As is almost always the case – especially when they’re released the same day as the monthly jobs report – the monthly U.S. trade figures put out by the Census Bureau were practically ignored. And as is almost always the case, that was a big mistake, for the trade figures are a great measure of the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and especially its manufacturing sector – since no sector of the economy faces more and more intense global competition.
Remember – standard theory tells us that international trade is important and necessary in the first place because it spotlights which national industries around the world are the most and least efficient, and therefore which of them should make way for stronger rivals in the interest of maximizing global welfare, or at least downsize dramatically. A handy way to think of it is that countries that trade a given product most successfully (demonstrated by improving trade balances, whether growing surpluses or shrinking deficits) are those that eventually are supposed to produce it most successfully, and vice versa (demonstrated by the opposite trade balance trends).
For all the talk of an American manufacturing renaissance, the new trade data makes clear that literally dozens of key U.S. industries keep failing this crucial test, often in spectacular ways.
Just to convey an idea of how spectacular, here’s a representative list of U.S. manufacturing sectors whose trade deficits have been growing from January-October, 2013 to January-October, 2014 (the latest figures available), and how fast that growth has been. They’re listed in order of the size of their absolute trade deficits for the first ten months of this year:
Pharmaceuticals: +28.76 percent
Telecommunications gear: +8.52 percent
Iron and steel: +67.58 percent
Heavy duty trucks and chassis: +151.85 percent
Metal-cutting machine tools: +2.32 percent
Search, detection, navigation, and guidance instruments: +144.50 percent
Industrial valves: +27.84 percent
Cutting tools and machine tool accessories: +41.45 percent
Automatic environmental controls: +21.22 percent
Ball and roller bearings: +25.69 percent
Metal-forming machine tools: +36.65 percent
To these, incidentally, you can add every automotive-related category except vehicle bodies, stampings, miscellaneous parts (wait a moment on those last two), and finished vehicles. (That takes some of the gloss off that automotive boom story, doesn’t it?)
Equally important, here’s a list of American manufacturing sectors whose trade surpluses have decreased year-to-date 2013 to 2014, from largest to smallest surpluses in absolute terms:
Plastics and resins: -6.19 percent
Oil and gas field machinery and equipment: -10.14 percent
Turbines and turbine generator sets: -3.83 percent
Miscellaneous basic organic chemicals: -67.17 percent
Laboratory instruments: -12.13 percent
Semiconductors and related devices: -21.11 percent
Mining machinery and equipment: -12.15 percent
Electricity measurement and test equipment: -16.73 percent
Farm machinery and equipment: -44.76 percent
Pumps and pumping equipment: -61.20 percent
Motor vehicle metal stampings: -2.07 percent
Electro-medical devices (like CAT scan and MRI machines): -71.02 percent
And let’s not forget the industries which, during this period, saw their surpluses turn into deficits – notably construction equipment and miscellaneous auto parts.
Unquestionably there have been manufacturing trade success stories this past year. Here are some representative industries that have reduced their trade deficits year-to-date (again, from largest absolute deficits to smallest):
Autos and light trucks: -4.49 percent
Broadcast and wireless communications equipment (a category that includes smart phones): -8.75 percent
Computers: -2.18 percent
Medicinal and botanical drugs and vitamins: -12.73 percent
Computer parts: -20.75 percent
Computer storage devices: -8.53 percent
Relays and industrial controls: -6.67 percent
Speed changers, high-speed drives, and gears: -10.95 percent
Special dies, tools, and fixtures: -7.03 percent
Motor vehicle bodies: -23.15 percent
Fluid power valves and hose fittings: -9.76 percent
Finally, some of America’s manufacturing trade winners actually showed increased competitiveness. Here are some of the most prominent industries that boosted their trade surpluses year-to-date, with the biggest surplus industries listed first:
Aerospace products and parts: +4.88 percent (As is not the case with industries like autos, the data enabling a breakdown of aerospace trade balances into parts trade and finished aircraft trade are no longer available.)
Semiconductor manufacturing equipment: +44.30 percent
Pesticides and other agricultural chemicals: +4.51 percent
Miscellaneous general purpose machinery: +3.80 percent
Non-diagnostic biologic products (vaccines): +36.81 percent
Miscellaneous basic inorganic chemicals: +175.52 percent
Non-costume jewelry: +218.63 percent
Optical instruments and lenses: +268.00 percent
Ships: +1,438.81 percent
Power boilers and heat exchangers: +93.18 percent
And one sector – ethyl alcohols – turned a sizable deficit into a much bigger surplus during this period.
As may be apparent from many of the very large percentage changes immediately above, the absolute numbers in question are often very small. And in fact, as I reported last Friday, so far, at nearly $606 billion, the U.S. manufacturing trade deficit this year is running more than 12 percent ahead of last year’s pace – which was a record.
Some of this overall short- and long-term deterioration, however, is due to labor-intensive sectors like apparel and toys, as well as to many consumer electronics products, that Americans are unlikely to make again in significant numbers, and which are not critical to the economy’s future. What’s genuinely alarming is how much eroded manufacturing competitiveness is being displayed by high-value sectors whose importance no serious person questions — and that only becomes apparent if you look at the details.