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As if the CCP Virus pandemic and its aftermath haven’t made gauging the real health of the U.S. economy difficult enough, the Federal Reserve late last month came out with its latest long-term (“benchmark”) revision of its domestic manufacturing production data that confuse the picture of industry’s recent status still further.

These revisions cover the 2017-2019 period, and as such, they’re especially important in gauging how U.S.-based industry fared under President Trump and the trade policy revolution he launched versus their performance during the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency and his standard trade policies. (As known by RealityChek regulars, these two time periods provide the best basis for comparison, since they came closest together during the same – expansionary – business cycle.) Moreover, because the revisions create a different baselines, they also affect the post-2019 period’s growth results for manufacturing, which include the pandemic period.

The Fed’s summary makes clear that the revisions show the inflation-adjusted expansion of manufacturing output during that Trump period to have been significantly slower than previously reported. That finding indicates that far from boosting manufacturing production, and particularly compared with the Obama years, the Trump tariffs (on steel and sluminum, and on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods from China) actually held it back.

Indeed, the revisions are so substantial that the picture they draw is a mirror image of the predecessor data – which showed that, at least before the virus struck, Trump-era manufacturing growth in real terms considerably bested the Obama-era performance. For that matter, the previous Fed numbers showed that domestic industry fared relatively well under Trump even counting the pandemic-induced recession year 2020.

Here are the results side-by-side for after-inflation manufacturing production growth in percentage terms:

                                                                   pre-revision               with revision

last four Obama years:                                   +2.45                          +1.30

Trump years pre-pandemic:                           +3.60                           -0.41

all four Trump years:                                     +2.13                           +0.82

So when it comes to growth – an especially important metric, since it’s tough to imagine creating many jobs without it – the new Fed revisions show that the second Obama term was better for U.S. manufacturers than Trump’s single term, CCP Virus or no.

Or were they? As also known by RealityChek regulars, the constant dollar output figures used by the Fed aren’t the only way to measure growth in manufacturing (or any other sector of the economy). Another is value-added, which attempts to avoid the double counting built into the standard output numbers created by their failure to distinguish between the value of the parts and components of a final product, and that of the final product itself. That’s why economists generally view them as the more revealing statistics. And in the above-linked announcement describing the revision and its methodology, the Fed says that the new numbers incorporate insights gleaned from the latest value-added figures (which are reported by the Commerce Department).

But when the latest version of these statistics are examined, they still show that domestic manufacturing grew much faster during the Trump years than during the final four Obama years. Here are the results in percentage terms when value-added is adjusted for inflation:

last four Obama years:                                    +3.88

Trump years pre-pandemic:                            +7.56

all four Trump years:                                       +9.22

One especially interesting feature of the above – the real value-added numbers show that U.S. manufacturing output actually grew further during the pandemic. In fact, even the revised Fed growth numbers show that industry has fared a good deal better so far during the pandemic than previously reported – with after-inflation production shrinking by just 0.92 percent between February, 2020 and this past April, not 1.42 percent.

Tomorrow the Fed will publish its first read on real manufacturing output for May. It will of course shed some more light on the status of domestic industry. But never forget that, given how the results will be revised not only several times during the next several months, but also about two years from now, the degree of illumination may be relatively modest.