Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The final (for now) official report on U.S. economic growth in the fourth quarter of last year and therefore for the full year contained modestly good news both in terms of the entire economy’s performance and its trade flows, but doesn change the big picture of major pandemic-related setbacks and distortions, and the latter likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Starting at 30,000 feet, the new data show that in inflation-adjusted terms (those most closely watched), America’s gross domestic product (GDP – or the total of goods and services it produces) shrank by 3.49 percent in 2020, a bit better than the 3.50 percent decline reported last month. Real growth received a boost from a fourth quarter during which real GDP expanded sequentially by 4.23 percent at an annual rate, not the (already upwardly revised) 4.03 percent previously estimated.

Given the record nosedive last spring produced by the CCP Virus and related mandated and voluntary curbs on economic activity, and even given the strong (in fact, sequential, record) rebound in the third quarter, such growth isn’t overly impressive. But presumably the rate will accelerate as vaccination spreads, herd immunity finally arrives, lockdowns are lifted (hopefully for good), and consumer regain confidence about in-person services like dining and traveling.

All the same, 2020’s still ranks as the worst U.S. economic downturn since 1946, when after-inflation GDP tumble by 11.60 percent as the nation transitioned from a war-time to a peacetime footing. Last year’s recession was also worse than the real GDP drop of 2009 (2.53 percent), during the Great Recession triggered by the global financial crisis.

As for the constant dollar total trade deficit, it’s now pegged at $926 billion, up slightly from last month’s reported $925.8 billion, but better than the $926.3 billion estimated in the first read on fourth quarter and 2020 GDP. The annual increase was only 0.92 percent, and as a share of the total economy (5.03 percent), it remained well below the all-time high of 5.95 percent (which came at the height of the bubble decade, in 2005), the deficit’s absolute and relative levels are still remarkable given the economy’s contraction – which normally results in a trade deficit decrease. At the same time, as will be discussed below, the 2020 recession was unusual in most respects.

The trade highlights of this morning’s GDP report confirmed once again that the service sector has suffered the greatest pandemic period hit both domestically and internationally. Indeed, during 2020, the longstanding after-inflation American goods trade deficit dipped by 0.71 percent (from $1.1409 trillion to $1.1328 trillion) while the equally longstanding services surplus sank by eleven percent (from $224.5 billion to $199.8 billion).

The new GDP report upgraded America’s total price-adjusted export performance in 2020, estimating their decline to be 12.95 percent, not the previously judged 12.97 percent. But the decrease is still the worst since 1958’s 13.49 percent plunge, and the $2.2169 trillion level remains the lowest since 2012’s $2.1930 trillion.

Real goods exports in 2020 slid by 9.46 percent in today’s GDP report – a little better than the 9.48 percent calculated last month. But as with total exports, these levels still represented multi-year lows in terms of the magnitude of the decline (the fastest since Great Recession-y 2009) and the absolute amount ($1.6138 trillion, the lowest since 2013). As last months real GDP post reminded, though, goods and services trade figures began to be reported separately by the Commerce Department only since 2002.

The deterioration in real services exports was, again, much more dramatic, and faster than estimated in last month’s GDP figures. They plummeted by 19.26 percent on-year, not the 19.16 percent previously reported, and a record by a long shot. And at $620.5 billion, their yearly total is the lowest since 2010.

Total constant dollar U.S. imports, however, seem to have fallen sligthly more slowly last year (9.27 percent) than previously judged (an already downgraded 9.28 percent). Yet this decrease also remained the fastest since 2009, and the $3.1429 trillion level the lowest since 2015.

Consistent with the above results, the inflation-adjusted goods imports fall-off in 2020 was much less than the overall decline. Interestingly, the new 6.05 percent annual decline reported this morning was notably lower than the 5.45 percent decrease reported last month. It, too, however, was a multi-year worst (since recession-y 2009) and the new $2.7466 trillion level is the lowest since 2016.

The annual after-inflation services imports drop in 2020 reported today was unchanged, at a record 22.54 percent, and the same $420.7 billion level was the weakest since 2009.

On a quarter-to-quarter basis, the real trade deficit registered modest improvement, too. Previously pegged at a quarterly record $1.1230 trillion on an annual basis, it’s now estimated at $1.1220 trillion (still an all-time high), and the sequential increase downgraded from 10.20 percent to 10.11 percent.

Two other findings of note: Although the increase in the annual constant dollar total trade deficit reached an all-time high last year, its effect on economic performance was relatively slight. The trade gap’s widening accounted for 0.14 percentage points of that 3.49 percent annual real GDP drop. Proportionately, that’s less damage than was inflicted in 2019, when the higher trade deficit cut 0.18 percentage points from the 2.16 percent overall growth rate.

On a quarterly basis, though, the trade bite was much deeper, as the price-adjusted total deficit’s increase subtracted 1.53 percentage points from the 4.23 percent sequential inflation-adjusted annualized GDP increase. But not even this blow was the biggest ever relatively speaking – or even close. (The all-time worst such performance came in the second quarter of 1952, when 0.85 percent after-inflation annualized growth would have been 2.23 percentage points higher if not for the sequential increase in the trade deficit.)