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Pretty calm on the surface, pretty turbulent underneath. That’s a good way to look at yesterday’s official release of the U.S. trade figures for January. Many of the broadest trade balance figures moved little from their December levels, but the details revealed many multi-month and even multi-year highs, lows, and changes – along with one all-time high (the goods deficit with India).

The combined goods and services deficit most strongly conveyed the impression of relatively calm trade waters. It rose sequentially for the second straight month, but only by 1.61 percent, from a downwardly revised $67.21 billion to $68.29 billion.

The trade shortfall in goods narrowed, but by even less – 0.69 percent, from an upwardly revised $90.71 billion to $90.09 billion.

More volatility was displayed by the services trade surplus. It sank for the first time in two months, from upwardly revised $23.50 billion (its highest monthly total since December, 2019’s $24.56 billion – just before the CCP Virs’ arrival stateside) to $21.80 billion. Moreover, this shrinkage (7.26 percent) was the greatest since last May’s 11.05 percent.

Meanwhile, total U.S. exports in January expanded sequentially for the first time since August. And the the 3.41 percent rise, from a downwardly revised $249.00 billion to $257.50 billion was the biggest since April’s 3.62 percent.

Goods exports in January also registered their first monthly increase since August, with the 6.02 percent improvement (from a downwardly revised $167.69 billion to $177.79 billion) the biggest since October, 2021’s 9.09 percent.

Services exports dipped on month in January, from a downwardly revised $81.32 billion to $79.71 billion. And the 1.98 percent decrease was the biggest since last January’s 3.05 percent. But the December total was the highest on record, and the seventh straight all-time high over the preceding nine months, so January could be a mere bump in the services export recovery road.

On the import side, total U.S. purchases from abroad advanced for the second straight month in January, with the 3.03 percent increase (from a downwardly revised $316.21 billion to $325.79 billion standing as the biggest since last March’s 9.64 percent.

Goods imports were up, too – from a downwardly revised $258.40 billion to $267.88 billion. The climb was the second straight, too, and its 3.67 percent growth rate also the biggest since March (11.00 percent).

Services imports in January were up for the first time since September, but by a mere 0.17 percent, from a downwardly revised $57.81 billlion to $57.91 billion.

Also changing minimally in January – the non-oil goods deficit (which RealityChek regulars know can be considered the Made in Washington trade deficit, since non-oil goods are the trade flows most heavily influenced by U.S. trade agreements and other trade policy decision. The 0.32 percent month-to-month decline brought this trade shortfall from $91.97 billion to $91.68 billion.

Since Made in Washington trade is the closest global proxy to U.S.-China goods trade, comparing trends in the two can indicate the effectiveness of the Trump-Biden China tariffs, which cover hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese products aimed at the U.S. maket.

In January, the huge, longstanding U.S. goods trade gap with China widened by 7.01 percent, from $23.51 billion to $25.16 billion. That third straight increase contrasts sharply with the small dip in the non-oil goods deficit – apparently strengthening the China tariffs critics’ case.

Yet on a January-January basis, the China deficit is down much more (30.82 percent) than its non-oil goods counterpart (14.07 percent). The discrepancy, moreover, looks too great to explain simply by citing China’s insanely over-the-top and economy-crushing Zero Covid policies. So the tariffs look to be significantly curbing U.S. China goods trade, too.

U.S. goods exports to China fell for the third straight month in January – by 5.05 percent, from $13.79 billion to $13.09 billion.

America’s goods imports from China increased in January for the second straight month – by 2.55 percent, from $37.30 billion to $38.25 billion.

Revealingly, however, on that longer-term January-to-January basis, these purchases are off by 20.50 percent (from $47.85 billion). The non-oil goods import figure has actually inched up by just 0.71 percent – which also strengthens the China tariffs case.

