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There’s no doubt that the pre-CCP Virus U.S. economic data that still keep coming out (and that will continue coming out for months) has at best strongly limited utility nowadays – with one gigantic caveat. They speak volumes about how the economy was faring before the virus’ invasion, and the message they’re sending is especially important for evaluating the effects of President Trump’s tariff-heavy trade policies.

Specifically, they make abundantly clear that the economy was humming along just (and in many ways, increasingly) fine even though steep Trump levies have remained on literally hundreds of billions of dollar worth of potential goods imports – mainly on products from China and steel and aluminum from numerous countries. So you can take the mountain of claims that these duties would wreck American prosperity and throw them on the trash heap. And new reinforcement for this analysis has appeared this morning in the form of the latest official monthly U.S. trade figures (for February) from the Census Bureau.

First, let’s look at the growth numbers, as reported in terms of a measure called “gross domestic product” (GDP). It gauges the nation’s output of goods and services, and the most closely watched figures are those adjusted for inflation.

There’s no doubt that real growth slowed from the time the first Trump-specific tariffs (on metals) were imposed in March, 2018. That year, after-inflation GDP expanded by a healthy 2.93 percent. But the rate slowed notably during that year, certainly at least coinciding with the impact of the tariffs taking hold. It’s also important to point out that China duties began in mid-year, were increased, and plans for many more were announced. (See the timeline linked immediately above for the specifics). 

Growth slowed in full year, 2019, but just to 2.33 percent – still solid by recent U.S. (meaning post-2008 financial crisis) standards. And the nation was dealing not only with trade war fallout, but the safety problems plaguing aircraft giant Boeing and its vast national supply chain.

We don’t have constant dollar GDP results for the first quarter of this year yet, but two regional branches of the Federal Reserve system try to track growth on a timely, ongoing basis. And the pre-virus grades they both gave the economy were encouraging. According to the Atlanta Fed, first quarter after-inflation growth was proceeding at a better-than-three percent annual pace through late March – even though virus infections and deaths were rising troublingly.

(It’s crucial to note, especially in light of shockingly bad recent virus-era growth – and in fact contraction – estimates from private sector economists, that such annualized figures describe growth rates as if the quarterly results lasted for an entire year. That is, the growth or contraction they describe does not represent actual GDP change for that quarter – and as a result, they shouldn’t be taken to revealing that the increases or decreases that are forecast will take place all at once.)

The New York Fed’s estimates tend to be lower than Atlanta’s, but they still predicted an annualized 2.14 percent inflation-adjusted first quarter growth rate as late as February 28. By March 27, that estimate had fallen to 1.68 percent annualized.

And what’s happened to the U.S. trade deficit for the first two months of 2020 – in other words, the first two-thirds of the first quarter of the year? By the broadest measure, which counts both goods and services, it’s down 18.71 percent year-on-year. (This and the following trade numbers are presented in pre-inflation terms, since such figures dominate the detailed results contained in the monthly trade reports.) Better yet, decline has been accelerating. Between December and January, the total trade gap fell by 6.44 percent – from $48.61 billion to $45.48 billion. From January to February, it sank by another 12.20 percent – nearly twice as fast – to $39.93 billion. (The initially reported January number was revised up slightly today.)

That February figure was the lowest since the $39.92 billion registered in April, 2016 – when the economy was growing only a bit more slowly, but when there were no serious problems facing then-export standout Boeing. Moreover, the February monthly drop was the biggest since March, 2018 (12.34 percent) – just as the first Trump metals tariffs were coming into effect.

As known by RealityChek regulars, the best way to judge how trade policy decisions have affected the trade figures is to look at the data measuring the nation’s trade flows minus oil and services (which have never been greatly affected by trade agreements or tariffs). For the first two months of this year, this Made in Washington trade deficit is off by 9.64 percent in pre-inflation terms. Here, too, the rate of decrease is getting faster, with February’s sequential 7.97 percent plummet the biggest such decrease since the 9.45 percent nosedive that took place in January, 2019 – as the China trade war was peaking in terms of tariff impositions. And the $60.76 billion February total is the lowest for a single month since September, 2017’s $60.65 billion.

Speaking of China, a combination of Beijing’s widespread CCP Virus lockdowns and Trump tariffs brought the February U.S. goods trade gap with the People’s Republic all the way down to $16 billion. That’s the lowest such total since the $15.65 billion recorded in Great Recession-ary March, 2009. And the monthly falloff (38.62 percent) was the biggest since December, 1993’s 39.46 percent. That was more than 26 years ago!

Moreover, even though U.S. merchandise exports to China slipped by 5.55 percent on month, U.S. goods imports from China dropped by 31.45 percent. The actual U.S. export level of $6.82 billion was indeed the lowest since June, 2010’s $6.73 billion. But the import level of $22.81 billion was the lowest monthly total since Great Recession-ary May, 2009’s $22.73 billion. And the sequential import drop was the biggest since the 34.07 percent of April, 1986 – nearly 34 years ago, when the much smaller volumes of U.S.-China trade made big percentage moves much easier to produce.

Also important – even as the China year-to-date goods trade deficit has declined by 28.99 percent, the U.S. goods trade gap with Pacific Rim countries (a grouping that does not include Western Hemisphere countries like America’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement partners) is off by 25.30 percent. So say so long to the claim that the Trump tariffs have simply shifted the deficit to other Asian countries.

The news was equally good on the manufacturing trade front. America’s mammoth manufacturing trade deficit shrank on month in February from $81.93 billion to $63.01 billion. The February total is the lowest such figure since February, 2017’s $60.47 billion. Meanwhile, the 23.09 percent monthly drop is the biggest since December, 2012’s 27.11 percent decrease.

Further, the deficit fell for all the right reasons. Despite the continued overall economic growth, U.S. manufacturing imports were off 8.98 percent, to $153.07 billion while exports actually grew – by 4.42 percent, to $90.06 billion.

As a result, the manufacturing trade shortfall is down year-to-date so far as well – by 9.65 percent, from $160.43 billion to $144.94 billion.