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With huge Chinese ports newly suffering the kind of congestion that’s clogged America’s West Coast ports for months, the U.S. and other national economies reopening at widely varying rates from their CCP Virus-induced shutdowns, and a worldwide shortage of semiconductors still undermining production throughout the world’s manufacturing industries, it’s tougher than ever to figure out what to make of the latest monthly U.S. trade figures (for May).

Oh, and I almost forgot: America’s long-time export and trade surplus standout, Boeing, keeps making bad news on the intertwined manufacturing and safety fronts, which means that its domestic and overseas sales could be depressed for months more.

So since they’re of such little help in figuring out the two biggest trade policy questions facing the country – about how different a post-pandemic trade normal may look from its pre-virus counterpart, and whether and how well the Trump tariffs are still working – it seems the best course to follow is simply reporting the highlights of the May report from the Census Bureau (and voicing some very tentative analyses where I have the courage).

These new data, which came out last Friday, revealed that the combined U.S. goods and services trade deficit increased by 3.14 percent between April and May – from $69.07 billion to $71.24 billion. The total was the second highest ever, trailing only March’s $75.03 billion.

The same general pattern characterized the goods trade gap, which widened by 2.76 percent (from $86.78 billion to $89.17 billion), also hit the second highest total on record, and also fell short of a March all-time high ($92.86 billion).

The best trade balance-related news came on the services side – which has been especialy hard hit by the virus and its effects, and where the surplus widened by 0.74 percent (from $17.80 billion to $17.93 billion) and improved for the first time since January.

Total exports advanced for the fourth straight month in May (by 0.64 percent, from $204.70 billion to $206.02 billion), and attained their highest level since December, 2019, just before the CCP Virus seems to have begun spreading from China.

Goods exports were something of a laggard – growing sequentially in May by just 0.30 percent (from $145.09 billion to $145.28 billion. More encouragingly, this level set its second straight monthly record.

Services exports fared better, up 1.47 percent on-month in May (from $59.62 billion to $60.49 billion) and producing their best monthly total since semi-pandemic-y March, 2020’s $60.62 billion.

But on all counts, U.S. imports rose faster.

The total import amount reached $277.26 billion in May, rising 1.27 percent from April’s $273.78 billion and representing the second highest total ever. Only the $277.69 billion figure from…yes…March has been higher.

Goods imports rose by a slower 1.18 percent, from $231.96 billion to $234.70 billion. And the total was another second highest, lagging only March’s $236.52 billion.

Despite their surplus growing, services imports rose considerably faster, by 1.77 percent, from $41.84 billion to $42.56 billion. That total was the highest since February, 2020 ($47.06 billion) – just before the virus’ arrival.

To a noteworthy degree, the worsening of the overall and goods deficits in May looks like a Boeing story. The narrowing of the U.S. civilian aircraft trade surplus (by $1.388 billion) accounted for nearly 64 percent of the increase deterioration in the overall trade balance, and 58.05 percent of the monthly growth of the goods trade gap.

Boeing’s troubles can’t be blamed for the entire year’s lofty deficit numbers. Far from it. In fact, between the January-to-May periods last year and this year, the $917 million shrinkage of the aircraft surplus has equalled less than one percent of the overall deficit’s increase during this time and just slightly more of the goods deficit. Aircraft trade numbers can be pretty volatile, too. But is the Boeing effect on the May data a portent of things to come? Stay tuned.

As known by RealityChek regulars, the best measure of how tariffs and similar trade policies are influencing U.S. trade flows is non-oil goods trade, which strips out oil (which hardly ever comes up in trade policymaking) and services (where global trade liberalization remains modest). And in this context, what jumps out right away from the May trade results (or what should jump out) is that this portion of the trade deficit rose much more slowly on month (0.33 percent) than the combined goods and services deficit (3.14 percent) or the total goods deficit (2.76 percent). And interestingly, without the poor civilian aircraft numbers, the “Made in Washington” trade deficit would have fallen month-to-month.

Moreover, on a January-to-May year-to-date basis, the non-oil goods trade deficit worsened just about half as much (by 23.99 percent) as the overall deficit (45.82 percent), and somewhat more slowly than the goods deficit (26.44 percent). Given that the Trump China tariffs alone of some $350 billion amounted to some 15.21 percent of total U.S. non-oil goods imports in 2019 (and remain in place today), that could be a sign that the levies have succeeded in restraining that deficit’s growth. When it comes to the Boeing effect, however, it’s negligible here, too.

May was an especially bad month for U.S. manufacturing trade, as its chronically huge shortfall jumped by 3.01 percent, from $103.60 billion to 106.72 billion. Huge as that sounds, it was only the fifth worst such figure ever. Exports increased by 0.91 percent while the much greater amount of imports climbed by 2.01 percent. Again, the Boeing effect generated much (nearly 45 percent) of the monthly deficit worsening but less than one percent of the $116.57 billion year-to-date difference.

May was also a bad month for China tariff supporters. The U.S. goods deficit with the PRC grew by 1.90 percent on month – much faster than the 0.33 percent increase in the non-oil goods deficit that’s its closest worldwide proxy. U.S. goods exports to the PRC advanced by a healthy 5.54 percent. May monthly imports grew much more slowly (3.04 percent), but they’re more than three times greater.

On a year-to-date basis, moreover, the Sino-American trade gap is 26.92 percent wider than last year, which stands not only as faster growth than that of the non-oil goods deficit (23.99 percent), but another sign that of tariff failure, as the China deficit by this measure has been rising faster non-oil goods deficit since March. Still, it’s difficult drawing firm conclusions, since the recovery of China’s export-heavy economy from its pandemic experience has been faster than that of most other (often also export-reliant) U.S. trade partners. Moreover, the difference between the growth rates of the two deficits has narrowed dramatically since March, so it’s possible that the pre-pandemic pattern – which reflected much better on the tariffs – is steadily returning.

And let’s end on an unexpected note: In May, the U.S. goods deficit with Canada surged by 56.98 percent sequentially, to $3.69 billion. That’s the highest level since December, 2019’s $4.95 billion and the fastest monthly increase since January’s 74.04 percent. This monthly rise, moreover, was driven by U.S. imports, which reached $29.08 billion – the biggest monthly total since October, 2014 ($30.72 billion). The monthly increase: a strong but hardly record breaking 5.86 percent. American goods exports to its northern neighbor, however, rose by just 1.09 percent, to $25.39 billion. And year-to-date, the U.S. goods deficit with Canada has more than doubled, soaring by a 108.93 percent.