(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Manufacturing’s Recession Lengthens but Tariffs’ Role Stays Fuzzy

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The modest momentum showed by domestic manufacturing in the previous two Federal Reserve industrial production reports disappeared in this morning’s edition of the monthly survey, as overall real manufacturing output in July fell month-to-month (by 0.36 percent) for the first time since April. Worse, the new data lengthened domestic industry’s recession, with inflation-adjusted production now off by a hair (0.004 percent) since April, 2018 – a stretch much longer than the two straight quarters of cumulative decline that qualify as a downturn for most economists.

This morning’s Fed numbers also provide some additional evidence that President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies have begun to erode manufacturing’s performance. But only some. Specifically, whereas in the first months following the imposition of metals tariffs in particular, metals-using sectors were handily beating the rest of manufacturing by every major metric, July’s industrial production numbers showed that their more recent relative performance continues to have been much more mixed.

As usual, nearly all of the best evidence concerns the impact of the tariffs on steel and aluminum, for reasons including their relatively long duration (April, 2018 was the first full month they were in place), and the ease with which metals-using sectors can be identified. And as usual, the table below presents the output data for these sectors since April, 2018, with the data for manufacturing overall used as a control group.

                                              April thru May      April thru June       April thru July

overall manufacturing:          -0.20 percent        +0.36 percent             0 percent

durables manufacturing:       +0.96 percent        +1.47 percent        +1.23 percent

fabricated metals products:  +1.34 percent         +1.89 percent        +0.95 percent

machinery:                            +0.86 percent        +0.57 percent         -0.57 percent

automotive:                           -1.88 percent         +0.60 percent        +0.43 percent

major appliances:                  -2.00 percent          -4.47 percent        -5.99 percent

aircraft and parts:                 +0.73 percent         +2.46 percent        +4.23 percent

These figures show that for three of the five major metals-using sectors tracked (fabricated metals products, machinery, and major appliances), constant dollar output has worsened compared with such production in manufacturing as a whole. Relative performance for automotive and aircraft and parts, however, has improved – as it has for the durable goods super-sector in which the metals users are located.

Keep in mind also that results for the major appliance sector also remain affected by a separate set of product-specific levies on large household laundry equipment that began in February, 2018.

In contrast with the metals tariffs, the first full month for China tariffs of any kind was August, 2018, and the set of goods involved was relatively small. Complicating matters further is the U.S. Trade Representative’s office’s practice of listing the dutied products according to a classification scheme that differs significantly from that used by the rest of the U.S. government to monitor most major indicators of economic performance – including industrial production.

And as previously noted, most of the Made in China products tariff-ed so far have been intermediate goods (parts, components, materials, etc.) whose use by American manufacturers varies widely. Therefore, the impact of tariffs on these products undoubtedly varies widely, too. Moreover, the number of Chinese goods facing tariffs has increased dramatically since last August. Not only were the levies extended to an additional $200 billion worth of such imports from China in late September, 2018, but these duties were raised from ten percent to 25 percent in May, 2019. (See this time-line for the specifics.)

All the same, here are results for a handful of sectors reasonably certain to have faced tariff pressure since last August. Each column measuring real output changes since last August.

                                         August thru May     August thru June     August thru July

overall manufacturing:     -1.09 percent            -0.55 percent           -0.90 percent

ball bearings:                    -2.20 percent            -2.46 percent           -2.27 percent

industrial heating equip:   -4.11 percent            -5.16 percent           -5.21 percent

farm machinery & equip: -7.51 percent            -6.53 percent           -6.91 percent

oil/gas drilling platform: +4.03 percent            +2.22 percent           -0.17 percent      parts

A greater percentage of these sectors (three of four) generated worse performance versus manufacturing overall than was the case for the metals-using sectors. But the sample size is so small, and the the uncertainties so considerable, that these more downbeat results should still be viewed with the utmost caution. Ditto for claims that the Trump tariffs are killing U.S. manufacturing.

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(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Trump’s Latest China Tariff Moves – & Why They’re Mistaken

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If you’re confused by President Trump’s latest China tariffs moves, don’t feel bad. They’re really confusing!

Much clearer is their main implication: Once more, the President has needlessly let China off the trade war hook – and significantly reduced the odds of U.S. success no matter how it’s defined.

To summarize the chain of announcements and decisions that have produced the present situation: As of August 1, in various stages, the United States had imposed 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods imports from China based on the latest data. And on May 5, Mr. Trump threatened to place tariffs of 25 percent on the rest of China’s merchandise shipments to the United States (about $300 billion worth).

That announcement was seen as especially significant because the previous tariffs mainly hit what businesses and economist call “producer goods” or “intermediate goods.” They’re the parts, components, and materials that companies use to produce final products, including consumer products. As a result, even when they do lead to higher consumer prices, the role played by these duties is difficult for consumers (i.e., voters) to identify, much less complain about to the politicians responsible.

