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Let’s do something a little different this time in RealityChek‘s monthly examination of the Federal Reserve’s latest domestic U.S. manufacturing output figures – which came out this morning and bring the story through December and therefore through full-year 2019 (at least preliminarily).

Instead of focusing on the industries most seriously affected by President Trump’s tariff-heavy trade policies (mainly the metals tariffs, given big measurement problems with the China duties), let’s look at the question of whether manufacturing remains in recession – which has big, trade war-related implications because this Trump campaign is widely blamed for many of manufacturing’s recent weakness.

There’s considerable evidence that the answer is “Yes” – that industry’s inflation-adjusted production (the measure used by the Fed) is back in growth mode, though just barely.

But the question remains an open one. That’s partly because the answer depends on which baseline date you use for the start of the manufacturing recession, which unit of time you use (along with which particular manufacturing output gauge you favor).

Among that evidence tilting toward “Yes” – today’s Fed data.  Specifically, December’s 0.16 percent monthly increase in constant dollar manufacturing output means that, since June, such production is up. Now it’s only up by 0.04 percent. But since that’s a cumulative increase over the last six months (i.e., two consecutive quarters), the technical definition of recession no longer applies.

Or does it? The same Fed figures show that, between December, 2018 and December, 2019, after-inflation manufacturing output was down – by 1.26 percent. So the recession is still on, right?

Maybe. But use another baseline – April, 2018. As RealityChek regulars know, that’s the first full month in which significant Trump tariffs went into effect (on imports of aluminum and steel). Since then, though, price-adjusted manufacturing production has grown by 0.38 percent. This result, therefore, indicates that, although the President’s trade policies seem to have delivered a hit to domestic manufacturing, it was pretty negligible, and it’s already over (at least for now).

To complicate matters still further, as RealityChek reported last July, according to the Fed’s figures, manufacturing has suffered several recessions since the current economic recovery began (in the middle of 2009).  Indeed, as of this morning, it  still hasn’t recovered from the Great Recession that began at the end of 2007!

At the same time, another set of U.S. government data support the conclusion that there has been no trade war-related manufacturing recession during the Trump years – or manufacturing recession of any kind.

These statistics come from the Commerce Department’s “GDP [Gross Domestic Output] by Industry” reports. They use the same measure used by the Fed for tracking manufacturing growth (or contraction), but they’re kept on a quarterly, not monthly, basis. As a result, these numbers aren’t issued as frequently.

Yet the latest results came out January 9, and although they stop at the third quarter of last year, they show that in real terms, domestic manufacturing under Mr. Trump never shrank on net for two straight quarters, much less over any longer time frame. Here are the quarterly change figures:

2Q 16-1Q 17 :+0.32%

1Q 17-2Q 17: -0.7%

2Q 17-3Q 17: +0.35%

3Q 17-4Q 17: +1.22%

4Q 17-1Q 18: +0.38%

1Q 18-2Q 18: +0.09%

2Q 18-3Q 18: +1.38%*

3Q 18-4Q 18: +0.38%

4Q 18-1Q 19: +0.43%

1Q 19-2Q 19: -0.38%

2Q 19-3Q 19: +0.67%

*those Trump metals tariffs began in this quarter

Indeed, what comes through loud and clear from them is that not only has there been no manufacturing recession on President Trump’s watch, but there hasn’t even been an output slowdown.

It’s always possible to point to the counter-factual – that is, in this instance, to try to figure out how matters would look without any Trump tariffs, or similar Trump efforts to transform U.S. trade policy. And it’s certainly conceivable that domestic industry would have fared even better had Trump abjured all tariffs.

But that’s not the only counter-factual. For example, what if the rest of the world had been able to deal with the pressure created by China’s steel dumping by dumping its own steel into the United States (which hasn’t happened because the Trump metal tariffs were global)? What if China itself had remained completely free to send artificially low-priced (because heavily subsidized) product into the US market? What if President Trump had kept the United States in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), with its wide open back door for imports with lots of Chinese content, while China remained under no obligation whatever to open its market to U.S. products? It’s easy to see that U.S.-based manufacturing could have gone on the critical list.

What’s certain, however, is that according to the most authoritative data available, claims of tariffs-led disaster for U.S. manufacturing have been either much ado about nothing, or much ado about very little. Could the coming months finally bear out the worst fears of cheerleaders for pre-Trump trade policies and other globalists? Of course. But that’s simply speculation, which counts much less than facts.