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The final (for now) official U.S. report on the change in the economy’s output (gross domestic product, or GDP) during the first quarter of this year came in this morning, and just as the estimates of sequential shrinkage have gotten slightly worse since the initial read two months ago, so did the estimates of the nation’s trade deficit. As known by RealityChek regulars, that’s one of the worst combinations of economic data possible.   

And although the growth-cutting impact of these swelling trade shortfalls remained unrevised from the 3.23 percentage points recorded in the previous GDP read, it’s still bigger than the 3.20 percentage points estimated in the initial release, and sizable by any measure. Indeed, it was big enough to represent the difference between quarterly growth and quarterly contraction.

First, the overall GDP results. The Commerce Department now judges the economy to have shriveled by 1.58 percent at annual rates after adjusting for inflation. (The measure most widely followed.) That’s worse than both the second estimate (a 1.52 percent decline) and the first read (1.42 percent). This confirmation of first quarter contraction, moreover, means that the economy has now officially proceeded halfway toward a recession according to the most common definition: two straight quarters of real GDP decreases.

The trade gap has widened similarly – from the initially reported inflation adjusted and annualized $1.5417 trillion to $1.5435 trillion to today’s $1.5447 trillion.

This total amounts to a new all-time quarterly high, and the seventh straight such record registered. The real growth bite of this deficit wasn’t a record in absolute terms. That distinction belongs to the third quarter of 2020. But that period’s 3.25 percentage point hit to inflation-adjusted GDP came in the context of that quarter’s roaring comeback from the short but deep CCP Virus-induced downturn from earlier that spring. So the trade deficit’s impact was barely noticed.

Without such a big (14.41 percent) sequential jump in the trade deficit, the economy would have expanded by 1.65 percent at real annual rates in the first quarter – no great shakes by any means, but certainly better than a slump.

In addition, on a relative basis, the 3.23 percentage point drag on first quarter growth stayed the biggest ever – slightl eclipsing the 3.22 percent drag on the 1.53 percent total real GDP contraction way back in the second quarter of 1982.

Moreover, the quarter-to-quarter swing in the trade gap’s growth impact – from a 0.23 percentage point hit during the fourth quarter – was the biggest since mid-2020, when the 1.53 percentage point boost to growth in the second quarter became a 3.25 percentage point subtraction in the third quarter.

And for good measure, the sequential swing in the trade gap’s absolute growth impact between the fourth quarter of 2020 – when a small worsening of the inflation-adjusted trade deficit subtracted just 0.23 percentage points from growth – to the first quarter remained the biggest since mid-2020. Then, a percentage point boost to growth in the second quarter became a 3.25 percentage point subtraction in the third quarter. But again, that latter figure came during a quarter of 30.19 percent annualized constant dollar growth!

The newest increase in the price-adjusted quarterly trade deficit also generated a new record in terms of its share of the overall economy. As of today, the real trade gap represents 7.83 percent of inflation-adjusted GDP – compared with the 7.82 percent calculable last month.

One bottom line: The after-inflation trade deficit is now 82.24 percent higher than in the fourth quarter of 2019 – the last quarter before the CCP Virus’ arrival began seriously affecting and especially distorting the economy. That’s not so far from a doubling.

Today’s GDP report showed that total inflation-adjusted exports fared a little better in the first quarter than first estimated. The new $2.3613 trillion inflation-adjusted annualized figure is 0.15 percent higher than the second read’s and 0.29 percent above the first’s.

Yet these overseas sales are still down 1.23 percent from last year’s fourth quarter and fell sequentially for the fourth time in the nine quarters that have passed since the first pandemic-affected quarter (the first quarter of 2020). Further, these exports are still 7.52 percent lower than immediately before the virus’ arrival in force, in the last quarter of 2019.

The total first quarter real imports numbers, however, have continued to rise, too. This morning’s constant dollar annualized figure of $3.9060 trillion was up 0.12 percent from the second read and 0.25 percent from the first.

