: $139.1 billion
With many of the largest aerospace firms—including Boeing, Northup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation, Raytheon, and SpaceX—based in the United States, it is unsurprising that the U.S. leads the world in aerospace exports. The U.S. has maintained dominance in this sector for at least the last three years, with China being the nation's biggest customer.
8/ David Monniaux // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 21.4%
- 2013 exports: $4.6 billion
- 2018 exports: $5.6 billion
The United States' recent increase in arms exports is controversial. As Saudi Arabia is America's leading customer, the U.S. has been accused of offering backdoor support to the Yemen War. The U.S. provides more than one-third of the world's arms exports, with client selection based on strategic partnerships and existing diplomatic relationships. The current administration's suggestion that the arms sales to Saudi Arabia are purely a business decision, then, is a departure from past policy.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 21.9%
- 2013 exports: $39.7 billion
- 2018 exports: $48.4 billion
This classification does not include food or beverages formulated for oral consumption for patients with specific diseases or conditions. Smoking cessation products, dentistry plasters, soaps or essential oils in solution, and non-therapeutic blood albumen are also excluded. Products that form this group include prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as items used in a hospital or veterinary setting for the treatment of injuries or illness.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 22.2%
- 2013 exports: $11.1 billion
- 2018 exports: $13.6 billion
The increase in exports of perfumes and cosmetics typically speaks to increased affluence abroad. As these products are not considered essential, they are regularly used as a measure of consumer confidence, and the availability of surplus money in the importing economies.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 24.3%
- 2013 exports: $263.8 million
- 2018 exports: $328.0 million
This category is limited to hats—including fashion, athletic, and safety—hairnets, hat forms, headbands, and components for the previously-listed headwear. Mufflers, scarves, shawls, veils, mantillas, headgear made of or for the removal of asbestos, toy hats, and any worn headwear are not included in this group.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 24.7%
- 2013 exports: $29.5 million
- 2018 exports: $36.7 million
Umbrellas and canes are not typically considered a significant part of America's export portfolio. China easily controls the export market in this sector, and since the United States is the world's largest umbrella-importing nation, there is a large trade imbalance for this category. Growth in this sector reflects steps towards resolving this.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 25.8%
- 2013 exports: $1.2 billion
- 2018 exports: $1.5 billion
Another sector where the United States imports more than it exports is clock and watchmaking. While there are major horologists in the U.S.—such as GE, Ridgeway Clocks, Waterbury Clocks, Hager, Kobold, and MK II—many have closed, surrendering the sector to other nations like China, Japan, and Switzerland. However, a renaissance in “craft” watchmaking in the U.S. seeks to change this.
14/ Scottb211 // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 27.1%
- 2013 exports: $7.0 billion
- 2018 exports: $8.8 billion
The American beverage industry has been beset by international mergers. Most of America's biggest beverage brands are now controlled by international conglomerates. Captain Morgan, Smirnoff, Ciroc, and Seagram's—for example—are owned by British-based Diageo. Meanwhile, the Belgium-based AB InBev owns Budweiser, Busch, Goose Island, Michelob, Rolling Rock, and Becker. However, the growth of craft brewers and distillers have kept interest high in American-made alcoholic beverages.
15/ Burger // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 27.6%
- 2013 exports: $148.9 billion
- 2018 exports: $189.9 billion
While bituminous extracts—such as bitumen oil, bituminous coal, and anthracite—are more common in Canada, there are large bitumen deposits in the northern Midwest and the northern Great Plains. Innovations in refinement have improved the processing of bitumen, which is sometimes called tar sand.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 28.2%
- 2013 exports: $1.0 billion
- 2018 exports: $1.3 billion
This catch-all category includes unworked human hair, porcine bristles and hair, animal offal (apart from fish), unworked bird skins with down or feathers still attached, unprepared bird feathers and down, bones and horns, coral, shells, ambergris, cattle embryos, and animal semen. These components can be refined to fats and proteins that can be used for industrial and food production purposes, as sausage casings, and as components in commercial fertilizers. Not included in the group? Edible products (except offal and blood), animal hides and skins, animal textile materials other than horsehair, and prepared knots for broom making or brush making.
17/ Materialscientist // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 30.6%
- 2013 exports: $2.1 billion
- 2018 exports: $2.8 billion
Nickel is not common in the United States. A rare mineral in its pure form, nickel is typically found in Canada, New Caledonia, and Russia. One of only four metals that are naturally ferromagnetic at room temperature—along with iron, cobalt, and gadolinium—nickel is used in the formulation of magnets, stainless steel, plating, and batteries. While not mined in the United States, raw nickel is largely refined in the nation.
18/ Ben Mills // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 31.4%
- 2013 exports: $322.9 million
- 2018 exports: $424.1 million
While the United States is a major miner of zinc, its annual output is dwarfed by that of China, Australia, and Peru. However, like nickel, America is a leading refiner of zinc. Zinc is commonly used as a galvanization agent for iron and steel, a component of brass and bronze, a replacement for lead, a fire retardant, a food supplement, and for battery-making.
19/ Robert Couse-Baker // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 33.2%
- 2013 exports: $120.8 million
- 2018 exports: $160.9 million
This category includes wigs featuring both real and synthetic hairs, worked human hair, feather or down-filled pillows and comforters, and ornamental synthetic flowers. It does not include ceramic or molded synthetic flowers, floral lace motifs, feather dusters, powder puffs, or headwear.
20/ Jurii // Wikimedia Commons
- 2013–2018 export growth: 43.9%
- 2013 exports: $189.2 million
- 2018 exports: $272.4 million
While China is—by far—the world's largest miner of raw lead, the United States is a leading refiner of the metal. Lead is commonly used in bullets and ammunition manufacturing, as ballast for nautical applications, in construction material, as an additive to brass and bronze, as a lubricant, as radiation shielding, in batteries, and in high-voltage power cables.
- 2013–2018 export growth: 89.7%
- 2013 exports: $7.7 billion
- 2018 exports: $14.6 billion
The largest export sector by percentage of growth, artwork is another category that is not considered essential. The growth in artwork exports reflect a healthy global economy, with a large amount of surplus cash available. As artwork is typically used as an investment vehicle, this can also reflect an increase in global wealth.