WASHINGTON — Suddenly, outsourcing is on the way out and insourcing on the way in as the United States trudges unevenly toward President Obama’s goal of doubling American exports around the world by the start of 2015. So far, export levels are about halfway to his mark.
Obama set the five-year target in his January 2010 State of the Union address and recently has hastened his drumbeat, telling his export advisory council last month the nation was ‘‘well on our way’’ to his goal. ‘‘The question now becomes: How do we sustain this momentum?’’
While economists and industry leaders generally expect the target to be missed, impressive gains already booked in US manufacturing and exporting suggest such a miss may not be by that much. Why the optimism toward a manufacturing comeback? Some reasons are:
■ Cheap US natural gas and other increased energy production are helping to power US factories more efficiently, with gas providing inexpensive raw materials for US manufacturers of plastics, tires, certain pharmaceuticals, and some petrochemical products.
■ Higher wages in China and other foreign export markets are making outsourcing less profitable to US firms.
■ Congressional approval in 2011 of trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama and other agreements being negotiated now with Asia and Europe are promising to open more foreign markets to US products.
■ High US unemployment is relieving pressure on factory owners to increase wages, helping to make US labor costs more globally competitive.
■ Major tech advances have steadily boosted factory efficiency and worker productivity.
Yet while many industries are doing more with fewer workers, more than half a million new manufacturing jobs have been added in just the past few years. Of course, some big bumps lie ahead. Europe is in recession, the US economy continues to expand at a snail’s pace, and the jobless rate sits at 7.7 percent nearly four years after the recession ended.
Obama’s starting point was 2009 exports of $1.57 trillion. Since then, they have climbed to a record $2.19 trillion in 2012 — about 48 percent to his goal of about $3.14 trillion a year by the start of 2015.
But 2012 exports, while a record, grew just 5.5 percent from those in 2011, down from a 15.9 percent surge from 2010 to 2011. The rate would have to pick up sharply this year and next to meet Obama’s target.
‘‘Some of the headwinds we faced last year have started to improve,’’ said Chad Moutay, economist for the National Association of Manufacturers. ‘‘And I think energy is a game-changer. We definitely have increased the competitiveness of US manufacturing.’’