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The U.S. economy’s quarterly shrinkage in the first quarter of this year that U.S. government data just revealed – the first such inflation-adjusted decline since the darkest days of the CCP Virus pandemic in the second quarter of 2020 – was led by leaps and bounds by a soaring and all-time record quarterly U.S. real trade deficit.

Even as the gross domestic product (GDP – the chief measure of the economy’s size) fell sequentially in price-adjusted terms by 1.42 percent at annual rates, the after-inflation trade gap swelled to a record $1.5417 trillion by the same measure. In other words, the trade deficit and growth arrows are moving in the worst possible combination of ways.     

This ballooning reduced real GDP in the first quarter by 3.20 percentage points – the biggest such subtraction in absolute terms since the 3.25 percentage point loss recorded in the third quarter of 2020 (when the economy was rapidly recovering from the deep downturn induced by the first CCP virus wave).

Had the price-adjusted trade deficit simply stayed the same in the first quarter, the economy would have actually expanded by 1.78 percent at annual rates.

Moreover, this soaring constant dollar trade deficit’s hit to growth was the greatest since the second quarter of 1982, when the shortfall’s sequential surge reduced growth by 3.22 percentage points as the economy shriveled by 1.53 percent after inflation. And for good measure, the quarterly swing in the trade deficit’s effect on growth (from a 0.23 percentage point subtraction) was the greatest in absolute terms since that first pandemic recovery between the second and third quarters of 2020 – when the impact changed from a 1.53 percentage point boost to growth to a 3.25 percentage point contraction.

The first quarter’s record trade deficit was the seventh straight, and the 14.19 percent sequential widening was the biggest since the 31.81 percent jump between the second and third quarters of 2020 – again, when the economy was bouncing back rapidly from that pandemic-induced cratering, not contracting. In fact, these latest GDP figures revealed the first time that both the economy shrank and the trade deficit grew since the first quarter of 2020 – when the virus’ economic impact was first starting to be felt.

At least as bad, at 7.81 percent of real GDP in the first quarter, the relative size of the inflation-adjusted trade deficit blew past the old record of 6.82 percent – set in the previous quarter. Since the fourth quarter of 2019, the final quarter before the CCP Virus began impacting the U.S. economy significantly, the overall inflation-adjusted trade gap is up by fully 81.89 percent.

Nor did the all-time and multi-month worsts stop with the total real trade deficit.

The first quarter real goods trade deficit of $1.6685 trillion annualized was the seventh straight record and the 13.65 percent increase over the fourth quarter tota was the biggest sequential rise since the 20.40 percent between the second and third quarters of 2020 – during that early pandemic recovery. Since the CCP Virus era began, the after-inflation goods trade shortfall has worsened by 55.73 percent.

The firist quarter’s services trade surplus of $120.9 billion annualized was actually slightly higher than the fourth quarter’s $120.1 billion, and represented the third straight quarter of improvement. The absolute level, moreover, was the highest since the $152.4 billion recorded in the second quarter f 2021. But since the fourth quarter of 2019, the services surplus is down by 44.46 percent, reflecting the uusually hard virus-related blows this portion of the economy has suffered.

Inflation-adjusted combined goods and services exports dipped by 1.51 percent on quarter – from an annualized $2.3906 trillion to $2.3545 trillion. The drop was the fourth in the nine quarters since that first pandemic-affected first quarter of 2020. On a quarterly basis, total U.S. constant dollar exports are down 7.79 percent since the last pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.

Yet total imports achieved their fifth straight quarterly record, reaching $3.8963 trillion in real terms at annual rates. The 4.16 percent sequential increase was only slightly smaller than the 4.21 percent rise in the fourth quarter of last year. These imports are now 14.57 percent greater than they were in the immediate pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.

Goods exports sank by 2.50 percent on quarter, from an after-inflation $1.793 trillion at annual rates to $1.7482 trillion. The sequential drop was also the fourth in the nine quarters since the pandemic first arrived in the United States and the biggest since the 23.08 percent collapse in the second quarter of 2020. Quarterly goods exports have now decreased by 1.92 percent since the fourth quarter of 2019.

Constant dollar goods imports grew by 4.77 percent in the quarter, from $3.2611 trillion annualized to a second consecutive record of $3.4167 trillion. The increase was the third in a row, and its rate was the fastest since the 6.80 percent for the fourth quarter of 2020. On a quarterly basis, these overseas purchases have surged by 19.72 percent since just before the pandemic struck in force.

Real services exports climbed 0.94 percent sequentially in the first quarter, from $627.7 billion at annual rates to $633.6 billion. This second straight advance propelled these sales to their highest absolute level since the first quarter of 2020’s $695.3 billion. At the same time, quarterly-wise, inflation-adjusted services exports have plummeted 18.11 percent from immediate pre-CCP Virus levels.

Real services imports rose one percent sequentially in the first quarter, and the increase from $507.6 billion to $512.7 billion annualized sent them to their highest level since that immediate pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019. But these results still left these purchases 6.27 percent below that $547 billion annualized number.

And the lousy trade news doesn’t seem likely to stop, even if U.S. economic growth continues to under-perform because of multi-decade high inflation, Federal Reserve efforts to tame it by slowing the economy via monetary policy tightening, and ongoing supply chain disruptions due to China’s Zero Covid policy and the Ukraine War.

The main reasons? First, growth overseas is much more vulnerable to supply chain issues than American growth, and all else equal, relative U.S. economic strength will surely pull in more imports and crimp exports. Second, as of today, the U.S. dollar’s recent rise has brought the greenback to its highest level in twenty years, which will increase the cost of American exports versus the global competition and decrease the cost of U.S. imports versus the domestic competition. And finally, the Biden administration has been dropping broad hints that it will cut tariffs on many imports from China before long – ostensibly to help fight inflation.

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