In addition, as I’ve frequently noted (e.g., here), tariffs on these producer goods often don’t lead to any inflation, or much inflation, at all, for a variety of reasons and combinations of reasons. In many instances, retailers and other businesses simply lack the needed pricing power. As a result, they often seek to persuade their entire supply chain to preserve market share by eating some or all of the higher prices and accepting lower profits. Alternatively, various parts of the supply chain – including the final customer – can try to offset tariff-induced price increases by boosting productivity. That’s actually good for the economy in the long run, as improved efficiency not only enables companies to absorb cost increases while maintaining and even increasing margins. Such better productivity tends to spur the development of new efficiency-enhancing products, services, and technologies – a great way to boost living standards in a healthy, sustainable way.

Yet the May Trump $300 billion threat – which stemmed from the President’s unhappiness with the lack of progress in the trade talks with China – would have finally hit most consumer goods imports. Therefore, it would have created the risk that shoppers would blame the President for any price increases they did encounter. Even worse, the timing of the threat practically ensured that these higher prices would start appearing just as holiday shopping heated up – or typically heats up.

In late June, however, after meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a global summit in Japan, Mr. Trump agreed to a trade truce and to hold off on the $300 billion threat. Two weeks later, though the threat was back on the table, according to a Trump tweet.

On August 1, following a new round of apparently unsuccessful trade negotiations and the President’s belief that China had broken a promise connect with the late June trade truce to buy more American farm products, Mr. Trump specified that ten percent tariffs on the $300 billion worth of consumer goods-dominated imports from China would begin on September 1. Just four days later, his administration announced another “hawkish” trade war decision – officially designating China as a country that manipulated its currency to gain trade advantages (by keeping its products artificially cheap and therefore making goods and services from trade competitors artificially expensive in comparison). At the same time, the currency decision by law doesn’t automatically result in new tariffs, although it could eventually bring about some other penalties.

And yesterday came the latest turnaround: Mr. Trump decided to postpone tariffs on an estimated $160 billion of the $300 billion from September 1 to December 15. Not coincidentally, as his remarks on benefiting holiday shoppers made clear, many of the items on the postponement list included particularly popular gift items like toys and smartphones.

In addition, tariffs on some $30 billion worth of imports from China would be lifted permanently (at least for now!). But new duties on some $110 billion worth of imports from China are at this point slated to go into effect at the beginning of next month, and this group, too, is dominated by consumer goods.

Commentators focusing on the postponed goods called the latest Trump move a cave to China spurred by the President’s fears of a falling stock market, weakening U.S. economy, and angry consumers. Others, pointing to the products that will be slapped with new levies, and to the continuation of previously announced tariffs, insisted that Mr. Trump was keeping considerable pressure on the Chinese.

I lean toward the former interpretation, for these reasons. First, there’s no sign that the President’s forbearance has won any concessions from China. Second, the tight Trump focus on appeasing holiday shoppers can only signal weakness to Beijing, and feed its hopes that it can prevail in the trade and broader economic conflict by waiting for the President to be replaced by a more conventional, more pliable chief executive in 2020. Third, the delay announcement came just before a batch of absolutely terrible economic data was released by China. And given Beijing’s history of publishing overly bullish figures, it’s a safe bet that its economy is even weaker than most recently indicated. Fourth, Xi Jinping is under pressure not only economically, but politically, due to the rising unrest in Hong Kong.

Fifth, it’s true that from the standpoint of China’s longer-term prospects, maintaining the tariffs on its producer goods matters crucially. For this category includes most of the high tech and other advanced manufactures that represent any economy’s hope for continued technological progress, and therefore faster, healthier growth and a stronger military. But the consumer goods matter politically – because since they’re largely labor-intensive in nature, they’re mass employers. And China’s dictators view high unemployment as a mortal danger to their rule.

Sixth, although it’s clear that U.S. investors hate the trade war, the President needs to remember that, however much he likes to tout the stock market as a barometer of his economic performance, these markets and the real economy are by no means identical. We’ll be getting some key economic data tomorrow, when the Federal Reserve releases its new report on industrial (including manufacturing) production. But so far, the manufacturing numbers have shown that, after a soft patch in the winter, both inflation-adjusted output and capital spending are trending upward again. So unless these and other upcoming data break notably from their most recent patterns, recession – and even further slowdown – predictions will keep looking far-fetched.

Importantly, none of the above analysis means that I’ve changed my view that no China trade deal acceptable for U.S. interests is possible because of insurmountable verification obstacles. Instead, America’s only realistic option is to keep disengaging economically from China – both to reduce U.S. economic reliance on an increasingly hostile power, and to weaken further the only country capable of posing noteworthy national security threats. As a result, however, Washington should pass up no opportunity to inflict pain on China’s economy. And although no one would be shocked if he reversed course yet again before too long, that’s exactly the mistake that President Trump just made with his latest China tariffs delay.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: A Big Fade for Tariffs-Led Consumer Inflation

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Well, that was fast. Last month, when the Labor Department’s consumer price data came out (for June), I observed that they revealed some tariff-led inflation – especially in goods categories that by all rights should be affected by the duties on steel and aluminum that President Trump imposed in March, 2018.

(More such evidence appeared in categories in which tariffs have been placed on Chinese imports. But as continually noted, because of several complications – e.g., shorter duration, great variations in metals-intensity, data classification issues – these results should be considered much less reliable than the metals tariffs statistics.)

