Since President Trump has focused so much of his trade policy on reducing America’s enormous and chronic deficits, it’s not surprising that the press has noted that, under his presidency so far, the trade gap has widened.
And oddly, in one respect, they just got some data showing that in the one area where the President had been able to claim progress (but hasn’t to my knowledge) – slowing growth in the deficit despite accelerating growth in the economy as a whole. As of the last monthly U.S. trade figures, the trend has once again gone south, though the economy’s still strong growth plus a stronger dollar – which makes American-origin goods and services more expensive than their foreign counterparts – are no doubt overwhelmingly responsible.
But a closer examination of the statistics reveals an important new front on which Mr. Trump’s efforts appear to be succeeding – manufacturing trade, which still dominates overall U.S. trade flows. Specifically, signs have emerged that, under his administration, domestic manufacturing is regaining the ability to boost output without relying more and more on inputs from foreign factories (which of course boost the trade shortfall) In fact, during the Trump administration’s first full data year, American manufacturing’s production has grown faster than its trade deficit – indicating that domestic goods have been replacing imports. And this progress has been made despite a speed-up in manufacturing production growth, and that stronger dollar.
Continuation of this trend would be great news for the nation’s economy. Further, it would represent a major departure from the record of the previous administration, during which the growth of the manufacturing trade deficit vastly exceeded industry’s own growth.
Actually, manufacturing trade deficit has been greatly outgrowing the sector’s output for nearly twenty years. In 2000, the trade gap represented 25.54 percent of total domestic manufacturing production (according to an output measure called value added). As of the second quarter of this year (the latest available data), that figure stood at 42.02 percent. In absolute terms, the trade gap increased by a factor of 2 and a half, while manufacturing production grew by a little over 50 percent. (All figures are stated in pre-inflation dollars.)
But this manufacturing trade deficit’s “out-performance” really took off during the Obama years. Let’s give the former President’s trade record a break by throwing out the data for the first year of the economic recovery (and his first year in office). After all, the global trade contraction during the last recession was so dramatic that the trade “snapback” effect once the recovery began was unusually strong, and couldn’t last.
From 2010 through 2016, however, while American manufacturing output advanced by 16.04 percent, the manufacturing trade deficit jumped by 52.47 percent. That’s more than three times faster. In fact, between 2015 and 2016, the manufacturing trade deficit increased by 3.23 percent even though manufacturing output actually fell by 1.78 percent.
Between 2016 and 2017 (the Trump administration’s first year), the manufacturing trade deficit rose less than twice as fast (7.31 percent) as industry’s output (4.53 percent). And I don’t think it’s coincidence that this manufacturing growth rate represented the best annual performance since that first recovery year of 2009-2010 (5.58 percent), which was surely strengthened by the aforementioned snapback effect.
We only have partial 2018 figures, of course, but they show even more improvement along these lines. Between the second quarter of last year and the second quarter of this year, manufacturing output was up a sizzling 8.08 percent. But the manufacturing trade deficit grew more slowly – by 7.83 percent. That combination hasn’t been seen since 2012-2013, when industry’s output improved by 3.36 percent while the trade gap widened by only 0.77 percent.
The following year, though, manufacturing’s trade shortfall soared more than four times faster than its production. For all I know, this coming year could be a repeat of that depressing precedent. For now, however, it’s definitely evidence that the Trump trade and manufacturing policies are winning.