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Remarks at the Americas Competitiveness Forum Opening Ceremony

Monday, November 15, 2010

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke

Remarks at the Americas Competitiveness Forum Opening Ceremony

Thank you, Mayor Reed, for the kind introduction.  

I want to thank you, and the city and people of Atlanta, for your gracious hospitality in co-hosting the 2010 Americas Competitiveness Forum.

This is the fourth annual Americas Competitiveness Forum, and Atlanta has been our co-host and partner now for three of the four.

On behalf of President Obama and all of us at the U.S Department of Commerce, I am delighted to join Mayor Reed in welcoming everyone here this morning.  

With nearly one thousand high-level leaders in government, business, and academia here from throughout the Americas, the ACF comes at important moment for each of us.  

There are myriad challenges nations in our hemisphere face.  

We are still working to recover from a global economic crisis the likes of which many of us have never seen.  We face the urgent need to expand jobs and opportunity for our people.

At the same time, we continue to face issues that were pressing well before his crisis hit such as an overheating climate and major disparities in access to education and wealth.

To solve these challenges, we’re going to need to work together.  We’re going to need every bright mind we can find to push the envelope in technological innovation, in business creation and in public policy to address these challenges.

Seeking closer cooperation among every nation represented here today has been a priority since the very beginning of the Obama Administration.

At the Summit of the Americas last year, President Obama committed to forging a new era of engagement and cooperation with our neighbors in the Hemisphere.

He pledged that the United States will seek an equal partnership, one built on mutual respect, shared values, and common interests.  

And I’m here in Atlanta today to once again renew that pledge.

Because have no doubt:  the nations of North and South America will rise and fall together.

Every nation at the ACF arrives with her own strengths and expertise.  

Ultimately, many of the discussions held today and tomorrow will lay the groundwork for boosting trade among nations in this hemisphere.  

I come from Washington State, where I had the honor of serving as Governor for eight years.

And I saw up close how indispensable trade within the Americas was to the well-being of my constituents and to the United States.

And the trade numbers certainly bear this out.  Last year, two-way merchandise trade within the region totaled $446 billon.

Half of U.S. energy imports come from the Western Hemisphere, and we are the region’s largest investor and source of remittances.

But just looking at this trade in dollars misses its real significance.

When you get right down to it, trade between the United States, and the entire Western Hemisphere is really about one thing.

Unlocking our full potential…The potential of our people…The potential of our businesses…And the potential we have to build a world that is safer and more prosperous for our children.

We can do this by creating an open investment and trade environment that allows businesses, entrepreneurs and policy makers to bring their respective strengths to the table and spur the type of innovation and economic growth that we could never achieve alone.

When we do that, we open up some amazing avenues for collaboration.

Take a look around the Hemisphere at large scale programs being deployed to lay the groundwork for even more innovative and productive communities.

  • In Brazil, one percent of all tax revenues in Sao Paulo are earmarked for the State of Sao Paulo Research Foundation, which is one of the main funding agencies for scientific and technological research in the country.
  • And Brazil is applying cutting-edge Smart Grid technologies to reduce consumer and commercial energy losses stemming from its overburdened, aging power infrastructure.
  • Uruguay has made innovation a national propriety, establishing the National Agency for Research and Innovation to mobilize creative talents and promote innovative research.
  • And Costa Rica is fast-becoming a world leader in addressing climate change and reducing its carbon emission.  It is already getting more than 85 percent of its electricity from renewable energy resources like hydroelectric dams, geothermal sources and wind power.  And if it can reach its ambitious target of carbon neutrality by 2021, it would be the first country in the world to reach carbon neutrality.

These ambitious programs are beneficial on their own.  But the know-how each country gains from pursuing them is also incredibly valuable.  
What unites so many of these forward thinking initiatives throughout the hemisphere is their reliance on innovation.  And this is something the Obama Administration believes is the key to the global economic recovery.   
Since coming into office, the Obama Administration has taken critical steps to reinvigorate the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that has always guided the American people by:

  • Substantially boosting investments in a 21st century infrastructure and manufacturing; and
  • Increasing funding for research and technology, like clean energy, emerging technologies and biotech that will lead to new industries and new jobs.

But innovation on its own is only the first step of the process.  We’ve got to ensure new inventions and new ideas don’t simply end up in academic journals, but instead move into the real world in the form of new products and services that help make people’s lives better.  

And the best way to great ideas to market is by fostering competition and letting more and more people and business compete to get great ideas to market.  