Yet this morning’s new consumer price data, for July, shows a significant fade in tariff pricing pressures for the metals users. Part of the reason no doubt is the lifting of the metals tariffs on imports from Mexico and Canada. But they were removed only in late May, so it’s difficult to believe that this decision deserves most of the credit.

Here are the price increases for metals-using industries between June and July, since April, 2018 (the first full month in which the duties were in place), and the year-on-year figures for this June and July. Also included, as always, are statistics for various control groups of goods, including so-called “core inflation” (which strips out volatile food and energy prices), and for the foods and beverages that are sold in metal cans outside of these containers:

                                 June-July      Since April, 2018      y/y June            y/y July

core inflation:      +0.29 percent      +2.79 percent     +2.13 percent   +2.21 percent

fresh fruits           +0.60 percent      +1.67 percent     +0.86 percent   +0.33 percent

  & vegs:

fresh fruits:             0 percent           -1.55 percent      -1.85 percent    -2.74 percent

fresh vegs:           +1.28 percent       +5.49 percent    +4.09 percent   +3.96 percent

processed             -0.68 percent        +0.04 percent    +1.70 percent   +1.45 percent

  fruits & vegs

canned fruits:       -1.56 percent        +2.30 percent    +3.93 percent   +2.87 percent

  & vegs

canned fruits:       -0.44 percent        +0.99 percent     +2.02 percent  +1.89 percent

canned vegs:         -2.33 percent       +3.28 percent     +5.28 percent  +3.13 percent

soups:                   -0.18 percent       +0.28 percent     +0.30 percent   +0.04 percent

malt bevgs           +0.72 percent       +3.13 percent     +1.69 percent   +2.58 percent

  at home:

alcoholic bevgs   +0.38 percent       +1.90 percent     +1.05 percent   +1.43 percent

  away from home:

non-frozen, non-  -0.05 percent       +2.99 percent     +2.71 percent   +2.33 percent

  carbonated non-

  alcoholic rinks:

carbted drinks:      -0.47 percent      +3.39 percent     +3.15 percent   +3.14 percent 

juices & non-        -0.23 percent      +3.11 percent     +2.86 percent    +2.62 percent

  alcoholic drinks

new cars/trucks:    -0.19 percent     +1.17 percent     +0.58 percent    +0.34 percent

motor vehicle        -0.51 percent     +2.07 percent     +1.91 percent    +1.42 percent

  parts:

appliances:            -0.83 percent      +2.00 percent    +2.56 percent    +0.62 percent

major                     -0.98 percent      +4.13 percent    +2.94 percent     -0.75 percent

  appliances:

laundry                     0 percent          +2.83 percent    -3.98 percent     -4.63 percent

  equipment:

non-electric         -1.78 percent          -5.14 percent    -1.94 percent    -2.94 percent

  cookware & tableware:

tools, hardware,  +0.62 percent        +0.83 percent    +1.06 percent   +1.35 percent

  outdoor equipment:

The waning of inflationary pressures can be seen by comparing the core inflation rate since the advent of the metals tariffs with the inflation rates of the metals-using industries.

The latest data show that prices rose faster than that core rate in only six of the sixteen metals-using categories shown. Moreover, in four of these categories (beer and other malt beverages consumed at home; non-frozen, non-carbonated, non-alcoholic drinks; carbonated drinks; and all juices and non-alcoholic drinks), the results need to be treated with caution, since these products are also sold in non-metal containers.

The previous month’s data showed that prices rose faster than core inflation in ten of these metals-using categories – with the results in three complicated by the use of non-metal containers.

That total in turn was up from the nine of sixteen instances of relatively strong inflation in metals-using industries in both February and March (with the non-metal container issue muddying the waters for four of those nine categories in February and three in March).

As for the China-related evidence, I’m hesitant to examine it for the time being not only because of the aforementioned data issues, but because U.S. policy has changed so dramatically in the last few weeks – with the President in early August threatening ten percent tariffs by September 1 for a $300 billion tranche of imports from China that would have been dominated by consumer goods, and then today postponing their imposition until December 15 (or until a satisfactory bilateral trade deal is struck).

Nonetheless, the metals tariff-related data shows that inflation for these levies so far has never been especially strong (except, for a time, in large household laundry equipment – which had faced separate, product-specific duties since February, 2018), and whatever strength it’s shown, hasn’t lasted very long. (In fact, even for those laundry machines, the table shows that their super-charged price hikes are now turning into super-charged price drops.)

And of course, as Breitbart.com‘s John Carney keeps pointing out, the economy’s overall weak rate of inflation means that even when tariffs have pushed prices up, many other forces have been pushing other prices down.  (Further, these low overall inflation rates almost by definition mean that price pressures from the existing China tariffs can’t be impressive, either.)

That’s not to say that Mr. Trump’s trade policies therefore can’t be hurting the U.S. economy in other ways (although the evidence to date here is also pretty feeble). And it’s entirely possible that the widely tariff-mageddon could still hit Americans on a variety of fronts if the trade war with China in particular lasts long enough. But inflation claims have always been central to the Trump trade critics’ case, as made clear by how quickly #tariffsaretaxes became a hashtag, and how it’s persisted. And if the critics have been wrong on this crucial score, why should anyone be confident in any of their other predictions?

