Given that two of President Trump’s main trade policy aims have been to reduce the gargantuan U.S. global trade deficit and the comparably huge trade gap with China, it’s been entirely predictable that the chortlers are out with claims that he’s failing on both grounds. (See, e.g., here and here.)
What’s just as predictable? The chortlers are missing the main story: On both fronts, Mr. Trump’s first full year in office (the time-span for which the latest complete data are available), showed noteworthy progress. The main evidence? For both the world as a whole and for China, U.S. trade shortfalls grew more slowly during his first full year in office, even as the American economy grew faster.
As standard economic theory holds, that’s not supposed to happen. Quite the opposite: As growth speeds up, all else equal, trade deficit increases should be expected, as the growth boosts purchases of imports.
As RealityChek readers know, this pattern has been broken often in recent decades. And Trump Year One is an example, especially when the trade flows most heavily influenced by trade policy decisions are examined.
By that I mean what I call the Made in Washington trade deficit – the gap resulting by measuring imports and exports while stripping out oil and services, because trade liberalization in those sectors is in its infancy.
The contrast between the first full Trump year and the previous comparable period (the baseline for which came during former President Obama’s final year in office) is especially instructive. From the second quarter of 2016 to the second quarter of 2017, the Made in Washington trade deficit grew 1.72 times faster than the gross domestic product (GDP) in pre-inflation terms, and the China merchandise deficit grew 1.65 times faster.
Yet from the second quarter of 2017 through the second quarter of 2018 (using the latest GDP figures available), the Made in Washington shortfall increased only half (0.49 times) as fast as the economy overall, while the China goods deficit increased 1.33 times faster than GDP.
Moreover, the first Trump year compares well with the entirety of the current economic recovery, which of course began in mid-2009, early in the first Obama term. We can toss out the results from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010, since the second quarter of 2009 marked the end of the previous recession. But from second quarter 2010-2011 to second quarter 2016-2017, the Made in Washington trade shortfall grew as slowly compared with the economy as it did during the first Trump period only once – from the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of 2011 (0.44 times faster). In fact, between the second quarters of 2013-2014, and 2014-2015, this trade shortfall surged by 4.68 and 4.07 times faster than growth.
The relative growth rate of the U.S. goods trade deficit with China diminished during the first full Trump year as well – from 1.65 times faster than the economy, to 1.33 times faster.
On China trade, the immediate pre-Trump years overall look more impressive in comparison with the first full Trump year, but hardly in a slam dunk way. Between second quarter 2010-2011 and second quarter 2016-2017, the China shortfall grew slower compared with growth than it did during the first Trump year three times (2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2015-2016) and faster the other four years.
It’s completely legit to criticize Mr. Trump’s focus on the global trade deficit or the China trade deficit or any trade deficit (although I regard such criticism as wrong for various reasons, including the one analyzed here). And it’s completely legit to criticize other elements of the Trump trade policies (as I have numerous times – e.g., here and here). What’s not legitimate, though, is to accuse the President of failing to make headway in his trade deficit reduction goals – unless you have no interest in the most pertinent facts.