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You couldn’t ask for a better official first read on American trade flows and U.S. economic growth for the third quarter of this year than the one that came out on Thursday – unless you’re into making unreasonable requests.

On top of that report on the gross domestic product (GDP – the leading measure of the economy’s size) showing a return to expansion that ended the recession that marked the first half of the year; and on top of the trade deficit shrinking for the second straight quarter (a first since the third and fourth quarters of 2019), the trade gap shrank in the best possible way, for the best possible reason.

Here’s why. The new GDP figures (which will be revised twice more in the next two months, as is the case for every such release) estimated that the nation’s output of goods and services rose in inflation-adjusted terms (the measure most closely followed) by a solid 2.54 percent at annual rates.

And as real GDP climbed, the after-inflation trade deficit decreased from $1.4305 trillion annualized to $1.2740 trillion. That’s important because there’s nothing unusual about the trade shortfall declining when the economy contracts. In fact, that’s often the case. After all, a slumping economy pulls in fewer imports. But a smaller trade deficit during a quarter of growth? That’s unusual, and genuinely exciting, since it means that the growth has been healthy and, all else equal, sustainable – driven by production and not consumption.

Better yet, improvement was registered on both sides of the trade ledger, with exports up and imports down. The export progress was especially impressive, given that selling U.S.-origin goods and services abroad should be getting harder because of an economic slowdown in most of the rest of the world, and the surging U.S. dollar – which reduces their price competitiveness abroad (and at home, for that matter, too).

The third quarter constant dollar trade deficit hit its lowest level since the third quarter of last year ($1.2675 trillion annualized), and the consecutive declines were the first since the stretch between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020 – that’s of course when the CCP Virus began ripping through the nation and triggering a short but deep economic slump.

In addition, this latest sequential narrowing of the price-adjusted trade gap was the biggest in relative terms (10.94 percent) since the second quarter of 2009, when the economy was still mired in the Great Recession produced by Global Financial Crisis.

As a result, the real trade deficit as a share of constant dollar GDP sank to 6.36 percent – its lowest level since the second quarter of 2021 (6.16 percent). And the drop in this ratio from the 7.19 percent it reached in the previous quarter (11.54 percent) was the biggest also since the second quarter of 2009 (17.89 percent).

Trade’s contribution to third quarter growth was noteworthy as well. By generating 2.77 percentage points to the total quarterly after-inflation GDP increase of 2.54 percent annualized, it bolstered the economy by the greatest amount in absolute terms since the second quarter of 1980 – when it increased constant dollar GDP by 3.99 percentage points during a stretch when the economy shrunk overall by 5.48 percent at an annual rate. (As with any element of GDP, the trade contribution can be greater than the overall growth rate when other elements decrease.) 

Another way to look at this development:  All else equal, without this trade boost to growth, the economy would have shriveled by 0.23 percent at annual rates in the third quarter, and by the most influential measure, the recession would still be on.  

But again, it’s pretty standard for the trade to support growth during a contraction. Therefore, it’s also worth observing that its latest role during an expansion quarter was the biggest since the third quarter of 1980, when it added 2.96 percentage points to that period’s 2.66 percent annualized rebound.

Nonetheless, this trade contribution to growth was far from the biggest on record in relative terms. (This statistical series reports quarterly data going back to 1947.) For example, during the second quarter of this year, the decline of the trade deficit added 1.16 percentage points of growth while the economy contracted by 0.58 percent in real annual terms.

Moreover, it’s crucial to keep in mind that the third quarter’s trade deficit was still the fourth largest ever. (These quarterly data go back to 1947, too.) And it’s fully 52.98 percent higher than its level in the fourth quarter of 2019 – the last full quarter of data before the CCP Virus began roiling and warping the economy.

That third quarter export increase that helped the overall trade deficit shrink hit 3.43 percent – rising from $2.5619 trillion at annual rates in the second quarter to $2.6032 trillion. The result was a new all-time high. (The old record was the $2.5823 trillion annualized level in the first quarter of 2019.) This second straight quarterly improvemet in overseas sales of goods and services also finally pushed them above their immediate pre-pandemic level – by 1.22 percent.

On the import side, after setting five straight quarterly records, U.S. inflation-adjusted purchases of foreign goods and services sank by 1.78 percent sequentially in the third quarter, from $3.9475 trillion at annual rates to $3.8772 trillion. In fact, this quarterly retreat was the first since the second quarter of 2020, when the pandemic was spreading and depressing economic activity rapidly.

Yet this after-inflation import total was still the third highest on record, and the level of these total purchases remains 13.88 percent higher than in the immediate pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.

Goods trade dominates U.S. trade flows and helped the total constant dollar deficit decrease by falling 9.51 percent sequentially in the third quarter, from $1.5846 trillion at annual rates to $1.4339 trillion. This second straight narrowing brought the goods deficit to its lowest level since the third quarter of last year $1.4144 trillion.

The improvement, moreover, was the biggest in percentage terms since the 12.63 percent plunge in the second quarter of 2009, when the economy was still mired in the Great Recession that followed the Global Financial Crisis.

Yet the goods trade deficit remains 48.57 percent above its level in that immediate pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.

Meanwhile, the longstanding services trade surplus advanced by 7.43 percent in constant dollar terms, from $149.4 billion at annual rates to $160.5 billion. The increase in this sector followed two straight sequential drops in this surplus, and reflecting the outsized CCP Virus hit taken by this sector, is still down 31.93 percent since just before the pandemic’s arrival.

Real goods exports set their third consecutive record in the third quarter, growing 4.04 percent, from $1.8249 trillion at annual rates to $1.8986 trillion. These foreign sales are now 6.27 percent higher than in the fourth quarter of 2019.

After-inflation goods imports dipped for the second straight time, and by 2.26 percent – from $3.4095 trillion annualized to $3.3325 trillion. These purchases are still up 16.80 percent since just before the pandemic’s arrival.

Services exports in the third quarter advanced for the ninth straight time – climbing 2.03 percent, from $709.5 billion at annual rates to $723.9 billion. Yet they remain 7.99 percent below those pre-CCP Virus fourth quarter, 2019 level.

Services imports edged up by 0.59 percent in the third quarter. This sixth straight increase, from a $560.1 billion annualized level to $563.4 billion, brought them to 2.25 percent above their fourth quarter, 2019 level.

The big concern hanging over the good GDP news is the economy’s continued dependence on the massive stimulus provided to households and businesses during the pandemic era by Presidents and Congresses, and by the Federal Reserve – even though consumers are steadily spending down their windfalls. (See this post for the key consumer finance data.) That means that more towering inflation will be with Americans for many more months unless government policies change dramatically.

But however good the trade deficit and growth quality news, wild cards and potential headwinds and crosswinds still abound. Among them: the growth slowdown that’s coming as tighter Fed monetary policy works its way through the economy, to continuing economic woes in the major markets for U.S. exports, to the ongoing dollar surge, to the distinct possibility that the Fed will chicken out on the inflation-fighting front, and that the rest of the government will want to juice consumer spending power again if recession fears return. The last two developments, of course, could well draw in disproportionate amounts of imports, and as the next national election approaches, the odds that they play out seem certain to grow.