Im-Politic: Hyper-Partisans Across the Spectrum are Wrong; the Terrorist Threat is “All of the Above”

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As if we needed another one, the latest upsurge in the intertwined national debates about gun violence, mass shootings, and terrorism provides another example of how hyper-partisan, encrusted thinking is obscuring the road to dramatically improved policies – and greater public safety. Specifically, way too many Americans are still mired in a dangerously distracting debate over where the biggest terrorist threats come from, rather than admitting that the nation faces numerous types of violent groups that fit any sensible definition of terrorism.

And as a result, way too many (including most prominent political leaders) are ignoring a crucial lesson of America’s post-September 11 experience – that concerted, innovative, well-funded national campaigns against terrorist movements actually work.

After the attacks of 2001, the focus understandably was Islamic terrorism. And if you doubt the impact, ask yourself why else no hijacked jetliners have crashed into U.S. skyscrapers and similarly big targets for nearly 20 years. And why in 2018, the last full data year, exactly one homicide in America was connected with Islamism.

Dumb luck? But as golf immortal Ben Hogan once said to an exasperated less successful rival who accused him of getting the lion’s share of the breaks, “[T]he more I practice, the luckier I get.” In that vein, surely massive American anti-terrorism efforts abroad and at home have played an important role. If you’ve forgotten what they’ve been, here’s a quick summary (from the Los Angeles Times article linked above):

Despite horrifying abuses and mistakes, from torture to secret prisons, [the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations] have largely destroyed Al Qaeda and its most dangerous offspring. The U.S.-led war against Islamic State has killed thousands of militants and broken the group’s hold on territory in Iraq and Syria.

Domestic law enforcement has monitored extremists at home and interrupted dozens of plots (including some that turned out to be insubstantial). And common-sense security measures have made us less vulnerable; no U.S. plane has been hijacked since 9/11.”

I’d add that, despite numerous calls for sharp increases from Democrats and others on the Left, U.S. admissions of asylum-seekers from Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere around the world remained exceedingly modest under former President Barack Obama, and have dropped sharply under President Trump.

The clear meaning? Yes, as President Trump’s critics have claimed, Islamic-inspired terrorism has been on the wane. But it looks glaringly obvious that deserving much of the credit have been measures many of them strongly opposed – and still oppose, mainly because they’ve been so determined to smear Mr. Trump and others backing such hard-line policies as simple Islamo-phobes who have long been chasing a mirage.

But don’t think this lets the President and many of his supporters off the hook. For until recently, they’ve acted as if they’ve been so bent on defending the anti-jihadist campaign and on justifying its continuation that they’ve soft-pedaled its clear success, and have been slow to acknowledge the more recent emergence of an unmistakably serious violent white supremacist threat.

Chiefly, there’s compelling evidence that since his inauguration, the President has reduced funding for government efforts to fight domestic terrorism springing from racist and other extreme right-wing roots, and increased the resources devoted to fight violent jihadists. That shift might have been justified early during the Trump presidency – shortly after two major Islamist-inspired shootings in San Bernardino, California in December, 2015, and in Orlando, Florida in June, 2016. But since then, the domestic racists etc have been much more dangerously active, and it’s not enough for the President to condemn them explicitly and emphatically. His money needs to move where his mouth is.

Not that anti-jihadism budgets need to be cannibalized to achieve this aim. Vigilance on that front remains essential as well, lest America be caught by surprise again a la September 11. Washington also needs to move much more decisively against violent leftists – like the Dayton, Ohio shooter seems to have been, along with antifa. 

In other words, U.S. anti-terrorism policy needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time – and be as agile and continually evolving as the sources of terrorism themselves.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Decoupling is Still the Biggest – & Still Growing – U.S.-China Trade War Story

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Amazing as it sounds given the rush of developments and headlines over the last week, one big U.S.-China trade-related story remains largely overlooked, even though it keeps getting more and more important: Mainly because of President Trump’s tariffs and retaliatory duties from Beijing, the American and Chinese economies not only continue decoupling from each other. The decoupling so far has been unmistakably good for the United States. More specifically, U.S. economic growth has less and less to do all the time with trade with China, whether we’re talking exports or imports.

The story begins with the importance of two-way U.S.-China trade to the American economy as a whole. Since the Trump tariffs began, in the spring of 2018, it’s shrunk dramatically in the goods category. (Timely info on bilateral services trade isn’t available – and it’s a relatively small share of total trade anyway.) The table below shows goods exports and imports between the two countries as a share of the U.S. economy (gross domestic product, or GDP) in pre-inflation dollars – the measure most commonly used and followed. As you can see from those left-hand column numbers, since the current U.S. economic recovery from the last recession began (in the middle of 2009), this figure rose steadily through 2014, and has nosedived rapidly this year. (The 2019 figures measure growth since the first and second quarters of 2018, respectively – i.e., over most of the course of the trade war so far.)

And of special significance, as this shrinkage has gathered steam, the United States has turned in most of its strongest recent growth numbers. This development can be seen by comparing the left-hand column with the middle column (showing annual current-dollar growth rates). Or look at it this way: Two-way bilateral trade was last in this neighborhood as a share of the economy in 2009 – as an historically deep recession was ending. Nowadays, however, growth is solid by the last decade’s standards.

