You say U.S. manufacturing jobs keep growing too slowly? You say manufacturing’s trade deficit remains too high, and its exports inadequate? According to two big new government reports on the state of the American economy this morning, if you do, you should also be saying (with beaucoup de snark) “Thanks, Boeing!”
For it keeps getting clearer that the aerospace giant’s safety woes and resulting production halt of its (once) popular 737 Max model are sandbagging both measures of manufacturing’s performance – and not trivially. Don’t forget the silver lining, however. Despite the Boeing effect, domestic industry has been holding up encouragingly well.
The evidence is clearest from the trade figures. As reported last month in RealityChek, if not for a big deterioration in the civilian aircraft trade balance (until recently the sector of the entire economy with the biggest trade surplus), the full-year 2019 manufacturing trade shortfall would barely have grown over the 2018 level. And since industry itself increased output last year in pre-inflation terms, (at least through the latest – third quarter – data available), that represented a heartening sign that domestic manufacturing was becoming more self-reliant.
In January, the manufacturing shortfall actually fell month-to-month (by 0.38 percent, from $82.24 billion to $81.93 billion, and $850 million in absolute terms). The mix wasn’t exactly ideal: Imports were down 3.11 percent, but the value of exports (which are much smaller) fell by 5.58 percent.
But the civilian aircraft trade surplus plunged 44.43 percent – from $3.06 billion to $1.70 billion. So in January, had the sector simply equaled its December trade performance, the January manufacturing deficit would have been not $81.93 billion but $80.57 billion – the lowest total since last March’s $76.96 billion, and a monthly drop of 2.03 percent, not 0.38 percent. Further, manufacturing exports would have been $87.93 billion rather than $86.25 billion – or down only 3.74 percent, not 5.58 percent.
The picture is muddier for manufacturing employment because the data for civilian aircraft and their parts is reported one month after most other industry-by-industry jobs statistics. Another complication: The new jobs report overall goes up to February.
More puzzling still: Although latest statistics for the Boeing-related categories are January, they’re little changed from the December totals even though the 737 Max production suspension was announced in the middle of that month.
But it’s still legit to wonder whether they would’ve been better without the Boeing crisis. And how much better? Moreover, the vast aircraft supply chain encompasses dozens of manufacturing sectors beyond the engines and parts themselves. After all, these systems are in turn made of any number of components and materials. Boeing’s difficulties, therefore, could have been holding back manufacturing job growth broadly speaking for months.
Even so, industry as a whole added 15,000 jobs sequentially in February – it’s best such performance (except for a November increase that was aided by the end of the General Motors strike) since January, 2019’s 20,000.
And let’s not forget – industry achieved this employment gain even though the “Phase One” trade deal with China has left stiff U.S. tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of imported goods from China, as well as on much foreign steel and aluminum.
No doubt the coronavirus outbreak could send the manufacturing performance arrows pointing down again, or leveling off, in the next few months. But the new jobs and trade data make clear that despite an external (Boeing) shock that has nothing to do with President Trump’s trade wars, and despite the trade curbs he has enacted, domestic manufacturing has been on the rebound lately, and showed impressive resilience that bodes well for its future – and the entire economy’s.