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This is how bad this morning’s official US. trade figures (for July) looked at first glance for folks like me – who value trade deficit reduction, and believe that trade policies like President Trump’s can make a real difference: When I began examining the data, even though I kept telling myself, “It’s only one month’s worth of statistics,” I scarcely knew what to despair about most.

Yet the “at first glance” point matters a lot. Because when you dig into the weeds, you’ll find plenty of evidence making clear that much of the deterioration had nothing to do with trade policy at all. And the evidence comes in two tables in these monthly trade reports on which I usually pass: Exhibit 7 and Exhibit 8. They cover U.S. exports and imports of goods “by End-Use Category and Commodity” and they provide the report’s most detailed picture of which areas of the economy have performed best and worst trade-wise during the month covered.

They’re not as detailed as those available from the U.S. International Trade Commission’s interactive search engine, but that database isn’t yet updated, so let’s go with what we have to begin seeing exactly where the biggest goods trade deficit increases came in July. (Goods trade, also called merchandise trade, makes up the bulk of U.S. trade flows, and it’s relatively unaffected by the policy decisions made by Washington – including by trade-minded Presidents like Donald Trump – mainly because international negotiations to deal with barriers in these sectors are still in pretty early stages)

Again, from the 30,000-foot level, the July results look terrible. The goods trade shortfall hit $80.91 billion – $9.26 billion, or 12.92 percent, higher than the June figure of $71.65 billion (which mercifully was revised down slightly). That increase proportionately is dwarfed by the record 31.60 jump of March, 1993. But that nearly 18-year old all-time high can be disregarded pretty easily, both because the law of small numbers is at work here (i.e., when you’re dealing with small absolute numbers, relatively small absolute changes can result in outsized percentage changes), and because back in those days, U.S. trade flows were heavily affected by oil trade – another sector of the economy rarely subject to trade policy decisions.

So what mainly accounted for that $9.26 billion merchandise import surge? First of all, we know that more than all of it ($9.94 billion) came in non-oil goods trade. As known by RealityChek regulars, those are the trade flows most heavily influenced by U.S. trade policy. So this increase in the “Made in Washington” deficit seems to reflect badly on decisions made in Washington. Drilling down a little deeper, manufacturing emerges as an even bigger culprit. Its $89.15 billion June trade gap ballooned to $104.63 billion in July – a rise of $15.48 billion. Not so incidentally, that manufacturing trade deficit is the worst ever in U.S. history, eclipsing the $101.65 billion recorded for October, 2018.

Nearly as interesting, though: China trade – where the President has been fighting a war – was not the biggest problem, as the manufacturing-dominated goods gap with the People’s Republic rose by just $3.22 billion. And neither the 11.35 percent on-month increase nor the $31.62 billion total goods gap was anywhere close to a record. 

So we’re back to manufacturing, and figuring out where the big deficit widening took place. Here’s where Exibits 7 and 8 matter.

What they tell us is that the monthly worsening of the merchandise trade deficit was highly concentrated in a handful of industries, and that these latest developments either have little or nothing to do with the Trump tariffs, or actually  demonstrate their effectiveness in widely overlooked ways.

Most relevant of all here is the automotive sector. Between June and July, the deficit in vehicles and parts combined increased by just under $3.20 billion. That represents more than a fifth of the sequential worsening of the manufacturing trade deficit, and nearly a third of the difference in the non-oil goods deficit. But the problem says little about the Trump trade policies, and a great deal about the reopening of U.S. automotive sector in late spring and early summer after the CCP Virus led to its almost complete shutdown in March and April.

From May through July, total American automotive production nearly tripled in real terms, according to the Federal Reserve’s industrial production reports. So it’s no surprise that since production in this industry is so globalized, and thus so many of its parts and materials (and the parts of the parts) are still imported, its trade deficit ballooned, too.

Then there are cell phones. Between June and July, the trade deficit here rose by just under $1.44 billion – 9.30 percent of the increase in the manufacturing deficit, and 14.48 percent of the problem in non-oil goods.

The cell phone category in the monthly trade releases also includes “other household goods” – one of the reasons I don’t love these numbers like I love those available from the International Trade Commission. But it’s reasonable to suppose that most of these goods are cell phones, and that most of these are coming from China – with which the Trump administration of course has been fighting a trade war.

As observed on RealityChek last month, however, Mr. Trump decided not to tariff them. So although cell phone imports indicate that the trade war is incomplete, they certainly don’t show that tariffs don’t work. If anything, they underscore what can happen when they’re missing.

A third major source of the deterioration shown in the new trade report is the civilian aircraft industry – where a surplus of $575 million in June became a $1.50 billion deficit in July. That’s a trade balance worsening of nearly $2.08 billion. In other words, this development alone accounts for 13.44 percent of the lousy July manufacturing trade results and 20.93 percent of the woes in non-oil goods trade flows.

Aircraft’s problems, however, have nothing to do with U.S. trade policy, and everything to with Boeing’s safety failures, which have led to big production shutdowns.

Add up the trade performances of these categories, and together they account for fully 43.38 percent of the manufacturing trade deficit’s increase between June and July, and a whopping 67.57 percent of the monthly rise in the non-oil deficit.

Combine these findings with a U.S. economic recovery that so far has been faster than the bouncebacks of many of its leading trade partners (except, notably, for export-heavy China) and the discouraging July trade figures don’t look nearly so discouraging.

Mission accomplished, then, for the Trump administration? Hardly? But the July trade report is far from a conclusive sign of failure, either. In fact, it leaves any fair-minded evaluation of the Trump trade record pretty much where it’s been since the CCP Virus arrived – deserving of solid grades before the bug arrived, and an incomplete during the completely abnormal times we’ve experienced since then.