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Economic

Foreign Trade

Herman Melville
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Moby Dick author Herman Melville worked as a customs inspector
in New York City for 19 years. The data about imports and exports he
collected from 1866 to 1885 are similar to those collected and published
by the Census Bureau today.

The collection of import and export data (i.e., foreign trade data) in the United States dates back to nearly the beginning of the nation. The collection of these data was vital to the government, as duties paid on shipments served as the nation's primary source of revenue.

Beginning in 1790, annual statistical statements on the imports and exports of the United States were compiled by the Treasury Department from reports submitted by the collectors of customs and transmitted to Congress by the Secretary of the Treasury. These annual statements for the years 1790 to 1820 were published with other reports required by the Congress in two volumes titled American State Papers.

By a February 10, 1820, Act of Congress, provisions were made for the preparation of statistical accounts of the foreign commerce of the United States by the Registrar of the Treasury to show the kinds, quantities, and values of all articles imported to and exported from each foreign country. Beginning in 1821, these reports compiled by local customs collectors, were published annually in Commerce and Navigation of the United States.

The collection of import and export data was further clarified by a July 28, 1866, Act of Congress, which established the Bureau of Statistics in the Treasury Department. The act also specified that the kinds, quantities, and values of all articles exported and imported should be detailed in the statistical accounts, by countries of destination or by shipment, and that the exports of articles produced or manufactured in the United States should be shown separately from the re-exports of foreign articles previously imported into the United States.

On February 14, 1903, Congress transferred the Bureau of Statistics from the Treasury Department to the new Department of Commerce and Labor. An Act on January 5, 1923, transferred the "Section of Customs Statistics of New York" from the Treasury Department to the Department of Commerce. Following this transfer, the Secretary of Commerce consolidated the section with the Division of Foreign Trade Statistics of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. In May 1941, the secretary transferred the Division of Foreign Trade Statistics to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Although analysis and publication of foreign trade data was transferred to the Census Bureau in 1941, the agency continues to work closely with the U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis to collect data. Today, the Census Bureau provides detailed statistics on goods and estimates of services shipped from the United States to foreign countries. The collection of these data are required by Title 13, United States Code.

The Census Bureau's foreign trade data collection, analysis, and publication activities data can be divided into three segments, as follows:

Export Statistics. The Census Bureau, with the assistance of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, collects data on goods and estimates of services shipped from the United States to foreign countries. The data are continuously compiled and processed. Data are compiled in terms of commodity classification, quantities, values, shipping weights, method of transportation (air or vessel), state of origin, customs district, customs port, country of destination, and whether contents are domestic goods or re-exports.

Since January 1989, commodities have been compiled under "Schedule B harmonized classifications of domestic and foreign commodity exports." These transactions are classified under approximately 8,000 different products leaving the United States. Statistics are also complied under the Standard International Trade Classification (SITC), North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), End-Use Commodity Classification, and Advanced Technology Products for nearly all 240 U.S. trading partners, 400 U.S. ports, and 45 customs districts.

Export statistics reports summarize shipments made during calendar months, quarters, and years and are published monthly approximately 40 to 45 days after the end of the calendar month and on a year-to-date basis.

For more information about the Census Bureau's export statistics, visit the Foreign Trade-Export Statistics website.

container ship
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Data are collected on the goods arriving at and leaving from U.S. ports by U.S. Customs and
Border Protection. The Census Bureau analyzes and publishes these data regularly.
Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Import Statistics. The Census Bureau, with the assistance of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, collects detailed statistics on goods and estimates of services entering the United States from foreign countries.

Import statistics for imported goods shipments are compiled from the records filed with Customs within 10 days after the merchandise enters the United States. Estimates are made for low-value shipments by country of origin, based on previous (periodically updated) bilateral trade patterns.

Statistics for over 95 percent of all commodity transactions are compiled from records filed electronically with Customs and forwarded as computer tape files to the Census Bureau. Statistics for other transactions are compiled from hard-copy documents filed with Customs and forwarded to the Census Bureau processing.

Import data are compiled in terms of commodity classification, quantities, values, shipping weights, methods of transportation (air or vessel), duties collected, unit prices, and market share, country of origin, customs district, customs port, import charges and duties. Since January 1989, commodities have been compiled under the Harmonized Tariff Schedules of the United States (HTS) containing more than 18,000 import commodity codes. Statistics are also compiled under the Standard International Trade Classification (SITC), North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), End-Use Commodity Classifications, Advanced Technology Products, and American Iron and Steel Product Groups (AISP). The statistics include data about all 240 U.S. trading partners, 400 U.S. ports, and 45 customs districts.

Import statistics reports are available from the Census Bureau's Foreign Trade-Import Statistics website.

Exporter Database. The Census Bureau continually updates its Exporter Database (EDB), as authorized by Title 13 and Title 26, U.S. Code.

The EDB contains key data items from export statistics, the Business Register establishment list (BR), and selected 5-year census files, and covers manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and other intermediary firms that make export shipments during the benchmark year. Data included in the EDB are commodities exported; shipment value, weight, country of destination, U.S. customs port, and method of transportation; exporter ZIP Code; and whether the transaction was between plants of the same firm.

Business Register data include exporter identification, location, and employment; and parent company (if any) identification, organization, location, employment, number of establishments, and ownership. Census data are from the censuses of manufactures and wholesale trade, are establishment-based, and include identification, total shipments, total export shipments (or sales), and employment.

Titles 13 and 26, U.S. Code restrict access to the EDB (and BR). For more information about the availability of these data, contact the Census Bureau's Center for Economic Studies and visit the Census Bureau's U.S. International Trade Data website.


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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: January 28, 2014