On Saturday, Gov. Jay Nixon and a bevy of Missouri business people will fly to Brazil on a trade mission.
They'll attend meetings and dinners, tour an auto plant and hold sit-downs with Cabinet members. And by the time the delegation flies back on Thursday, they will probably have signed a piece of paper, also signed by his counterpart Gov. Geraldo Alckmin of Sao Paulo, pledging to increase exports between the two states, by perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.
If the past is any indication, this deal will be trumpeted with a press release and make broadcast news here in St. Louis, just like last fall's $4.4 billion export agreement with China's Council for the Promotion of International Trade. It will be held up, in this election year, as proof that Nixon can wade into the global economy, and bring home some bacon. But what will it actually mean?
Beyond good intentions, not much.
A deal between two states is not an actual pact to buy and sell goods – companies do that, not local governments.
And it won't lower tariffs or lift import bans – that's the job of Congress and the White House, not a governor.
Even the dollar figures – which usually grab the headlines – are more like goals, experts say. There's no contract. If China doesn't buy $4.4 billion worth of Missouri-made goods in the next three years, they're not going to cut our state a check for the difference.
“Really, these agreements are just facilitators,” said Jennifer Schwesig, chair of the International Practices Group at Armstrong Teasdale. “They can't really bind you, per se.”
Which is not to say they're not valuable.
Schwesig and others who work in international trade say there's a lot to be gained by putting Nixon on a plane, and having him sign even some non-binding document with another governor somewhere.
In much of the world, an elected official, with a hefty title, carries weight, said Brad McDearman, who studies exporting at the Brookings Institute in Washington. Making the effort to fly across the globe signals “trade matters to us,” McDearman said. And, while companies conduct trade with private-sector partners, being on an official delegation can open doors, especially for smaller firms.
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