This relationship is even clearer from the right-hand column, which shows the relationship between China trade as a share of the U.S. economy and U.S. growth rate. Specifically, under the Obama administration, as this trade was rising as a share of GDP, the latter strongly exceeded the former only once (that is, approached the results of the Trump years) in 2014. (That is, the number on the left of the colon was significantly higher than the “one” on the right.) But during all of the Trump years, these results have hit that lofty level – and then some.

2-way China trade/GDP   GDP change   ratio of China trade/GDP to GDP change

2009:      2.53                        -1.79                                    n/a

2010:      3.05                         3.76                                  1.24:1

2011:      3.24                         3.67                                  1.13:1

2012:      3.31                         4.21                                  1.27:1

2013:      3.35                         3.63                                  1.08:1

2014:      3.38                         4.42                                  1.31:1

2015:      3.29                         3.98                                  1.21:1

2016:      3.09                         2.69                                 0.87:1

2017:      3.25                         4.30                                 1.32:1

2018:      3.21                         5.43                                 1.69:1

1Q 2019:  2.51                       4.64                                 1.85:1

2Q 2019:  2.61                       4.04                                 1.55:1

Then there’s the notion that the U.S. economy usually happens to grow fastest when its trade deficits overall (including with China) balloon – supposedly meaning that these trade shortfalls at least reflect strong economic performance, and that any policies meant to reduce them are dangerously misguided. But the latest U.S. data continue to debunk that notion completely.

The table below shows annual pre-inflation percentage GDP growth in the left-hand column, starting in 2009 and ending with the figures for the years ending in the first and second quarters of this year. The middle column shows the annual percentage growth rate of the American goods deficit with China, and the right-hand column shows the ratio between the two.

          GDP change                      China goods trade deficit growth          ratio

2009:     -1.79                                                -15.36                               -8.58:1

2010:      3.76                                                  20.35                                5.41:1

2011:      3.67                                                    8.13                                2.22:1

2012:      4.21                                                    6.72                                1.60:1

2013:     3.63                                                     1.14                                3.18:1

2014:     4.42                                                     8.20                                1.86:1

2015:     3.98                                                     6.53                                1.64:1

2016:     2.69                                                   -5.58                                   n/a

2017:     4.30                                                    8.25                                1.92:1

2018:     5.43                                                  11.75                                2.16:1

1Q 19    4.64                                                 -11.92                                  n/a

2Q 19    4.04                                                   -8.44                                  n/a

The above results for one of the Obama years shows robust U.S. economic growth as the goods trade deficit with China surged. But that year was 2009-10 – the first recovery year, when all U.S. trade snapped back sharply following an especially deep recessionary dive (as made clear in the 2008-09 results). Once the economy settled into a more sustainable mode, the supposed relationship breaks down completely.

And the results for the latest Trump years demonstrate strong growth occurring side-by-side with major reductions in the U.S.-China goods trade deficit.

Faring no better is the claim that many U.S.-based industries need inexpensive Chinese inputs (parts, components, materials) for their products in order to remain globally competitive. The following table shows the annual rates of change for the nation’s goods imports from China and its economic growth (or contraction, as in the case of 2009). Otherwise, how could the economy have registered its strong performance over the last year even as goods imports from China have been falling at double-digits percentage rates?

               US goods imports from China                  GDP change

2009:                  12.26                                                  -1.79

2010:                  23.14                                                    3.76

2011:                    9.43                                                    3.67

2012:                    6.57                                                    4.21

2013:                    3.48                                                   3.63

2014:                    6.37                                                   4.42

2015:                    3.14                                                   3.98

2016:                  -4.30                                                   2.69

2017:                   9.26                                                   4.30

2018:                   6.82                                                   5.43

1Q 19:              -13.11                                                   4.64

2Q 19:              -10.89                                                   4.04

And the idea that access to the China market is vital for the American economy?

               US goods exports to China                     GDP change

2009:                    -0.34                                              -1.79

2010:                   32.25                                               3.76

2011:                   13.29                                               3.67

2012:                     6.41                                               4.21

2013:                   10.16                                               3.63

2014:                     1.57                                               4.42

2015:                   -6.29                                               3.98

2016:                   -0.24                                               2.69

2017:                  12.29                                               4.30

2018:                   -7.43                                               5.43

1Q 19                -19.56                                               4.64

2Q 19                -18.20                                               4.04

According to the above figures, that claim didn’t even hold during the Obama years. (See, e.g., 2014 and 2015). And as with imports, the economy has grown impressively during the Trump years despite record declines in sales to China.

U.S. growth at acceptable rates as trade with an ever more belligerent China shrivels is of course good news from a national security standpoint. But given China’s long record of economic predation and other interventionist policies that inevitably distort markets for goods and services, it’s good news from a purely economic standpoint, too – whether it makes headlines or not.

Following Up: Latest National Radio Interview on the China Trade War Now On-Line!

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I’m pleased to announce that the podcast is now on-line of my interview Wednesday night on John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show.  So click here for a timely discussion among John, co-host Gordon G. Chang, and me on the latest escalation(s) of the U.S.-China trade conflict.  (I come in at about the 3 minute-30-second mark.) And of course feel free to listen if you’ve already heard it!

