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Despite the overall U.S. trade deficit hitting an all-time monthly high in February, the new trade figures released by the Census Bureau this morning contained lots of encouraging news – including for fans of the Trump tariffs on China and on aluminum and steel (like me). I’m wary of running or continuing a victory lap, because there’s still too much short- and perhaps longer term economic noise surely masking the underlying trends. But the case for trade optimism and its possible policy causes deserves attention.

As for that economic noise, it comes of course not only from the ongoing stop/start CCP Virus- and lockdowns-/reopenings/vaccinations-related distortions of all economic data, but from the harsh winter weather that depressed February economic activity in key areas of the country like Texas; the global shortage of semiconductors that’s impacting output throughout the manufacturing sector (and that’s due in part to the pandemic); and the big backups at the West Coast ports that are greatly slowing the unloading of container ships containing lots of imports from China and the rest of Asia.

As for the data, the combined goods and services trade shortfall of $71.08 billion in February surpassed the previous record, November’s $69.04 billion, by 2.95 percent, and represented a 4.80 percent increase over January’s downwardly revised level of $67.82 billion.

The increase resulted both from a rise in the goods trade gap (of 3.27 percent, to its own record of $88.01 billion) and a shrinkage of the services surplus (of 2.93 percent, to $16.93 billion – the smallest since August, 2012’s $17.08 billion).

Trade flows not setting records, though, notably included any of the imports categories – despite numerous reports of the rapidly rebounding U.S. economy sucking in massive amounts of products (though not services, which have suffered an outsized CCP Virus blow) from abroad.

For example, total merchandise imports actually fell on month in February – by 0.89 percent, to $221.14 billion, from January’s record total of $221.12 billion. Still, the February figure remains in second place historically speaking.

Non-oil goods imports inched up by 0.38 percent sequentially in February – from $85.36 billion to $85.68 billion. But they still fell short of the November record of $86.40 billion. As known by RealityChek regulars, this trade category sheds the most light on the impact on trade flows of trade policy decisions, like tariff changes and trade agreements. (Hence I call the resulting shortfall the Made in Washington trade deficit.) But despite the lofty level, they’re actually down on net since November. Could it be those West Coast ports snags or the harsh winter storms of February or semiconductor-specific problems? Maybe.

The evidence for those propositions? U.S. goods imports from Pacific Rim countries – which are serviced by the West Coast ports – did sink by 11.81 percent on month in February. That’s a much faster rate than the 1.54 percent decrease in overall non-oil goods imports (a close proxy).

But goods imports from China dropped by a greater 13 percent even, which points to some Trump tariff effect as well. In fact, the $34.03 billion worth of February goods imports from China was the lowest monthly number since pandemicky last April. And February’s $24.62 billion bilateral merchandise trade deficit with China was 6.22 percent narrower than the January figure, and the smallest such total since April, too.

America’s goods deficit from Pacific Rim countries in total fell slightly faster than the gap with China (6.84 percent). China’s economy and its exports, however, are supposed to be recovering at world-and region-beating rates, so if that’s the case, it appears that the Trump trade curbs are preventing that rebound from taking place at America’s expense.

U.S. manufacturing trade numbers were encouraging, too, though again, the impact of tariffs as opposed to that of the virus distortions or the February weather or the ports issues or the semiconductor shortage or some combination thereof  is difficult to determine. But industry’s trade shortfall did tumble by 10.53 percent in February, from January’s $99.79 billion to $89.29 billion. That figure also was manufacturing’s lowest since June, 2020’s $89.16 billion and the 10.52 percent decrease was the by far the biggest in percentage terms since November, 2019’s 12.70 percent.

February manufacturing exports declined by 2.64 percent sequentially, from $81.66 billion to $79.51 billion. But the much greater volume of manufacturing imports sank by 6.98 percent, from $182.46 billion to $168.79 billion.

The China and manufacturing numbers could certainly change – and boost these U.S. trade gaps and the overall trade deficit – as Americans begin to spend their latest round of stimulus checks, as the U.S. recovery continues, and as the West Coast ports and semiconductor issues clear up. 

But especially due to those Chinese exports, this worsening of the U.S. trade picture was reported late last year. And the official U.S. trade figures show that such a surge simply never took place. Moreover, if executed properly, President Biden’s Buy American plans for federal government procurement and support for strengthening critical domestic supply chains could boost American manufacturing and other goods output without increasing imports. His budget requests for major subsidies for key U.S.-based manufacturing operations could help brighten the trade picture, too. Mr. Biden has also decided for now to retain the Trump trade curbs. And P.S. – those clogged West Coast ports hamper American exports as well.    

In addition, trade problems could reappear at some point due to the President’s proposed green energy mandates and corporate tax increases that would inevitably hike the relative cost of producing in the United States. But right now, it looks like due to ongoing and possibly upcoming economic nationalist American policies, the burden of proof is on the U.S. trade pessimists. And that’s quite a switch.