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The trade highlights of yesterday’s first official estimate of U.S. economic growth in the fourth quarter of last year and full-year 2022 provide a great lesson on how the pictures drawn by data can vary greatly depending on which time frame you’re looking at – even within the span of a single year.

The quarter-to-quarter numbers look rather good – in terms of deficit reduction – but the annual numbers are pretty discouraging.

We’ll start with those quarterly data, which show that the inflation-adjusted trade deficit shrank for the third consecutive time in the fourth quarter – by 2.87 percent, from $1.2688 trillion at annual rates to $1.2324 trillion. This first such stretch since the year between the second quarter of 2019 through the second quarter of 2020, brought the quarterly shortfall down to its lowest level since the second quarter of 2021 ($1.2039 trillion annualized).

These results also confirmed that the fourth quarter was the second straight to see the economy expand as the deficit contracted. This marked the first time that’s been the case since the period between the second and fourth quarters of 2019, and signals that the economy has been growing healthily, relying more on investment and production than on borrowing and spending.

One sign of regression along these lines: The trade deficit declined in the previous two quarters because exports rose and imports dropped. In the fourth quarter, however, both decreased.

Moreover, the after inflation combined goods and services trade deficit is still 47.98 percent above its level in the fourth quarter of 2019 – just before the United States and its economy began suffering the full effects of the CCP Virus. As of the third quarter, this increase was 52.35 percent.

But overall, the new quarterly statistics still warrant a so-far-so-good interpretation.

Trade’s contribution to the fourth quarter’s growth was much smaller than in the third quarter. Then, it fueled 2.86 percentage points of the 3.20 percent real annual advance – the biggest absolute total in 42 years (but far from a long-term high in relative terms). Without that trade ooost, all else equal, the economy would have grown by a measly 0.34 percent after inflation at annual rates – just a little over a tenth as fast.

In the fourth quarter, trade’s growth contribution was just 0.56 percentage points of 2.86 percent real annualized growth. That’s still positive, though. And if not for this narrowing of the gap, constant dollar GDP would have still expanded, but just by a so-so 2.30 percent.

Drilling down, the new GDP report pegs fourth quarter sequential total exports at $2.5955 trillion in constant dollars at annual rates. This drop was the first since the first quarter of last year, but the slip was just 0.33 percent from the third quarter’s record $2.6041 trillion and the second best total ever.. At the same time, real exports are still only 0.92 percent higher than in the last pre-pandemic quarter. As of 3Q, these sales were 1.26 percent higher.

Total price-adjusted imports retreated, too – and as indicated above for the second consecutive quarter. That’s the longest such streak since the year between the second quarter of 2019 and the peak pandemic-y second quarter of 2020. The actual decrease was steeper than that of exports – 1.16 percent, to $3.8729 trillion at annual rates. Yet these purchases are fully 13.75 percent higher than just before the CCP Virus’ arrival stateside in full force. – roughly where they stood as of te third quarter.

The real deficit in goods sank by 2.84 percent on quarter, from $1.4324 trillion at annual rates to $1.3916 trillion. This sequential decrease was the third straight (the first such span since the peak CCP Virus-dominated period between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020). And it pushed this trade gap down to its lowest total since the first quarter of 2021’s $1.3809 trillion. Since just before the pandemic’s fourth quarter 2019 arrival stateside in force, the goods trade deficit is up by 27.54 percent. As of the third quarter, this increase was 34.20 percent.

The longstanding surplus in services jumped by 12.78 percent sequentially, from a price adjusted $163.5 billion annualized to $184.4 billion –the highest such level since the $187.50 billion of the fourth quarter of 2020. Yet reflecting the outsized hit taken by services industries since the virus struck the nation, this surplus is still 21.80 percent lower than in that immediately pre-Covid fourth quarter of 2019. As of this year’s third quarter, that decrease was 30.66 percent.

After-inflation goods exports dipped by 1.77 percent in the fourth quarter, from the $1.9101 trillion annualized total in the third quarter (marking the third straight quarterly record) to $1.8673 trillion. Real goods exports are now 4.51 percent greater than in the fourth quarter of 2019, versus the 6.41percent calculable as of the third quarter.

Constant dollar goods imports in the fourth quarter fell for te third consecutive time, too – a firs stnce the fourth quarter, 2019 through second quarter, 2020 period. The decrease of 1.43 percent, from $3.3334 trillion at annual rates to $3.2856 trillion, produced the lowest such goods import figure since the $3.2582 in the fourth quarter of 2021. In inflation-adjusted terms, goods imports are now 14.21 percent higher than in the immediate pre-pandemic-y fourth quarter of 2019, versus their 16.83 percent increase as of the third quarter.