BTW, see if you can spot the sentence in which I inadvertently called the U.S. manufacturing trade deficit with China a surplus.  And the reason why Chinese leader XiJinping’s advisers aren’t likely to let him listen to the segment.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Making News: A National Radio Update of the Trade War…& More!

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I’m pleased to announce that last night, I was interviewed on John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show, where John, co-host Gordon G. Chang, and I updated the U.S.-China conflict – which now includes not only a trade war and a tech war, but a currency war (all closely related of course).

As usual, if you couldn’t tune in (and apologies for not being able to post a heads up last night), I’ll put up a link to the podcast as soon as one’s available.

In addition this morning, Industrytoday.com republished my post from August 2 detailing the mixed trade war-related results from the latest (July) U.S. jobs report.  Here’s the link.

Also, it was great to see economic analyst Jake Novak’s Monday column for CNBC.com reference my views on Trump tariffs’ (so far marginal) impact on the U.S. economy.  You can access it here.

That same day, a piece by Plastic Today‘s Clare Goldsberry spotlighted more evidence from RealityChek showing that America’s manufacturers are withstanding the trade conflict just fine.  Click here to read.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

 

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Jobs Fog of Trade War

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Domestic U.S. manufacturing turned in a mixed job creation performance in July, with this morning’s figures containing fodder both for the optimists and the pessimists. And the ambiguousness extended to interpreting the results of President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies – which is not entirely surprising, especially given the nature of the China duties, which have been imposed in phases, and where threats have displayed an on-again-off-again nature.

Overall, the optimists could point out that the new Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data showed a fourth straight sequential gain for manufacturing employment, as industry added 16,000 net new jobs in July. Moreover, the monthly rate of payroll increases is up from 3,000 in April. In fact, the July sequential gain was the sector’s best since January, when manufacturers grew net employment by 17,000.

Nonetheless, the revisions were decidedly negative, with May’s increases being downgraded from 4,000 to 2,000, and June’s all the way down from 17,000 to 12,000. Moreover, July’s 157,000 year-on-year manufacturing employment improvement was the lowest in absolute terms since October, 2017’s 146,000.

Identifying a clear bottom line from the trade war-specific manufacturing employment results is just as difficult. First, let’s look at the performance of the major metals-using sectors, which have faced varying levels of tariffs on steel and aluminum since spring, 2018. (April was the first full month in which they were in place.) Here’s the comparison between their employment changes since then, and those of manufacturing overall and the American private sector overall. Also included are the figures for home appliances (where producers of large household laundry machines have been dealing not only with the metals tariffs but with separate, product-specific levies that began that February). It’s also important to note that figures for these goods and for aerospace products and parts are one month behind the rest. So for those two sectors, the results are for (from left to right), the previously reported May figures, the latest May figures, and the June figures.

An optimist could observe that two of the durable goods sectors, fabricated metals products and automotive, have increased their hiring momentum versus the broader economy, the overall manufacturing sector, and even the durable goods super-sector (where the main metals-using industries are found).

The pessimists, however, could say that through the end of 2018, the metal users in general were clearly besting all of their counterparts in job creation, and that their relative strength has faded since.

                                                       Old thru June     New thru June     Thru July

entire private sector:                     +2.14 percent      +2.13 percent   +2.25 percent

overall manufacturing:                 +1.74 percent      +1.69 percent   +1.82 percent

durable goods:                              +2.11 percent      +2.10 percent   +2.25 percent

fabricated metals products:          +1.49 percent      +1.71 percent   +1.74 percent

non-electrical machinery:            +2.92 percent      +2.73 percent   +2.40 percent

automotive vehicles & parts:       +0.27 percent      +0.33 percent   +1.06 percent

household appliances*:                -4.73 percent        -4.89 percent    -6.15 percent

aerospace products & parts*:      +7.46 percent       +7.44 percent   +7.64 percent

*data are one month behind

And two final complications: First, the low (in absolute terms) hiring gains for the automotive sector surely in large measure reflect not only tariffs on metals, but the slow decline of auto and light truck sales that began back in the summer of 2015 after a strong post-recessionary comeback – and well before any metals duties. And with the automotive sector such a big consumer of machinery and fabricated metals products, its troubles undoubtedly bleed into those industries and have dragged down their results for equally non-trade-related reasons.

Second, the aerospace industry is another big purchaser of inputs from throughout domestic manufacturing, and especially from other metals-using industries. So although its employment levels appear to have held up exceedingly well, they might be better still if not for the safety problems encountered by Boeing.

The case for optimism looks much stronger for those industries that seem to be most greatly affected by the China tariffs. But as usual, the results are surrounded by much greater uncertainties – mainly because the scope and level of these levies has changed so significantly since the first batch went into effect in July, 2018; because the use of Chinese inputs in domestic manufacturing is so widespread but also varies so considerably; and because the list of products hit by China tariffs uses a manufacturing classification system different from that used by the BLS to track jobs.

So the following China figures – presenting employment changes for what look like some of the main China-affected industries since July, 2018, plus those for broader parts of the economy to provide some context – should still be viewed with extreme caution. (I’ve added the results for non-durables, too, since the use of Chinese inputs is so widespread.) Moreover, as indicated below, the results for those main China-affected sectors are always one month late.

