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Today’s first official report on U.S. economic growth in the third quarter of this year was not only much worse than the final results revealed for the second quarter. It was also a near-mirror image of its predecessor estimate of the increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of its trade figures – and not in a good way.

Chiefly, during the second quarter, the economy grew at a strong clip (6.56 percent after inflation at an annual rate) while the real trade deficit practically stabilized versus the first quarter figure. In fact, this progress prompted me to venture that a pretty encouraging post-CCP Virus trade normal could be settling in for Americans.

But third quarter inflation-adjusted annualized growth was just two percent – the worst such performance since the pandemic-induced nosedive of last year’s second quarter – and the trade deficit increased sequentially by 5.40 percent. The $1.3117 trillion annualized total, moreover, was the fifth straight record quarterly high. And just for good measure this level also represented an all-time high for the real deficit as a share of price-adjusted GDP (6.74 percent).

The quarterly trade gap growth rate was still the second slowest of the current (still CCP Virus-distorted) economic recovery. But it’s much faster than the 1.50 percent increase between the second and third quarter. Worse, the prospect of stronger future GDP growth (assuming the pandemic resumes easing), and an untangling of the supply chain bottlenecks that have dramatically impacted both import and export flows, could well create a renewed trade shortfall surge in the coming quarters.

That possibility should concern more than just trade watchers, because that sequential increase in the deficit reduced third quarter growth for the total economy by 1.14 percentage points. So if the trade gap hadn’t increased at all, GDP would have expanded by 3.14 percent in real annualized terms. That’s still not spectacular, but it would have been an improvement of fully 57 percent. And it’s the biggest relative trade hit to growth since the third quarter of 2018, when the deficit’s increase sliced 1.66 percent points off of the 1.93 percent total growth figure – cutting it by 86.01 percent.

The only small bright spot in the new GDP report came in goods trade – which accounts for the vast bulk of U.S. trade flows. Its after-inflation annualized third quarter trade deficit of $1.4234 trillion was just 1.53 percent higher than the second quarter figure. And although it represented an acceleration ove the second quarter’s sequential increase of just 0.44 percent, the speed-up was far from alarming.

The big problem with the third quarter real trade figures came on the services side. The sector has suffered the most virus-related damage of any in the economy, but the plunge in its long-time surplus of 25 percent, to $114.3 billion, was stunning nonethless. The level was the lowest level since the $110.9 billion recorded in the second quarter of 2007, and the sequential drop by far the biggest ever on a relative basis– surpassing those during the Great Recession following the financial crisis of 2007-08, and even during the early CCP Virus and lockdowns period.

Services exports actually rose a bit sequentially – by 0.94 percent, to $614.7 billion. The total was the best of the pandemic era, but still 20.55 percent below pre-pandemic (fourth quarter, 2019) levels. Services imports, however, jumped by 9.59 percent. The new $500.4 billion total was also the highest of the CCP Virus period and 8.52 percent below that of the fourth quarter of 2019. In addition, the quarterly increase was the biggest of all time. (Detailed service trade figures only go back to 2002.)

If it lasts, the heavy concentration of the economy’s trade problems in services industries could provide the real deficit’s growth with some extra oomph.  The problem isn’t just that the virus’ resilience could keep the sector under continuing and unusual pressure, which would mean that it won’t be nearly as much of a trade winner as before 

It’s also that there seems to be only a slim chance that trade policy can make much of a difference – since so many countries view service sectors like telecommunications and finance (and now digital services) as crucial to their own futures, and want to maintain and increase their own players’ advantages.  That’s mainly why services trade liberalization has made so much less progress than goods trade liberalization. Indeed, the United States and five European countries have just managed to avoid a trade war fought over and with digital services taxes – which would have been new trade barriers. 

At this point, it seems, the nation will have its hands full simply preventing higher trade deficits from becoming major drags on growth.  Anyone awaiting significant reductions in the shortfall, even as a share of GDP, will likely need lots of patience.