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Today was one of those days when the U.S. government treated us with both the jobs numbers (for October) and the trade numbers (for September). But just because I posted on the former first doesn’t mean that the latter were humdrum – far from it. And the big story in so many ways was China – along with an important black mark revealed when trade flows are adjusted for inflation.

Specifically, the combined American goods and services trade deficit hit $54.02 billion – just 1.33 percent higher than August’s upwardly revised $53.31 billion, but the second highest monthly total during the current economic recovery. (The highest was February’s $54.96 billion.)

And the prime culprit was the 4.34 percent sequential increase in the immense, chronic U.S. merchandise trade gap with China – to a record $40.24 billion level that represented the third straight monthly all-time high.

This growth means that as of September, this trade shortfall is running 9.91 percent ahead of last year’s annual total – $375.58 billion, which so far has been the record. Also at all-time highs as of September: American goods imports from the People’s Republic. They topped the $50 billion monthly mark for the first time, and were up by 4.32 percent sequentially – possibly because many American companies were rushing their purchases from China ahead of tariffs.

U.S. merchandise exports to China were of course much lower – $9.79 billion in September. The figure was the year’s second lowest (after August’s $9.29 billion) and might have reflected some Chinese front-running of their own government’s retaliatory levies against the United States – although September’s 5.32 percent monthly increase followed a 9.43 percent sequential drop in August.

Contrasting with these China numbers were the September goods trade results with other U.S. trade partners. Specifically, the shortfalls with the European Union, the Eurozone, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, and Canada all narrowed, and by substantial percentages. Moreover, the China-heavy American manufacturing trade deficit declined as well – by 6.13 percent (albeit from a $92.51 billion August total that was a monthly record).

Moving up to the 30,000-foot level, combined U.S. goods and services exports rose by 1.49 percent, to $212.57 billion, from an August figure of $209.46 billion that was revised upward fractionally. That September total was the third highest ever – after the May and June levels of $214.67 billion and $213.20 billion, respectively.

The much greater amount of overall imports was up 1.46 percent on month in September, with the $266.58 billion figure marking a second straight all-time high. (The previous month’s record of $262.75 billion was revised fractionally higher as well.) So some pre-tariff front-running of purchases from abroad looks like it was at work here, too.  

Some other all-time monthly highs achieved in September: services exports ($70.71 billion – a second straight record as well) and services imports ($47.50 billion).

That black mark? The Made in Washington trade deficit. This is the trade shortfall comprised of flow heavily influenced by U.S. Trade agreements and related policy decisions. As such, it leaves out oil and services – since trade in those sectors is in only a very early stage of liberalization. And adjusting it for inflation enables calculating how much trade has been either contributing to or subtracting from after-inflation growth – the measure of the gross domestic product (GDP) that’s most widely followed.

From the start of the current economic recovery, in mid-2009, through the second quarter of this year, the increase in the price-adjusted Made in Washington trade deficit subtracted 14.89 percent from the period’s cumulative real economic growth of $3.3775 trillion. That’s a trade drag of $502.92 billion.

As of the third quarter, the drag increased to 16.60 percent of cumulative recovery inflation-adjusted growth of $3.5374 trillion. That amounts to $587.23 billion worth of lost growth.