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A day after the Biden administration began laying out its “strategic vision” for trade policy toward China (which looks an awful lot like the tariff-heavy Trump administration policies decried by candidate Biden), this morning’s latest official U.S. monthly trade figures reminded that the predatory People’s Republic is hardly the only obstacle to an improved national trade performance.

Some of the distorting effects of the stop-start nature of the CCP Virus-era U.S. and global economies can be seen in the statistics. Principally, the last three data months have seen a month-on-month increase in the overall U.S. deficit in June, a decrease in July, and the rebound reported in today’s August release.

At the same time, through May, the growth of this total goods and services deficit was pretty sluggish. Since June, though, it’s remained above $70 billion for three straight months. (as will be detailed below).

At least as troubling – the rates of change in trade deficit increases and decreases, and in the economy’s rates of growth and shrinkage never match up exactly in the short run, because of lag times between orders and the receipt of supplies of traded goods in particular. But it’s not good news that whereas the U.S. economy grew at after-inflation annual rates topping six percent in each of the first and second quarters (ending in June) while the trade gap’s growth was pretty sluggish, third quarter growth could well be much slower (see, e.g., here), and the trade deficit seems to be settling in at higher levels.

To return to the China data – not that they were good. The S$31.74 billion U.S. merchandise deficit with the People’s Republic was the biggest monthly total since July, 2019’s $32.68 billion, and was up sequentially by 10.79 percent. Goods imports rose 6.51 percent on month to just under $43 billion for their highest level since last November. But merchandise exports sank month-to-month by 3.94 percent, to $11.26 billion – their lowest level since February.

Even so, the August trade report showed again that, longer term, the Trump tariffs are bringing and keeping America’s huge and longstanding China goods trade gap under control. Specifically, this deficit is up 13.65 percent year-to-date – much more slowly than the closest global proxy, America’s non-oil goods deficit (19.11 percent).

As for the headline U.S. combined goods and services trade deficit, it rose in August by 4.19 percent, from a slightly upwardly revised $70.30 billion to a new record $73.25 billion.

The merchandise trade shortfall increased, too – but by just 1.82 percent sequentially. And the $89.41 billion total, while high by historic standards, still trailed the $93 billion-plus top-two levels hit in March and June (the latter’s $93.26 billion remaining the record).

The August services trade surplus of $16.16 billion, however, was the lowest since December, 2011, and fell by 7.74 percent from July.

Several other records were set by the August results in the broadest U.S. trade flow categories. On the negative side, total U.S. imports hit an all-time high of $286.99 billion during the month, as did goods imports ($239.11 billion). But at $149.69 billion, August goods exports hit their second consecutive historical best.

And speaking of records, manufacturing’s $116.88 billion trade shortfall represented another. The August total was 5.76 percent greater than July’s $110.05 billion and exceeded the previous all-time worst (June’s $114.06 billion by 2.47 percent).

Delving more deeply into the manufacturing numbers, industry’s exports did improve by 1.95 percent sequentially, from $95.22 billion to $97.13 billion. But the much greater amount of imports jumped more than twice as fast – by 4.03 percent, from $205.72 billion to $214.01 billion.

On a January-August basis, the manufacturing deficit has ballooned by 23.77 percent, from $686.36 billion to $849.50 billion – making a fourth straight trillion-dollar trade gap for industry all but certain.

Year-to-date, manufacturing exports have grown by 19.28 percent, but imports remain more than twice as great, and they’ve swelled by 21.64 percent.

Some more records and notable results:

>At $3.73 billion, the August goods trade deficit with global semiconductor manufacturing superpower Taiwan set a fifth straight monthy record.

>The merchandise gap with South Korea, another leading semiconductor manufacturer, soared by 51.18 percent to $3.15 billion – its third highest total all-time.

>And the goods shortfall with Canada, America’s third largest goods trade partner (after the European Union and China, respectively) surged 24.48 percent, to a $5.33 billion level that was the loftiest monthly amount since October, 2008 ($5.65 billion).

The bear case for the trade deficit is easy to identify: For example, if it’s been rising even as the CCP Virus’ highly contagious Delta variant and related economic and behavior curbs are depressing growth, it’s sure to rise higher and faster as the Delta wave keeps showing signs of weakening, and growth picks up again. Further, whenever unsnarling begins of the kinds of logistical snags that have disrupted supplies of semiconductors and created long backups at ports on America’s West Coast and elsewhere, U.S. imports in particular will rise even more rapidly.

The bull case seems to depend mainly on the winding down domestically and internationally of the virus – which will help America’s trade partners finally to start catching up with the United States recovery-wise, and therefore to step up net buys of U.S. imports. (See, e.g., here.) There are also the arguments that supply chain normalization will help restore domestic U.S. business’ export potential; and that the Biden administration has just made clear that the vast bulk of the steep and sweeping Trump China tariffs will remain in place for the foreseeable future – which will keep pricing enormous amounts of imports from China out of the U.S. market.

At this point, the fence looks like the safest place to be analytically, as has often been the case for the pandemic economy. So that’s where I’ll sit regarding future prospects for the trade deficit – but leaning a little toward the bearish side for now.