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While I was away for a few days last week, two major U.S. government reports came out both giving off conflicting signals on on whether the economy has started to return to normal in critical ways as the CCP Virus subsides and reopening, along with consequent changes in consumer behavior, proceed.

The monthly trade figures (for April) showed a sequential decline, following a record surge, in America’s chronically huge gap between exports and much larger amounts of imports. Moreover the monthly drop took place as economic growth sped along at unusual rates after being shut down by government mandates and consumer caution. So maybe they’re an early sign that a return to immediate pre-virus conditions has begun?

Or is their most important message that these deficits, and especially the import levels, are still hovering near all-time highs in (the most widely followed) pre-inflation terms even though the economy as of the latest (first quarter) numbers is still a bit smaller in (the most widely followed) inflation-adjusted terms than during the last full pre-pandemic quarter (the fourth quarter of 2019)?

Indeed, the deficits are gargantuan even though President Biden has left former President Trump’s substantial tariffs on metals and goods from China practically untouched. 

The monthly inflation numbers (for May) are similarly confusing. They revealed that consumer prices (just one inflation measure published by Washington, but an important one) rose by 4.93 percent in seasonally adjusted terms. That was their fastest annual pace since September, 2008’s 4.95 percent. Surely, as widely claimed (including by the Federal Reserve, which wields so much influence over the economy, this upswing stems from a combination of bottlenecks resulting from (1) the sudden, widespread reopening; (2) the unusually low overall inflation numbers generated a year ago, when the economy was near the depths of its viruts- and shutdown-induced slump; and (3) the immense dose of stimulus injected into the economy by both elected politicians and the unelected Fed.

At the same time, the Fed has told us that its stimulus isn’t ending anytime soon, and although the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats are displaying some cold feet about approving more such levels of economic fuel (e.g., in the form of outlays on infrastructure, and a wide variety of income supports and enhanced unemployment benefits), it’s difficult to imagine that most or even much of this spending will actually be withdrawn even once a post-virus recovery is an indisputable reality.

But the biggest surprise of all: Despite the economy-wide inflation pressures, and by-now-routine claims that employers are dealing with nearly crippling labor shortages, wages overall adjusted for inflation keep going down.

Compounding the confusion over whatever conclusions can legitimately be drawn from these two reports: They cover two different months.

But let’s begin with the most important details from the April trade report. The ambiguity embodied in the data begins with the total deficit figure. The record March result was revised up from $74.45 billion to $75.03 billion but April’s $68.90 shortfall for goods and services combined, though the second worst monthly figure ever, was 8.17 percent smaller. That’s the biggest sequential drop since February, 2020 (8.39 percent), when China’s export-heavy economy was still largely closed because of the virus.

The same holds for the goods trade gap. The record March figure was revised up, too, from $91.56 billion to $92.86 billion. But April’s $86.68 billion result represented a 6.65 percent monthly decline, and this falloff was the biggest since the 8.39 percent plunge of January, 2019 – when American businesses were still adjusting both to Trump’s tariffs and anticipated tariffs.

Also still fueling the high U.S. deficits – a worsening of services trade balances. Here, U.S. trade has long been in surplus, but the surpluses keep shrinking because service sectors like travel are still suffering from the pandemic’s arrival and the consequent decimation of travel and othe transportation in particular. In fact, the April figure of $17.78 billion was the lowest since September, 2012’s $18.62 billion.

One key set of trade flows does, however, provide some evidence of Trump tariff effectiveness – U.S. non-oil goods trade, which encompasses those exports and imports whose magnitudes are most heavily influenced by trade policy (because, as known by RealityChek regulars, trade in oil is almost never the subject of any trade policy decisions and services trade liberalization remains at very early stages). In April, the monthly shortfall retreated 4.16 percent from its March record of $90.12 billion to $86.37 billion – which is only the fourth highest such total ever.

The import figures I focused on last month exhibit the same overall patterns: April saw big drops from record levels but the absolute numbers remain distressingly high. March’s initially reported record $274.48 billion in total imports was revised up considerably – to $277.69 billion. April’s total of $273.89 billion represented a 1.37 percent drop, but nonetheless was the second worst such figure on record.

March’s record monthly goods import figure was upgraded, too – from $234.44 billion to $236.52 billion. April’s total of $231.97 billion was a 1.92 percent drop but these purchases also still represented the second highest of alll time.

As for non-oil goods imports, the $215.33 billion April total was 1.98 percent down from an upwardly revised record $219.68 billion, and also the second biggest ever. Biggest drop since last April’s 10.91

Whether normalization is returning in manufacturing is more difficult to tell. Imports in March hit a record $207.59 billion, and did drop by 4.59 percent sequentially to $198.06 billion in April. That decrease, however, was a typical monthly move for manufacturing imports, and the April figure was still the third highest ever.

Incidentally, the April manufacturing deficit of $103.60 billion was 4.64 percent lower than March’s $108.66 billion. The March total was the second highest on record, but April’s figure was only the seventh all-time worst. The record, $110.20 billion, came last October, and it’s notable that the gap has narrowed on net despite the resilience shown during the pandemic period by manufacturing output.

More evidence of the Trump tariffs’ impact comes from the data on goods trade with China – whose products have attracted nearly all of these levies, and that cover hundreds of billions of dollars worth of products. The April figure of $37.59 billion was 6.56 percent lower than its March predecessor – a thoroughly unexceptional sequential decline and monthly level by historical standards. But the monthly dropoff was consideraby greater than the aforementioned 1.98 percent decrease for non-oil goods – the closest global proxy.

As a result of all these inconclusive developments, I’ll be awaiting the May trade report with even more interest than usual.

But despite all the uncertainties I mentioned at the start of this post, those May inflation figures have made me more confident than before in my previous contention that current price surges are anomalies by the extremely low inflation generated by the CCP Virus-battered economy of a year ago, and by the sudden reopening of so much of the economy following the long shutdowns and lockdowns. Even clearer, as I see it: Claims of significant, troubling wage inflation are especially weak.

After all, that 4.93 percent year-on-year May price increase followed a previous May-to-May rise that was just 0.22 percent. That was the feeblest such rise since September, 2015’s 0.13 percent. In addition, May’s month-to-month 0.64 price advance was smaller than April’s 0.77 percent. Two months do not a trend make, but these numbers certainly don’t point to raging inflation fires.

Nor do the wage data. Otherwise after-inflation total private sector wages wouldn’t be down more on-month in May (-0.18 percent) than in April (-0.09 percent). And the same couldn’t be said of constant dollar wages for non-supervisory workers (-0.20 percent in May versus flat in April).

Getting more granular, the price-adjusted wage trends are as bad or worse in construction; trade, transportation and utilities overall; retail trade; and education and health services.

The two big exceptions: the leisure and hospitality workforces that have been so decimated by the virus (and especially the non-supervisory group) and the transportation and warehousing sub-sector of the transportation and utilities industry category that contains a trucking sector unusually strained by the rapid reopening. In both cases, however, (and especially the leisure and hospitality industry), inflation-adjusted wages in absolute terms are well below the national private sector average. If anything, therefore, it seems like some wage inflation for these workers is long overdue.