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Because the entire U.S. economy has been so distorted by sudden stop-start nature of the CCP Virus and subsequent lockdowns and reopenings, and massive government stimulus measures, I’ve been hesitant to draw firm conclusions about the messages sent by the various reports on the economy’s performance issued by the government since the pandemic arrived.

I’m still hesitant, but this morning’s Commerce Department report on the economy’s growth in the first quarter of this year seemed especially interesting due to the signs it contained that America’s trade flows might be returning to some semblance of normality. The signs consist of quarter-to-quarter changes in deficits, exports, and imports that are decidedly moderating.

To start, that conclusion is also consistent with the moderating of changes in economic growth itself. Measured in inflation-adjusted terms, this intiial read on America’s gross domestic product (GDP – the total of goods and services turned out by the nation) revealed growth of 6.24 percent at an annual rate in the first quarter. By the standards of normal times recent decades, this is a blistering pace. In fact, leaving out the pandemic period, it was the best such performance since the 6.80 percent achieved in the third quarter of 2003.

But by pandemic standards, although it’s a speed up from the 4.26 percent registered in the fourth quarter of last year, it’s not that much of a speed up, especially given how much stimulus has been poured into the economy. And compared with the 29.91 percent real GDP pop in last year’s third quarter, however, it’s definitely smallish beans.

The trade figures comprising part of this GDP report generally followed suit. For example, the first quarter’s after-inflation trade deficit of $1.1755 trillion was an all-time quarterly record both in absolute terms, and more important, as a share of the whole economy (6.16 percent). The last time the trade deficit’s relative size was remotely that big was during the fourth quarter of 2005 (6.10 percent) – during a time now known as the bubble decade that preceded the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Yet the deficit’s quarter-to-quarter growth rate of 4.77 percent was considerably slower than the fourth quarter’s 10.12 percent, and the record (by a long shot) 31.47 percent recorded during that extraordinarily high growth third quarter.

The same pattern is unfolding so far with the trade gap in goods. At $1.3463 trillion annualized it marked the third straight quarterly record in absolute terms. But the sequential growth rate of 3.46 percent was well off quarterly the rate of 6.94 percent in the fourth quarter, much less the 21.58 percent in the third quarter.

Trade in services – the part of the national and global economies hardest hit by the virus and the lockdowns – has taken less of a straight line route in terms of quarterly change, but moderation can be seen here, too. The quarterly surplus of $165.1 million was the smallest recorded since the $1.57 million during the third quarter of 2009 – when the economy was just beginning to crawl out of the Great Recession.

The quarterly shrinkage of 4.95 percent was, though, As less than a third as great as the fourth quarter’s 17.29 percent – though that nosedive was greater than the third quarter’s 10.48 percent.

Approaching normality was also indicated by another trade-related figure – the degree to which these changes in the deficit have affected overall growth. During the first quarter of this year, the sequential rise of the price-adjusted trade deficit subtracted 0.87 percentage points from annualized real GDP growth figure, which hit 6.24 percent. So that trade shortfall increase affected 13.94 percent of the growth figure (for the worse).

As discouraging as that result was, however, the trade effect was much smaller than in the fourth quarter of last year. Then, the big surge in the inflation-adjusted trade gap cut 1.53 percentage points from real GDP growth, which hit 4.26 percent annualized. In other words, the trade deficit affected 35.92 percent of the growth figure (again for the worse).

The trade affect was actually smaller in relative terms during the record GDP growth third quarter – reducing real GDP expansion, which neared 30 percent at annual rates, by 3.21 percentage points.

But for some context, the last time the trade hit to real economic growth was seen in this statistical neighborhood was the third quarter of 1982, when dragged down a sequential after-inflation contraction of 1.53 percent by 3.22 percentage points. That is, without the increase in the trade deficit, the overall economy would have grown. And the all-time record was set way back in the fourth quarter of 1947 – when a rising trade shortfall cut 4.23 percentage points out of a growth rate that his 6.25 percent annualized.

Larger trade effects have been seen occasionally when a quarterly improvement in the deficit bolstered growth. But these instances came during deep downturns – as in the second quarter of 1980 and the first quarter of 1975.

Nevertheless, a case can be made that the CCP Virus related distortions of the economy and U.S. trade flows still have a ways to go. After all, more massive government stimulus seems to be coming, and new pandemic waves are washing over major portions of Europe and Asia, which of course are important American export markets. And until the roller coaster ride is over, assessing the true state of the economy and trade flows will remain a serious challenge.

Moreover, even if the distortions are indeed over, these particular trade figures are of little help in assessing the ongoing impact of the Trump trade policy revolution engineered from 2017 to last year.  Luckily, the next set of needed details is due out next Tuesday, when the March monthly trade report is slated to be released.