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Since we’re clearly well into the 2020 presidential campaign, comparisons understandably have begun to be made by political and even economic types between President Trump’s economic record and that of his White House predecessor, Barack Obama.

In that vein, today’s new official U.S. figures on economic growth contain some good news for Mr. Trump, his supporters – and in fact for Americans collectively:  Even though they confirm that the nation’s growth this year is indeed slowing, and the trade deficit targeted for reduction by the President is going up, the latest numbers on the gross domestic product (GDP) also show that inflation-adjusted growth (the growth figure most closely followed) during the Trump years is still less closely associated with trade deficit increases than under Obama. In other words, by one important measure, the economy’s expansion is healthier – more of it is being generated by producing goods and services at home, instead of consuming imported goods and services.

The new numbers – which are the first of two sets of revisions for the second quarter of the year that will be released this year – don’t indicate progress at first glance. The real trade deficit, originally reported at $978.7 billion on an annualized basis, is now judged to have been $982.5 billion. That’s just a bit less than the record $983 billion figure that was hit in the fourth quarter of last year.

Moreover, total exports were revised down ($2.5205 trillion annualized to $2.5165 trillion annualized). Total imports were less than first reported as well, but only by a hair – $3.4990 trillion rather than $3.4992 trillion. And worse, quarter-to-quarter after-inflation total exports are now off by 1.48 percent, and after-inflation total imports are up 0.02 percent. Indeed, that real export fall-off was the biggest quarterly decrease since the depths of the last recession – when they cratered by 8.08 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

But despite this seeming backsliding, the Trump record has been much more impressive when examined in the context of economic growth. This conclusion emerges by examining how fast the economy has increased in constant dollar terms versus how fast the trade deficit has widened under the two administrations. Here are the calendar year annual rates of change for each, followed by the ratio between the two:

Obama years

                        real GDP       real trade deficit      deficit growth to GDP growth

09-10:          2.56 percent       16.73 percent                        6.54:1

10-11:          1.55 percent         0.39 percent                        0.25:1

11-12:          2.25 percent        -0.09 percent                      -0.04:1

12-13:          1.84 percent        -6.30 percent                      -3.42:1

13-14:         2.53 percent          8.33 percent                        3.29:1

14-15:         2.91 percent        25.02 percent                        8.60:1

15-16:         1.69 percent          8.61 percent                        5:09:1

Trump years

16-17:        2.37 percent          8.43 percent                        3.56:1

17-18:        2.93 percent          8.37 percent                        2.86:1

These tables show that only once during the Obama years (2013-14) did the economy grow at Trump-like rates while keeping real trade deficit growth within modest Trump-like ranges.  And although the that real trade deficit did shrink in absolute terms in two of the Obama years (2011-12 and 2012-13), economic growth during those two years were subpar. 

Moreover, the 2017-18 Trump results were distorted by major tariff front-running – the rush by importers to get their goods into the United States before announced tariffs raised their prices.

In addition, although 2019 isn’t yet finished, the Trump ratios so far look relatively good as well – especially for the first quarter.

                           real GDP     real trade deficit      deficit growth to GDP growth

4Q18-1Q19:    3.06 percent    -3.97 percent                        -1.30:1

1Q19-2Q19:    2.02 percent     4.07 percent                          2.01:1

The Trump record looks better still when presented on a rolling four quarters basis. This time the frame of reference will be a little different. We’ll focus on the high growth Obama period through the end of that administration, and compare it with the high growth Trump period through the present.

Obama years

                          real GDP        real trade deficit      deficit growth to GDP growth

1Q14-1Q15:   3.98 percent       26.68 percent                       6.70:1

2Q14-2Q15:   3.35 percent       21.34 percent                       6.37:1

3Q14-3Q15    2.44 percent       30.60 percent                     12.54:1

4Q14-4Q15:   1.90 percent       21.83 percent                     11.49:1

1Q15-1Q16:   1.62 percent       11.72 percent                       7.23:1

2Q15-2Q16:   1.34 percent         9.59 percent                      7.16:1

3Q15-3Q16:   1.56 percent         2.42 percent                      1.55:1

4Q15-4Q16:   2.03 percent       10.87 percent                      5.35:1

1Q16-1Q17:   2.10 percent         6.92 percent                      3.30:1

Trump years

4Q16-4Q17:   2.80 percent         5.90 percent                      2.11:1

1Q17-1Q18:   2.86 percent         6.34 percent                      2.22:1

2Q17-2Q18:   3.20 percent         0.06 percent                      0.19:1

3Q17-3Q18:   3.13 percent       15.44 percent                      4.93:1

4Q17-4Q18    2.52 percent       11.22 percent                      4.45:1

1Q18-1Q19:   2.65 percent         6.76 percent                     2.55:1

2Q18-2Q19:   2.28 percent       15.52 percent                     6.81:1

Again, under the Trump administration, the economy has managed to expand healthily in real terms while keeping the trade deficit’s increase under control much more often than under the Obama administration. Although the third and fourth quarter figures look like they undermine this case, in fact, they clearly demonstrate the impact of tariff front-running.  The only genuine fly in the Trump ointment so far: that final set of figures, when the price-adjusted trade deficit rose 6.81 times faster than the economy grew in those terms, while the rate of overall growth declined. And unfortunately, when it comes to analyzing these trends going forward, because of Mr. Trump’s new tariff announcements, front-running is likely to continue for the time being.

Even with this tariff front-running – and especially if the front-running doesn’t throw off the figures excessively – an economy growing faster relative to its trade deficit isn’t the sexiest economic achievement to brag about. But is it completely unreasonable to think that a supposed master-brander and pitchman like President Trump can’t rise to the challenge?