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Although yesterday’s official figures show that the U.S. economy has now shrunk for the second straight quarter, the nation’s chronic and immense trade deficit played a diametrically different role in producing the final results. Whereas during the first quarter of this year, the trade gap’s widening was the difference between expansion and contraction of the gross domestic product (GDP – the standard measure of the economy’s size), during the second quarter (at least according to the new advance figures), its narrowing kept the drop in GDP from being considerably worse.   

The tumble of 0.94 percent at annual rates revealed in GDP after inflation (the most widely followed measure, and the GDP gauge that will be used throughout this post unless otherwise specified) came on top of a 1.58 percent decrease in the first quarter. As many have observed, two consecutive quarters of real GDP decline has long been a common definition of a recession.

This time around, however, a 4.53 percent fall-off in the inflation-adjusted trade shortfall, from a record $1.5447 trillion at annual rates to $1.4747 trillion, generated 1.43 percentage points of sequential growth in the second quarter. Although the new deficit was still the second biggest on record, the improvement prevented the quarter’s GDP drop from reaching 2.37 percent – which would have been the worst such performance since the nearly 36 percent crash dive recorded between the first and second quarters of 2020, when the CCP Virus pandemic and its impact on the economy were at their worst.

This year’s second quarter, moreover, marked the first time that America’s trade flows had added to growth, and the biggest such contribution in absolute terms, since that spring of 2020, when the pandemic and related mandated and voluntary curbs on economic activity greatly depressed U.S. imports. In relative terms, the second quarter’s trade contribution to growth was the best since the second quarter of 2009, near the end of the Great Recession that followed the global financial crisis. During that quarter, real GDP sank at an annual rate of 0.68 percent, but trade generated 1.53 percentage points of growth.

By contrast, during the first quarter, the trade deficit’s expansion subtracted a whopping 3.23 percentage points from the change in GDP – which turned what would have been a 1.65 percent sequential increase into that 1.58 percent shrinkage.

The reduction in the trade deficit also enabled the shortfall to decrease as a percentage of the entire economy from the first quarter’s all-time high of 7.83 percent to 7.49 percent. Further, the 4.34 percent sequential decrease represented by this progress was the biggest since the 9.45 percent decline in the fourth quarter of 2019 – just before the pandemic arrived state-side in force.

At the same time, at 7.49 percent of real GDP, the second quarter trade deficit was still the second highest ever, and since that immediately pre-pandemic-y fourth quarter of 2019, the trade shortfall has ballooned by 73.99 percent. As of the first quarter, it had swollen during this period by 82.24 percent.

Ordinarily, the reasons for this trade deficit decline would be a clearcut positive:  Even though the gap usually narrows as the economy weakens, it stemmed from  total exports (counting goods and services) advancing much faster than the much larger amount of imports. But as the nation and world are still in the CCP Virus and in the middle of the Ukraine War, with all the supply chain turbulence they’ve both brought on and will surely keep bringing, drawing strong conclusions still seems unusually hazardous.   

Those total U.S. exports improved by 4.22 percent on quarter, from $2.3613 trillion at annual rates to $2.4410 trillion – the highest such total since the $2.5533 trillion recorded in the fourth quarter of 2019, just before the pandemic hit the U.S. economy. The results were especially encouraging since total exports fell sequentially in the first quarter (by 1.23 percent), and given the global economic slowdown and the dollar’s strengthening to roughly 20-year highs versus nearly all currencies. This move in and of itself put U.S.-origin goods and services at a price disadvantage versus foreign competitors the world over.

Combined goods and services exports are now down just 3.61 percent since that fourth quarter of 2019, versus the 7.52 percent calculable last quarter.

Total imports inched up just 0.76 percent, although the new $3.9357 trillion annualized level did amount to a sixth straight record and an eighth consecutive quarterly increase. These purchases have now climbed by 15.37 percent during the pandemic era, versus the 14.85 percent calculable last quarter.

The goods trade deficit, meanwhile, declined by 3.96 percent sequentially, from the first quarter record total $1.6572 trillion annualized to $1.5916 trillion. This drop was the first since the peak pandemic-y second quarter of 2020, and the biggest since the 6.52 percent shrinkage in the fourth quarter of 2019. The goods trade gap, consequently, has grown by 48.55 percent since the end of 2019, as opposed to the 54.68 percent calculable last quarter.

Goods exports in the second quarter rose 3.69 percent from the first quarter’s $1.7577 trillion at annual rates to a new record $1.8225 trillion – surpassing the previous all-time high of $1.8046 trillion set in the first quarter of 2019. These new results also mean that goods exports have finally exceeded pre-pandemic levels (by 2.24 percent). After the first quarter ended, they were still down 1.39 percent since the fourth quarter of 2019.

Goods imports, however, recorded their first quarterly decrease since the third quarter of 2021 – though only from a worst ever $3.4149 trillion annualized to $3.4141 trillion. But these imports are still 19.63 percent higher than in that immediate pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.

The services trade surplus improved by 8.60 percent between the first and second quarters, from $109.3 billion at annual rates to $118.7 billion. Reflecting the unusually hard hit delivered by the pandemic to the service sector, however, this surplus is still 47.64 percent lower than its level just before the virus began seriously affecting the U.S. economy. That is, it’s been nearly cut in half.

Services exports in the second quarter actually increased sequentially for the third straight time. And the 5.56 percent advance, from $631.5 billion annualized to $666.6 billion was the strongest since the 5.83 percent jump in the fourth quarter of 2006. Nonetheless, services exports remain 13.84 percent off their immediate pre-pandemic level, versus the 18.38 percent calculable last quarter.

Services imports are now back above their pre-pandemic levels, too (by 1.65 percent), having risen 4.92 percent sequentially in the second quarter, from $522.2 billion at annual rates to $547.9. The improvement, moreover, was the fastest since the 7.80 percent recorded in last year’s third quarter.

As mentioned above, usually it’s unambiguously good news for both trade, and to a lesser extent, the entire economy, when the trade deficit diminishes because exports are up considerably faster than imports. It’s normally even better news when these kinds of results are delivered in challenging international and exchange rate environments. But with the Ukraine War and China’s Zero Covid policy still distorting U.S. and global trade flows and unlikely to end anytime soon, unbridled optimism is hard to justify. So like the Federal Reserve, RealityChek will remain data dependent as it tries to detemine the outlook for U.S. trade’s fortunes.