As a result, the first quarter remains the new record-holder for quarterly total after-inflation imports, and the all-time high is still the fifth in a row. The sequential increase of 4.42 percent, moreover, is still the biggest since the 17.29 percent explosion between those second and third quarters of 2020, and total price-adjusted imports are now up 14.85 percent since that last pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.

Interestingly, the new GDP report also confirmed that the nation’s trade in goods has been improving modestly while trade in services – not only the economy’s biggest sector, but the one hit hardest by the pandemic – has been deteriorating.

In this vein, the final estimate of the real goods trade deficit came in at $1.6572 trillion at annual rates. That figure is 0.65 percent smaller than that in the second GDP report, and 0.68 percent less than the initial result.

At the same time, the new total is still a seventh straight record, and the increase of 12.88 percent over the $1.4681 trillion gap reported for the fourth quarter of last year remained the biggest sequential increase since the 20.40 percent surge between the second and third quarters of pandemic-ridden 2020. Moreover, the new first quarter total is 54.68 percent higher than the $1.0714 trillion during the fourth quarter of 2019 – the last data quarter before the CCP Virus began playing havoc with the economy and economic data.

By contrast, the new estimate shows that the chronic U.S. services trade surplus keeps decreasing. The latest figure for the first quarter – $109.3 billion in real terms at annual rates – was fully 8.15 percent lower than the second estimate and 9.59 percent smaller than the first. Due to this third estimate, the services surplus fell by 9.88 percent from the fourth quarter’s $120.1 billion real annualized total, and has been cut by more than half (51.79 percent) from its $226.7 billion level in the immediate pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.

The goods and services trade divergence has marked both the export and import performances comprising the above trade balance figures. For goods exports, the final estimate for the first quarter ($1.7577 trillion annualized and adjusted for inflation) was up 0.33 percent from the second estimate and 0.54 percent from the first.

But real goods exports still dropped by 1.97 percent between the last quarter of 2019 and the first of 2022, this sequential fall-off (like that for total real exports) remains the fourth in the nine pandemic-affected quarters, and it’s still the biggest such decrease since that registered between the first and second quarters of pandemic-y 2020 (23.08 percent). And since the fourth quarter of 2019, goods exports are still off by 1.39 percent.

By contrast, constant dollar goods imports results have come down during the first quarter – though not in a straight line. The new total of $3.4149 trillion on a real, annualized basis is 0.15 percent below the second read but just 0.05 percent below the first.

Today’s real goods imports figure, though, was also the second straight all-time high and a 4.72 percent increase over the fourth quarter figure – the greatest sequential increase since the 6.80 percent rise in the fourth quarter of 2020. These imports, moreover, are now 19.66 percent above their fourth quarter, 2019 level.

The after-inflation services exports estimates, however, kept weakening in the first quarter GDP reports. The $631.5 billion real annualized total reported today was a 0.61 percent improvement over the fourth quarter’s $627.7 billion, the second straight quarterly gain, and the best quarterly result since the $695.3 billion recorded in he first quarter of 2020.

But it was down 0.28 percent from the second read and 0.33 percent from the first. and since the final pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019, these exports have plunged by 18.38 percent.

As for the price-adjusted services imports estimate, it grew quickly in the first quarter. The third read of $522.2 billion at price-adjusted annual rates is 1.54 percent higher than the second and 1.85 percent above the first. And these purchases were 2.88 percent higher than the fourth quarter total.

This final (for now!) first quarter after-inflation services imports figure is the highest since the $547 billion figure for the fourth quarter of 2019. But since then, these purchases have sagged by 4.53 percent.

A glass-half-full type might point out that this final first quarter GDP report — and the last few official monthly trade releases, might represent peak trade deficit for the United States.  But a glass-half-empty type tight counter that the main reason could be an economic slowdown and possibly imminent recession that would primarily — and finally — depress Americans’ importing and other spending. That’s hardly the ideal formula for narrowing the trade gap and indebtedness it fuels.  But it’s one that seems unavoidable for now.