                                      July-May       Old July-June     New July-June   July-July

private sector:           +1.45 percent    +1.46 percent     +1.59 percent +1.71 percent

overall mfg:              +1.02 percent    +1.16 percent     +1.11 percent +1.24 percent

durable goods:          +1.22 percent     not available     +1.36 percent +1.51 percent

non-durable goods:  +0.67 percent     not available    +0.70 percent  +0.80 percent 

aircraft engines &     +1.51 percent    not available     +1.86 percent   not available

  engine parts:

industrial heating      +1.12 percent    not available     +2.24 percent   not available

  equip:

oil & gas drilling      +4.88 percent     not available    +5.56 percent    not available

  platform parts:

farm machinery        -1.00 percent     not available         0 percent      not available

  & equip

ball bearings:           +2.39 percent     not available    +3.16 percent    not available

At least through June, however, all of the apparent China tariff-specific industries have displayed much stronger recent hiring strength relative to industry and the economy as a whole. This greater momentum, moreover, is especially noteworthy given that the scale of the China duties has broadened so dramatically since July, 2018, and the tariff rates for so many products have been increased a second time.

Nonetheless, the China-related data are especially dodgy. And of course, President Trump just yesterday threatened a big new set of tariffs on the imports from China not already hit with duties. Which may or may not actually be imposed. And that may contain plenty of exemptions. All good reasons for analysts to remain data dependent – and prudent in the extreme – when judging how the U.S. economy is faring as the trade wars rage on.

Making News: Manufacturing Views Quoted in the Washington Post…& More!

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I’m pleased to announce that three recent news reports – two on the state of American manufacturing, and one on China’s growing influence over the American movie industry – have cited my views and analyses.

On July 25, this Washington Post article included my – cloudy- forecast about industry’s near future due to all the uncertainties created by President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies.  It was also gratifying to see a Mainstream Media piece mention my observations about technical manufacturing recessions – I believe that’s a first.

For more on recent manufacturing recessions, including the one in which industry is still stuck, see this recent post of mine.

This Washington Post piece was also reprinted in several major dailies around the country, like the Denver Post.

The day before, this post on Modern Machine Shop‘s blog quoted from my recent offering on how U.S.-based companies have dealt with Mr. Trump’s tariffs.

Finally, on July 19, former Michigan Republican Congressman Thaddeus McCotter’s essay for the American Greatness website on Hollywood’s latest kowtow to Chinese investors mentioned a tweet of mine on the subject.  Here’s the link.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming and recent media appearances, and other developments.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Those New GDP Numbers Keep Showing Healthier Trade-Related Growth Progress Under Trump

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So much data were released yesterday morning on the U.S. economy’s growth rate – not only the initial read on the second quarter of this year, but revisions going back to 2014 – that it’s impossible to explore all the results and their implications in one post. As a result, I’ll focus today on the main messages being sent by how the tariff-centric Trump trade policies are affecting growth.

In a nutshell, the big takeaway for me was that, despite the sizable increase in the inflation-adjusted trade deficit in the second quarter of this year (to an annualized total of $978.70 billion – the second biggest ever, after the $983 billion mark hit in the fourth quarter of last year), the economy kept indicating that it can grow – and pretty strongly – without racking up big increases in trade gap. In other words, the United States is regaining the ability to expand at acceptable rates without getting deeper into hock. 

Still, there’s a major uncertainty hovering over these results: Signs continue that they’re being distorted by what’s called tariff front-running (accelerating purchases of imports in order to avoid announced or threatened duties), and the consequent effects on building and reducing business inventories. And since tariff threats hang over not only hundreds of billions of dollars of goods imports from China, but rhetorically anyway over automotive imports from all over the world, import and inventory levels could well remain volatile. Moreover, don’t forget the potential effect on exports: If President Trump carries through with tariff threats, foreign economies are likely to impose retaliatory levies on American goods, and curb these sales.

So far, though, so good.

As in recent reports on trade and the gross domestic product (or GDP – what economists define as “the economy”), this post will compare the economy’s growth rate with the growth rate of the trade deficit during two recent similar periods of time – the statistical year (e.g., four straight quarters) during which growth was fastest when former President Barack Obama was in office, and the statistical year during which growth has been fastest so far during President Trump’s administration.

Even with the latest revisions, the fastest statistical Obama growth year was between the second quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015. Adjusted for inflation (the most closely followed GDP measure), the economy grew by 3.35 percent over those four quarters – just a little less than the 3.37 percent previously estimated. And during that period, the real trade deficit rose by 21.34 percent (a little more slowly than the 21.55 percent previously estimated).

Before today’s revisions, the fastest Trump era growth stretch took place between the first quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. But that 3.18 percent after inflation growth has now been downgraded all the way down to 2.65 percent. But growth between the second quarters of 2017 and 2018 has been revised up – to 3.20 percent. So there’s a new Trump growth champ.

But even though the Trump growth spurt has been only a little slower than its Obama counterpart, the story with the trade deficit was strikingly different. For during the Trump spurt, the gap widened by only 6.34 percent. That’s less than a third as fast as under Obama.

