Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Today’s third (and final, for now) official read on U.S. economic growth in the second quarter confirms that at least as of June, the nation’s trade flows had made impressive progress toward returning to a pre-CCP Virus form of normality. The trouble still is, though, that these data cover a three-month stretch that came just before the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus arrived state-side in force, kicking off a new round of mandated and voluntary curbs on business and consumer behavior that will clearly impact the third quarter’s exports, imports, and trade balances – among other measures of economic performance.

The key sign of such trade normalization – the dramatically slowing rate at which the total U.S. deficit is increasing. It’s the same pattern that U.S. public health authorities spoke about early in the pandemic when they focused on “bending the curve.” The idea is that huge, powerful trends rarely reverse themselves overnight, or even quickly. When they’re harmful, the most realistic early aim policy- and other decision-makers can seek is slowing the rate at which they become worse.

And these latest second quarter numbers add to the evidence that trade deficit worsening has nearly stopped. Last month’s previous government estimate of the gross domestic product (GDP), its change, and how its individual components have grown or shrunk in inflation-adjusted terms (the terms most widely watched) revealed that the combined goods and services trade shortfall was only 1.71 percent wider ($1.2471 trillion at annual rates) than in the first quarter ($1.2261 trillion).

This morning, though, the overall trade gap was pegged at a smaller $1.2445 trillion – just 1.50 percent more than in the first quarter. The absolute level of the deficit remains enormous. In fact, as such, it’s still the biggest ever (and still the fourth straight record quarterly total). More important, at 6.43 percent the size of the total economy, it’s still the biggest trade gap ever in relative terms, too.

In addition, the second quarter’s inflation-adjusted overall trade deficit was a full 46.83 percent greater than the $847.6 billion annualized figure recorded in the fourth quarter of 2019 – the last full quarter before the CCP Virus began distorting U.S. trade flows by weakening the economy of enormous trade partner China.

But between the second and third quarters of last year, when the economy was rebounding strongly from its short but dizzying pandemic- and lockdown-induced recession, the real trade deficit skyrocketed by 31.81 percent. So the curve has not only been bent – it’s nearly flattened. And in price-adjusted terms, the government’s U.S. economic growth estimate for that April-through-June period this year came in this morning at 6.56 percent at annual rates – a bit better than last month’s 6.40 percent.

Slightly better trade deficit improvement coupled with slightly stronger economic growth is definitely good news, and it’s confirmed by the figures on the impact on growth of the trade deficit change. Last month, the Commerce Department (which compiles and reports the GDP statistics) announced that the constant dollar trade gap’s modest sequential increase over the first quarter level cut after-inflation U.S. growth by 0.24 percentage points. In other words, had the deficit simply remained the same, second quarter growth would have been 6.64 percent annualized, not 6.40 percent.

The new numbers show that the deficit’s smaller increase reduced second quarter growth by just 0.18 percentage points. So if the trade gap hadn’t worsened at all, real economic growth would have hit 6.74 percent, not 6.56 percent.

The manner in which the second quarter’s constant dollar trade gap improved over the second read was encouraging, too – although the pattern was not quite as positive as that reported last month.

That GDP release judged that total exports improved by 1.60 percent (to $2.298 trillion annualized) over the first quarter’s level, not by the originally reported 1.47 percent. Total imports, by contrast grew more slowly – by l.64 percent, not 1.90 percent (and reached $3.5457 trillion).

According to today’s GDP report, the total sequential export increase was a faster 1.85 percent (to $2.3042 trillion at annual rates), but the total import increase was as well (1.73 percent, to a slightly higher $3.5487 trillion).

Just as important, after-inflation total exports are still 9.76 percent below their immediate pre-virus (fourth quarter, 2019) levels, but total imports are 4.35 percent higher, and the latest second quarter figure is still a second straight quarterly record.

Goods trade accounts for the vast majority of U.S. trade flows and today’s second quarter revisions saw the longstanding constant dollar deficit level rise marginally, from $1.4014 trillion annualized to $1.4020 trillion. This figure remained the fourth straigh all-time high for this indicator, but was a mere 0.44 percent worse than its first quarter counterpart, and thus represented a major slowdown from the 20.40 percent spike seen during last year’s third quarter GDP boom.

For a change, even though the service sector has been the hardest hit by the virus by far, its new real trade surplus figures improved over the previous read – from $151.2 billion at annual rates, to $152.4 billion. Nonetheless, this still represented the weakest quarterly performance since the third quarter of 2010’s $161.7 billion – when the economy’s recovery from the 2007-2008 financial crisis and Great Recession remaine in early stages.

The rapid spread of the Delta variant and consequent business restrictions and renewed consumer caution are widely forecast to depress U.S. growth considerably (see, e.g., here) – which usually heralds a considerable reduction in the trade deficit. But even if economic form follows, the unpredictability of the pandemic and the responses it generates means that it’s anyone’s guess as to how long any particular trend will last.