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Fittingly, because this morning’s release of the first (of two short-term) revisions of the official figures on fourth quarter U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) tell us only a little more than the first about the U.S. economy’s growth at the end of last years, they also revealed little change in what was reported about U.S. trade flows – and how they were affected in 2020 by the CCP Virus.

The fundamental story remains the same: The pandemic has distorted the nation’s international trade tremendously. What today’s report – which describes growth in inflation-adjusted terms (the most widely followed) – shows is that real exports suffered a bit more than previously judged, and their import counterparts were a bit higher. As a result, the overall price-adjusted trade deficit was slightly greater than first estimated.

In addition, the new figures – which will be revised again next month, and several times down the line – indicate that the trade flow deterioration worsened toward the end of the year.

To set the context, the sequential growth rate for the fourth quarter was upgraded in the new release from the previously reported 3.95 percent at an annual rate after-inflation to 4.03 percent. Normally, that would be an excellent performance, but coming after the roughly 30 percent annualized rubber-band-like economic snap back between the second and third quarters, it’s still a major disappointment.

Moreover, the revisions were too small to affect the annual contraction rate for all of 2020, which stayed at 3.50 percent in constant dollars. That’s still the worst yearly downturn since the 11.60 percent nosedive in 1946, when the nation was transitioning from a war-time to a peacetime footing. In fact, 2020’s slump was much worse than the real GDP decline of 2009 – which was part of what’s now known as the Great Recession. That year, America’s output of goods and services after inflation fell by just 2.53 percent.

(Incidentally, sharp-eyed readers will note that this 2020 real GDP figure doesn’t match up with the one I cited here. That’s because that post’s number represented fourth quarter to fourth quarter constant-dollar output change, which tends to produce different results than those generated by comparing the annual figures, which sum up the collective change for all of a year’s four quarters.)

Luckily, the main reason for optimism remains intact, too, despite the humdrum fourth quarter: The pandemic-driven recession was driven by a virus, and by the widespread shutdowns of economic activity literally ordered by government at all level. That appears much less worrisome than the economic circumstances of the bubble decade of the 2000s, when bloated lending and spending masked fundamental weaknesses in the economy. When the finance sector essentially decided that the resulting Ponzi scheme had grown way too risky even for its tastes, a collapse was triggered that nearly took the entire global economy down.

Once again, the magnitude of the distortion of the GDP figures’ trade component came through loud and clear in this morning’s release. Even though the economy shrank – which typically depresses the trade deficit – the shortfall hit a new record in last year. This morning’s reported $926.3 inflation-adjusted level was marginally larger than the $925.8 billion estimated last month, and represents a 0.95 percent increase over 2019.

It’s true that 2020’s price-adjusted trade deficit wasn’t the largest ever as a share of real GDP. At 5.03 percent, it was well behind the all-time worst of 5.95 percent, set in bubbly 2005. But this percentage was astronomical for a recession year. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2002 (which was only partly recessionary) to find a figure even as high as 4.95 percent.

Since the pandemic and restrictions have hit service industries much harder than goods industries, with the travel and tourism sectors experiencing veritable decimation, it’s no surprise that most of the trade deficit deterioration took place in those parts of the economy. Specifically, between 2019 and 2020, the inflation-adjusted goods trade deficit rose by just $830 million, while the services surplus shrank by $24.7 billion. (And now for an apology – last month I reported the reverse, because I accidentally reported the services change in millions, not billions, of dollars.)

The real trade deficit increased last year in part because total constant dollar exports fell, with the new revisions reporting the drop at 12.97 percent, rather than the 12.96 percent estimated last month. That decrease is the biggest in percentage terms since 1958’s 13.49 percent plunge, and the $2.2165 trillion level was the lowest since 2012’s $2.193 trillion.

The 2020 decrease in goods exports was revised this morning from 9.46 percent to 9.48 percent, and this slide – the steepest since 2009’s 11.86 percent – brought the year’s level to $1.6136 trillion, the lowest since 2013’s $1.57 trillion. (Goods and services trade figures began to be reported separately by the Commerce Department only since 2002).

The new revisions actually showed a marginally better performance for real services exports. Rather than sinking by 19.20 percent in 2020, the dropoff is now judged to be 19.16 percent. But the fall is still a record by a long shot, and the new $620.2 billion level still the lowest since 2010’s $609.2 billion.

Total after-inflation constant dollar U.S. imports were lower in 2020 than in 2019, too, but the contraction was smaller than that for total exports. Today’s revisions report the annual decrease as 9.28 percent versus the previously reported 9.29 percent. This drop was still the biggest in percentage terms since recessionary 2009’s 13.08 percent, and the $3.1426 trillion absolute level was still the weakest since 2015’s $3.0948 trillion.

The reduction in goods imports was as relatively modest as that in goods exports, as they came in 5.45 percent lower in 2020 than in 2019. But last month, the drop was reported at a bigger 6.05 percent – still the biggest since recessionary 2009’s 15.30 percent. And the new $2.7642 trillion level is still the lowest since 2016’s $2.6477 trillion.

The annual services imports decrease in 2020 was also smaller than initially reported – 22.54 percent versus 22.59 percent. Nonetheless, this yearly shrinkage, too, was still by far the greatest ever, and the $420.7 billion level still the lowest since 2009.

On a quarter-to-quarter basis, the previously reported quarterly record $1.1211 trillion total real trade deficit at annual rates for the last three months of 2020 is now estimated at $1.1230 trillion. And the increase over the third quarter level has gone up from ten to 10.2 percent.

Quarterly total real exports today were judged to be 5.06 percent higher than the third quarter level, not 5.10 percent higher, but the new $2.2761 trillion annualized figure was still 8.78 percent below the level of last year’s first quarter – the final pre-pandemic figure.

The fourth quarter’s sequential rise in real goods exports was also revised down this morning – from 7.65 percent to 6.95 percent. But at $1.7224 trillion annualized, they’re just 2.94 percent below the first quarter total.

Not surprisingly, the quarterly export lag in services was much worse. The fourth quarter’s price-adjusted real sequential improvement was only revised down from 1.07 percent to 1.04 percent. But the annualized figure of $587.4 billion was a whopping 19.55 percent below that final first quarter pre-pandemic level.

Total constant dollar imports for the fourth quarter are now judged to have risen by 6.71 percent over the third quarter, not 6.67 percent. At $3.3991 trillion at an annual rate, they’re now 3.53 percent higher than during that immediate pre-CCP Virus first quarter.

After-inflation goods imports are estimated to have risen a bit more slowly on a quarter-to-quarter basis – by 5.25 percent between the third and fourth quarters instead of the previously reported 5.27 percent. Even so, as of the end of last year, they were running fully 8.49 percent higher at an annual rate ($3.0230 trillion) than during the first quarter.

Real services imports, however, expanded faster than previously reported – by 5.52 percent over third quarter levels, not 5.16 percent. But even though they’re now up to $415 billion at annual rates, in real terms, they still 17.41 percent below their pre-pandemic levels.