This entry represents my first effort to catch up on U.S. economic data released while I was on jury duty last week, and will cover the latest inflation-adjusted trade figures – which carry the story though the fourth quarter of last year and therefore the full year, and seem to me especially important because inflation has been so much hotter lately than what Americans have gotten used to for decades.
At the same time, the big picture they draw is very similar to that created by the full-year 2021 pre-inflation trade figures, which came out February 8: Last year was lousy in record terms for America’s trade flows, even if a few reasons for optimism can be seen.
The lousy records start with the annual price-adjusted total trade deficit: At $1.2843 trillion, the 2021 level was the second straight yearly all-time high. And the 36.24 percent increase over 2020’s $942.7 billion was the biggest since 1999’s 47.97 percent (when the much smaller absolute numbers made such huge relative increases much easier to generate).
The fourth quarter of 2021 was even more record-y. Its $1.3501 trillion annualized total was the sixth straight quarterly record. But at least the sequential rise of 2.54 percent was far from a record. In fact, it was downright modest compared with the 5.79 percent quarterly increase in the third quarter, the 8.24 percent sequential rise registered in the first quarter, much less the 31.81 percent burst of the second quarter of 2020, when the economy was rebounding so strongly from the sharp downturn caused by the CCP Virus’ first wave and related lockdowns and behavioral curbs. That’s the greatest jump in nearly 40 years – since the 33.82 percent in the third quarter of 1983 (when again, the absolute numbers were much smaller.
Viewed in context, moreover, the price-adjusted trade deficit picture is equally bad. As a share of after-inflation gross domestic product (GDP – the standard measure of a national economy’s size) the real trade deficit reached 6.61 percent – breaking the old record of 6.14 percent set in 2005.
On a quarterly basis, the fourth quarter of 2021’s constant dollar trade deficit of 6.76 percent of constant dollar GDP was a new all-time high as well, eclipsing the 6.43 percent of the first quarter.
Moreover, these figures aren’t just of academic interest. The real trade deficit’s year-on-year surge chopped 1.40 percentage points off of 2021’s annual growth. In other words, rather than the 5.67 percent recorded, the economy would have expanded by 7.07 percent. That’s the biggest loss in absolute terms since the trade shortfall’s increase reduced inflation adjusted growth by 1.54 percentage points in 1984.
In addition, the 2021 annual increase in the trade deficit’s subtraction from real growth in absolute terms – from 0.29 percentage points in 2020 – was the biggest since trade turned from a supporter of growth in 1949 (by 0.08 percentage points) to a subtractor of 1.28 percentage points in 1950.
Relatively speaking, though, the 2021 trade bite from growth looks just slightly better. It’s only the biggest since the deficit’s increase reduced 2015’s 2.71 percent price-adjusted GDP growth by 0.78 percentage points, or 28.78 percent.
In quarterly terms, however, the impact of the trade deficit’s increase on after-inflation growth looks better still. Whereas this increase chopped 1.26 percentage points off the sequential real GDP improvement of 2.28 percent at an ainnual rate in the third quarter of last year, it subtracted only 0.23 percentage points from the much stronger sequential 6.72 percent annualized advance in the fourth quarter .
Regarding the components of the inflation-adjusted trade deficit, total real exports in 2021 were up 4.53 percent – the fastest pace since the 12.88 percent jump in 2010, as the economy was recovering from the Great Recession that followed the 2007-08 global financial crisis. But the $2.3075 trillion amount was still 9.71 percent below the all-time high of $2.5556 trillion, achieved in 2018.
Last year’s after-inflation total imports, however, did set a new record. At $3.5919 trillion, they topped 2020’s $3.1503 trillion level, by 14.02 percent and the old (2019) mark of $3.5492 trillion by 1.20 percent. The latest annual growth rate, moreover, was the greatest since they soared 24.34 percent in 1984 – when, again, the absolute levels were much smaller.
On a quarterly basis, the $2.3906 trillion annualized in combined goods and services exports for the last three months of last year represented a 5.17 percent rise from the third quarter’s $2.2730 trillion. The improvement was the fastest since the fourth quarter of 2020’s 5.20 percent, but the total was 6.81 percent below the record of $2.5653 trillion, from the first quarter of 2019.
Total imports for that fourth quarter, though, were the fourth straight all-time high. At $3.7408 trillion, they bested the previous quarter’s by 4.21 percent.
The final catch-up item: The February inflation rates according to the Federal Reserve’s preferred gauge – which were issued last Thursday. Hoping I can report on them tomorrow – but life sure has taken some interesting turns lately!