In other words, constant dollar growth under President Trump has taken place while piling up much less debt than similar growth during the Obama years. And growth that’s less reliant on debt is growth that’s a lot healthier and more sustainable.

Trump-era growth looks all the more sustainable upon realizing that during Mr. Trump’s administration so far, robust growth (at least by recent standards) has been much more self-reliant than during the Obama administration – at least until very recently. The table below shows the annual (calendar year, from fourth quarter to fourth quarter) real growth rates during the Obama and Trump presidencies starting in 2010 (the first full calendar yer of the current economic recovery); the growth rate of the after-inflation trade deficits, and the ratios between these two figures for each year:

Obama yrs          real GDP       real trade deficit      deficit growth to GDP growth

10-11:              1.61 percent       0.85 percent                         0.53:1

11-12:              1.47 percent      -0.92 percent                       -0.63:1

12-13:              2.61 percent     -8.89 percent                       -3.41:1

13-14:              2.88 percent    23.36 percent                        8.11:1

14-15:              1.90 percent    21.83 percent                      13.07:1

15-16:              2.03 percent    10.87 percent                       5:35:1

Trump years

16-17:             2.80 percent      5.90 percent                       2.11:1

17-18:             2.52 percent    11.22 percent                       4.45:1

The table shows that only once (between 2012 and 2013) did the Obama-era economy display any ability to grow faster than the humdrum rate of two percent with the trade deficit’s growth restrained. (In fact, it shrunk significantly.) Once growth accelerated (the following year), the trade shortfall exploded, and its rate of increase, along with those ratios, stayed high even as growth itself cooled notably.

Moreover, without pronounced tariff front-running, the 2017-18 Trump trade deficit figure and the resulting ratio both would likely have been much lower. And economic growth looks even more self-reliant, and therefore healthier, so far this year, as the follo  wing table shows:

                               real GDP      real trade deficit     deficit growth to GDP growth

4Q 18-1Q 19:       3.06 percent    -3.97 percent                       -1.30:1

1Q 19-2Q 19:       2.04 percent     3.68 percent                         1.80:1

The Trump record looks even better when presented on a rolling four quarters basis, starting with that peak Obama growth period between the second quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015, and ending with the last such period – between the second quarter of 2018 and the second quarter of 2019:

                              real GDP      real trade deficit      deficit growth to GDP growth

2Q 14-2Q 15:    3.35 percent      21.34 percent                       6.37:1

3Q 14-3Q 15:    2.44 percent      30.60 percent                     12.54:1

4Q 14-4Q 15:    1.90 percent      21.83 percent                     11.49:1

1Q 15-1Q 16:    1.62 percent      11.72 percent                       7.23:1

2Q 15-2Q 16:    1.34 percent        9.59 percent                       7.16:1

3Q 15-3Q 16:    1.56 percent        2.42 percent                       1.55:1

4Q 15-4Q16:     2.03 percent     10.87 percent                        5.35:1

1Q 16-1Q 17:    2.10 percent       6.92 percent                        3.30:1

Trump

2Q 16-2Q 17:    2.16 percent    11.71 percent                        5.42:1

3Q 16-3Q 17:    2.42 percent      9.50 percent                       3.93:1

4Q 16-4Q 17:    2.80 percent     5.90 percent                        2.11:1

1Q 17-1Q 18:    2.86 percent     6.34 percent                       2.22:1

2Q 17-2Q 18:    3.20 percent     0.06 percent                       0.19:1

3Q 17-3Q 18:    3.13 percent   15.44 percent                      4.93:1

4Q 17-4Q 18:    2.52 percent   11.22 percent                      4.45:1

1Q 18-1Q 19:    2.65 percent     6.76 percent                      2.55:1

2Q 18-2Q 19:    2.29 percent   15.07 percent                      6.58:1

Though the figures fluctuate significantly, the difference under two different presidents at roughly the same phase of the same economic expansion is at least as significant. To start, the only time that annual real growth under Obama topped three percent during this stretch, the inflation-adjusted trade deficit soared 6.37 times faster. Under Trump, the economy has enjoyed two such periods. During the first, the real trade deficit barely budged. During the second, it rose 4.93 times faster than the economy.

During these Obama years, the after-inflation trade deficit’s annual growth rate slipped under ten percent three times. Real annual GDP growth never bested 2.10 percent during any of them. During the Trump years, sub-ten percent annual growth for the real trade deficit has occurred five times. Real annual GDP increased during those years at rates between 2.42 percent and 3.20 percent. The worst Obama ratio has been 12.54 percent. The worst Trump ratio has been 6.58 percent (coming during the most recent statistical year, and possibly indicating tariff front-running). 

Has President Trump managed to reduce the U.S. trade deficit as such, or made the U.S. economy, and especially strong growth, completely self-sufficient, and therefore free of debt dependence (in terms of parts of the economy where this is feasible, as opposed to, say, tropical fruit)? Of course not. The nearly $20 trillion American economy is obviously a supertanker that isn’t turned around easily or quickly. But it’s clear that whereas the United States was moving ever further from those goals before Mr. Trump was inaugurated, it’s now moving closer. Just as clear: If the President stays the course on tariffs (much less increase and/or broaden them), progress will likely continue.