Wisconsin’s exports have steadily outpaced last year’s figures during the first five months of the year, but imports have grown at an even faster rate, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The state’s imports were up 24.3 percent through the end of May to $10.86 billion while exports were up 6.5 percent to $9.02 billion.
Wisconsin’s increase in imports is the fifth largest in the country and well ahead of the 7.6 percent increase for the United States as a whole. On the export side, Wisconsin is only slightly behind the national increase of 6.6 percent and ranks in the middle of the pack.
The strength of the U.S. dollar against most other currencies around the world has made exporting difficult for U.S. manufacturers. At the same time, the dollar’s strength has made it more attractive for foreign companies to import into the U.S.
“I think everyone’s buying more from China,” said Joe Jurken, senior partner at Milwaukee-based The ABC Group, which helps firms source from and export to China.
Imports from China to Wisconsin dropped by 7.3 percent in 2016 but still accounted for more than a quarter of the state’s imports.
Jurken said the currency situation remains favorable to imports from China and the Chinese continue to push their own exports as well. He said exporting to China remains a challenge and companies who are new to it should proceed with caution.
“If the opportunity is there, you want to be able to seize it, but you also have to be very careful in doing that,” Jurken said, noting potential large orders often don’t materialize, at least at the anticipated level.
Exports to China were up 14.7 percent in the first quarter of the year due to an increase in medical and scientific instruments, industrial machinery and dairy products, according to Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. spokesman Mark Maley.
China, however, is not the state’s top export destination, ranking third with $1.4 billion and accounting for 6.8 percent of the state’s exports. Canada is first with 31.4 percent and Mexico is second at 14.5 percent.
Shipments to Mexico were up 19 percent in the first quarter of the year. Maley attributed the jump to increased sales of electrical machinery and soybeans.
Exports to Saudi Arabia more than doubled during the first quarter to $234.3 million with increased military vehicle shipments. The state shipped $465 million to Saudi Arabia in all of 2016, accounting for 2.2 percent of exports.
First quarter data shows Wisconsin exports to Canada were up 1.7 percent, although that figure doesn’t capture any fallout from a dispute over milk prices that received international attention in late spring.
Maley said Wisconsin saw increases in a number of key product categories including scientific and medical instruments (up 5.8 percent to $571 million); electrical machinery (up 12.6 percent to $532 million); vehicles and vehicle parts (up 24.77 percent to $499 million); oil seeds (up 169 percent to $74.6 million); dairy, eggs and honey (up 12.6 percent to $69 million); and wood and wood products (up 13.2 percent to $59 million).
Industrial machinery, one of the state’s top export products, was down 4.7 percent in the first quarter, continuing a trend from recent years caused by weak oil prices and challenges in the mining industry.
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