Life as a blogger just gets more unpredictable all the time. Here I was this morning all set to try to figure out whether I’d write about the presidential debate last night or about the official new overall U.S. economic growth (actually contraction) numbers or about the official new figures for how domestic manufacturing fared. And I find my interest most piqued by apparent mistakes in those overall data on the shrinkage of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter.
As RealityChek regulars know, when I cover the GDP figures (which tell us how much in the way of goods and services the U.S. economy has turned out in a given time period, and how it’s changed over time), I tend to focus on the trade numbers that help make up these total figures. And I like to look at revisions, because the U.S. Commerce Department, which tracks these trends, doesn’t get it right the first time, or even the second time (because new information is being constantly received), and because it’s right up front about making these imperfections clear. (That’s why several revisions of these data are issued in the first place.)
Today’s report on the economy’s performance in the second quarter of this year was the third such report, and the final verdict for the time being. (So-called “benchmark” revisions will be coming down the road, going back several years, which speaks volumes about Commerce’s determination to get it right.)
And the “headline” trade number showed that between the first quarter and the second quarter, the total U.S. trade deficit declined from $788.0 billion to $775.1 billion. (All these trade figures are adjusted for inflation and presented at annual rates.) That’s an improvement. But it’s not as much of an improvement as the previous GDP report showed. According to that release, which came out about a month ago, the total second quarter real annualized trade deficit was $760.9 billion.
Or was it?
I can’t recount exactly what spurred me to look into the underlying figures, as opposed to taking the data’s accuracy for granted, as I normally do. But I began to check them out. And here’s what I found for that previous set of second quarter figures.
Last month’s GDP report judged that after-inflation U.S. goods exports for the second quarter totaled $1.3519 trillion annualized and U.S. goods imports were $2.3487 trillion. To get the balance, subtract second number from the first and you get a deficit of $996.8 billion.
For services, the second quarter results were previously reported as price-adjusted exports of $591.5 billion and imports of $372.8 billion. Doing the arithmetic produces a real services trade surplus of $218.7 billion.
To get the total trade deficit, the $218.7 billion services surplus has to be subtracted from the $996.8 billion goods deficit. And that number comes out to -$778.1 billion – not -$760.9 billion.
This difference is by no means major. But if my math is accurate, it reveals a final (for now) inflation-adjusted second quarter trade deficit that improved sligthly over the previously reported figure, rather than worsened.
In other words, the previous GDP report estimated that the second quarter real trade deficit improved on the first quarter’s results by a margin of $788 billion to $760.9 billion. But it looks like it should have reported a much less impressive narrowing – to just $778.1 billion. As a result, the $775.1 billion second quarter trade deficit figure reported this morning is a slightly better number than the incorrect previous estimate – not a worse result, as that incorrectly reported previous number indicated.
But guess what? That latest second quarter figure doesn’t add up, either. Specifically, today’s report pegs combined U.S. goods and services exports at $1.9274 trillion in real terms on an annual basis, with goods exports judged to be $1.3472 trillion and services exports reported as $582.1 billion. Add them up and you get $1.9293 trillion, not $1.9274 trillion.
On the import side, the Commerce Department now says that the second quarter total is $2.7025 trillion annualized, and that it’s comprised of $2.3480 trillion worth of goods imports and $372.1 billion worth of services imports. That adds up to $2.7201 trillion, not $2.7025 trillion. As a result, the total trade deficit was actually $790.8 billion annualized, not $775.1 billion (the difference between the new $2.7201 trillion total import figure and the $1.9293 trillion total export number).
Therefore, not only did the real trade deficit total worsen over the figure reported last month (from $778.1 billion to $790.8 billion, not to the $775.1 billion reported today). It also worsened from the first quarter’s $788.0 billion number.
At which point, it pains me to report that that first quarter total doesn’t add up, either.
The bottom line for me is that I’ll keep reporting the headline trade figures as they’re presented in the GDP reports by the Commerce Department. But I’ll be even more cautious than usual about assuming that they’re even accurate in measuring changes of direction, much less precise amounts. And I’ll be wondering if the rest of the federal government’s economic data is any better – at least until I can figure out what’s going on here.