Services exports in the fourth quarter expanded from $722.5 billion after inflation at annual rates to $740 billion, a 2.42 percent improvement that represented the tenth straight sequential increase in thse sales. But real services exports are still down by 5.44 percent since the fourth quarter of 2019, versus 8.17 percent off as of the third quarter.

Inflation-adjusted services imports were up for a tenth straight quarter, too, in the fourth quarter, but inched up just 0.11 percent, from an annualized $559 billion to $559.6 billion. As a result, their now 15.61 percent larger than just before the pandemic’s arrival in force, versus 14.52 percent as of the third quarter.

Many of the annual figures, however, showed deterioration. Between 2021 and 2022, the combined goods and services trade gap hit its ninth straight yearly record in real terms, as the gap widened by 9.87 percent, from $1.2334 trillion annualized to $1.3551 trillion.

In addition, as a share of real gross domestic product (GDP – the standard measure of the economy’s size), the trade gap set its third straight all-time high, worsening from 6.29 percent to 6.77 percent.

The trade shortfall’s yearly rise subtracted 0.40 percentage points from 2022’s 2.08 percent price -adjusted inflation adjusted growth – a share smaller in both absolute and relative terms than in 2021, when the larger trade deficit sliced 1.25 percentage points from 5.95 percent growth. Both figures are far from records.

Total real exports climbed for the second straight year in 2022, from $2.3668 trillion to 2.5384 trillion, with the 7.25 percent growth rate the strongest since 2010’s 12.88 percent in 2010 – when the economy was recovering from the Great Recession that followed the Global Financial Crisis.

Total real imports posted their second consecutive gain, too, as well as their second straight record. The 8.15 percent increase brought the total to $3.8935 trillion.

Another new all-time annual high in 2022 was set by the constant dollar goods trade deficit, and the record in this case was the fourth in a row. By widening by 11.50 percent, the gap hit $1.5220 trillion.

And continuing the bad news, the real services trade surplus slumped by 5.23 percent in 2022. Moreover, the $162.8 billion figure was the lowest since 2010’s $158.6 billion.

On the export front, constant dollar overeas sales of goods grew by 6.33 percent, from $1.7289 trillion to $1.8383`trillion. The increase was the second straight and the total a new record – topping 2019’s $1.7915 trillion by 2.61 percent.

Yet real goods imports rose even faster. The 6.91 percent advance brought them from $3.1430 trillion to $3.3603 trillion – a second consecutive all-time high.

After-inflation services exports jumped by 9.90 percent from 2021-2022, the biggest such increasesince 2007’s 13.08 percent. And the totals expanded from $656.9 billion to $717.3 billion..

As for price-adjusted services imports, their annual surge of 14.52 percent – from $484.2 billion to $554.0 billion was the fastest ever, surpassing even last year’s robust 12.27 percent.

As always with pandemict or post-pandemic (take your pick) U.S. economic data, the outlook for real trade flows is murky, and dependent on many big unknowables – mainly how much faster and higher the Federal Reserve will hike interest rates in order to fight inflation by slowing the economy, whether it will succeed, how long its inflation-fighting moves will take to impact economic growth and consumer spending fully, how China’s reopening after months of a lockdown-heavy Zero Covid policy will proceed, and whether growth in the rest of the world will perk up or slacken.

My hunch, for the short-term anyway, is that worse inflation-adjusted trade results may keep coming. For example, the quarterly real trade deficit decrease was the smallest of that current three-quarter string. Indeed, it was much smaller than the 11.30 percent plunge between the second and third quarters – which was the greatest since the 17.95 percent nosedive between the first and second quarters of 2009, when the economy was still mired in the Great Recession that followed the Global Financial Crisis.of 2007-08.

In addition, the latest government report projection for the monthly trade deficit (measured in pre-inflation dollars) shows a significant increase in the goods gap, which makes up the lion’s share of both total U.S. trade flows and the deficit. And even if the price-adjusted trade gap continues to fall, such results will be all the less impressive against the backdrop of the economic slowdown and even contraction that’s still being widely predicted.

More specifically, I suspect that American economic growth will either at least weaken as the trade deficit moves up, or that GDP will keep plowing ahead because personal consumption remains resilient, which will keep the trade shortfall on a rebounding course.