What do we see as essential elements of competitiveness?

Small and medium sized businesses development is certainly one.

SMEs are frequently the driving force behind innovation -- and the commercialization of new products and services that are the lifeblood of our global economy.

Consider the fact that firms less than 5 years old – many of which are considered small businesses – have accounted for nearly ALL increased employment in America’s private sector over the last three decades.

But small businesses development must also mean inclusive development.  

That is why since Day One, the Obama administration has put the empowerment of all SME’s and entrepreneurs at the top of our agenda – and worked so hard to knock down barriers entrepreneurship, especially among underserved communities.

This is a strategy the entire Hemisphere should make a priority to pursue.

Throughout the Americas, there are over 120 million micro, small and medium sized enterprises.  They account for 90 percent of the total number of businesses. And they create two-thirds of the jobs in the hemisphere.

It’s been said that one of the best investments a government, a business, or a non-for-profit can make is giving women access to credit.

In the past two years, this Administration has already funneled 12,000 SBA loans worth $3 billion to women small business owners.

We did this not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s effective.  

Small businesses along with other private sector innovators have proven, again and again, to be major engines of innovation and growth.

And I believe the job of the policymakers in every country in this region is to straighten and smooth out the road ahead for our innovators and entrepreneurs – no matter their color, creed or religion.

I hope that all nations participating in this ACF will join me in working towards knocking down many of the barriers that inhibit SMEs from fully participating in the global economy.

I do believe that many Western Hemisphere nations are beginning to recognize the policies and practices that move us in the wrong direction on trade.  

It's a credit to leaders throughout the region that even in the midst of this historic recession, the turns towards outright protectionist that we saw in previous economic crises have been rare.

But there is no question that U.S. businesses and other private sector leaders in the hemisphere continue to have concerns with policies and practices that inhibit their ability to compete in the region.

No matter where they hail from, most businesses are looking for the same thing when operating in a foreign market.  

They want stability, predictability and reliability.  

They want to know that both the letter and spirit of tax and customs laws are administered in a way that promotes an even playing field.  

They want to ensure that their access to raw materials and their exposure to currency risks will be dictated by market, and not political forces.

And these business leaders get justifiably worried when they see countries making counterproductive decisions in these areas.

As a result of the reduction or elimination of tariffs in many markets around the world, some countries have been resorting to non-tariff barriers to limit foreign competition.  

They are imposing costly and redundant testing and compliance procedures, non-transparent standard-setting or regulatory procedures, and other requirements that act as impediments to free trade.

Business leader see other countries requiring standards unique to their market or region or acting unilaterally as a choke point in a supply chain.

While some of these policies may be well intended or designed to support domestic industries, the upshot is a trade environment that discourages the cooperation and the investment that is so integral to unlocking the potential of our people and our economies

Governments and businesses must be unified and insistent in opposing such policies.

If Western Hemisphere countries are willing to continue making progress on these issues, they will find a willing partner in the United States.  A partner that is committed to building an international trading system that benefits everybody.

In fact, working to knock down these trade barriers is one of the key planks of President Obama’s National Export Initiative, along with making more credit available for exporters, and increasing U.S. government trade promotion.

The NEI seeks to double U.S. exports by 2015, creating millions of new jobs in America and providing the citizens of our trading partners with a wide array of new goods and services.

Our regional partners will be absolutely essential to meeting this goal.  The U.S. consumer can no longer be the consumer of last resort, and we must look to the strong increase in domestic demand among a number of regional members as a key way to rebalance the world economy

Let me conclude by touching on education - which is as you all know is the indispensable foundation we need to spur innovation.

In his inaugural address, Uruguay President Mujica said, “Allow me to emphasize education, education, education. And again education.”

President Mujica is exactly right, and Uruguay is taking action to back up those words.    

Uruguay is currently implementing its One Laptop Per Child Program to provide children throughout the country with access to computers and the Internet and to prepare them for tomorrow’s workplace.

In the U.S., improving our education system is also a top priority. It’s why we're working so hard to invest in our community colleges, with the President setting a goal of awarding an additional 5 million community college degrees and certificates by 2020.

These investments in education are going to teach millions of young people how to solve problems.  And we could use that right now.

The more we can share ideas, along with goods and services, the better off all of us will be.  Regional issues are not open to “one size fits all” solutions.  But there are common challenges that can be addressed to improve competitiveness.

And I look forward to taking part in this process with each of you.

Thank you.