The even larger, and also longstanding, manufacturing trade deficit resumed worsened in January, rising for the first time in three months. The 2.83 percent sequential increase brought the figure from $113.61 billion – the lowest figure, though, since last February’s $106.49 billion.

Manufacturing exports declined by 3.01 percent, from $105.71 billion to $102.52 billion – the weakest such performance since last February’s $94.55 billion.

The much greater value of manufacturing imports rose fractionally, from $219.31 billlion to $219.36 billion – also near the lows of the past year.

In advanced technology products (ATP), the trade gap narrowed by 11.36 percent in January, from $18.45 billion to $16.35 billion. The contraction was the third in a row, and pushed this deficit down to its lowest level since last February’s $13.42 billion.

ATP exports were down 8.78 percent, from $35.16 billion to $32.07 billion – their lowest level since last May’s $31.25 billion. And ATP imports sank by 9.68 percent, from $53.60 billion to a $48.42 billion total that was the smallest since last February’s $42.44 billion.

Big January moves took place in U.S. goods trade with major foreign economies, though much of this commerce often varies wildly from month to month.

The goods deficit with Canada, America’s biggest trade partner, jumped by 39.02 percent on month in January, from $5.09 billion to $7.07 billion. The increase was the second straight, the new total the highest since last July’s $8.47 billion, and the growth rate the fastest since last March’s 47.61 percent.

But the goods shortfall with the European Union decreased by 10.83 percent, from $18.36 billion to $16.37 billion. The drop was the third straight, the new total the lowet since last September’s $14.44 billion, and the shrinkage the fastest since last July’s 19.97 percent.

For volatility, it’s tough to beat U.S. goods trade with Switzerland. In January, the deficit plummeted 42.07 percent, from $2.28 billion to $1.32 billion. But that nosedive followed a 77.84 percent surge in December and one of nearly 1,200 percent in November (from a $99.9 million level that was the lowest since May, 2014’s $45.3 million).

Also dramatically up and down have been the goods trade shortfalls with Japan and Taiwan. For the former, the deficit plunged by 30.33 percent in January – from $7.09 billion to $4.94 billion. But that drop followed a 20.58 percent increase in December to the highest level since April, 2019’s $7.35 billion.

The Taiwan goods deficit soared by 52.44 percent in January, from $2.80 billion to $3.68 billion. But this rise followed a 33.65 percent December drop that was the biggest since the 43.18 percent of February, 2020 – when the CCP Virus was shutting down the economy of China, a key link of the supply chains of many of the island’s export-oriented manufacturers.

Finally, the goods deficit with India skyrocketed by 106.55 percent in January, from $2.41 billion to that record $4.99 billion. That total surpassed the $4.44 billion shortfall the United States ran up with India last May, but the more-than-doubling was far from a record growth rate. That was achieved with a 146.76 percent burst in July, 2019.

Since the widely forecast upcoming U.S. recession seems likely to arrive later this year (assuming it arrives at all) than originally forecast, the trade deficit seems likely to continue increasing, too. But that outcome isn’t inevitable, as shown by the deficit’s shrinkage in the second half of last year, when America’s economic growth rebounded from a shallow recession.

The number of major wildcards out there remains sobering, too, ranging from the path of U.S. inflation and consequent Federal Reserve efforts to fight it by cooling off the economy, to levels of net government spending increases (including at state and local levels), to the strength or weakness of the U.S. dollar, to the pace of China’s economic reopening, to the course of the Ukraine War. 

On balance, though, I’ll stick with my deficit-increasing forecast, since (1) I’m still convinced that the approach of the next presidential election cycle will prevent any major Washington actors from taking any steps remotely likely to curb Americans’ borrowing and spending power significantly for very long; and (2) I’m skeptical that even the strong-sounding Buy American measures  instituted by the Biden administration (mainly in recently approved infrastructure programs and semiconductor industry revival plans, and in the green energy subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act) will enable much more substitution of domestic manufactures for imports – least in the foreseeable future.