(What's Left of) Our Economy, Barack Obama, election 2020, Federal Reserve, GDP, gross domestic product, gross output, industrial production, Joe Biden, manufacturing, manufacturing recession, real GDP, real value added, tariffs, Trade, Trump, value added
A funny thing happened when the U.S. Commerce Department released its latest report on gross domestic product (GDP) by industry last Wednesday: Most of the evidence that American domestic manufacturing suffered a recession – even a mild one, as widely reported – before the CCP Virus struck disappeared.
The new figures also reveal that President Trump’s manufacturing record before most of the U.S. economy was literally ordered closed due to virus-related fears looks even better than previously thought in comparison with that of the Obama administration – in which the President’s Democratic rival for the White House, Joe Biden, served as vice president.
Focusing on this pre-virus data is anything but grasping at straws – unless you think the CCP Virus and its impact will last forever. For manufacturing’s fortunes have been closely connected to President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies throughout his time in office because manufacturing is so thoroughly exposed to foreign competition both at home and abroad. And as this article (which featured unusual balance) made clear, recent evidence that industry had slumped last year – even before the virus’ arrival and the deep downturn it caused – was widely viewed as a major sign not only that the “trade war” was failing, and undermining Mr. Trump’s .broader determination to revive the sector.
Yet the new GDP by Industry numbers (which take the story through the second quarter of this year, and incorporate revisions going back to the first quarter of 2015 and which were part of a broader release of four different measures of manufacturing production) generally revised that recession away. So presumably, judgments about the effectiveness and impact of the Trump tariffs and similar trade decisions during normal economic times should turn much more positive.
Understanding that the federal government uses four different measures of manufacturing production is the key to understanding why those manufacturing recession claims now look largely mistaken, and why some uncertainty remains. The four measures are: gross output and inflation-adjusted (real) gross output, and value added and real value added. The latter two measures try to eliminate the double-counting in the gross output numbers that economists generally agree results from including in its results both the parts and components and other manufactured inputs of final products, along with the final products themselves.
As of now, the only one of these gauges that still shows a pre-virus Trump-era manufacturing recession (defined as two straight quarters of declining output) is current dollar (pre-inflation) gross output. According to these data, this downturn began in the second quarter of 2019 and continued through the end of the year – and of course into this year. But a recession doesn’t show up in any of the other measures, and its absence in the new real gross output figures is especially important, since that’s the measure that the Federal Reserve uses to measure manufacturing production in its closely followed monthly industrial production reports.
At the same time, those real gross output figures still leave one manufacturing production uncertainty remaining. For even though the Commerce Department’s tables, and their quarterly numbers, show no pre-virus Trump era recession by this measure, the Fed’s monthly numbers do. Specifically, they report three consecutive quarters of manufacturing production decrease last year – from the first through the third.
Yet the quarterly figures reported by the Commerce Department show that real gross output in manufacturing fell between the first and second quarters of 2019, but rose between the second and third before dropping again between the third and fourth. Even odder: Although these Commerce numbers show a weakening manufacturing output picture for the fourth quarter of last year, the Fed figures show a brighter one.
As for the comparison between administrations, here’s what the new numbers show for the two most comparable pre-virus periods (because they’re closest together in the same business cycle) – the last three years of the Obama administration and the first three years of the Trump administration. And they demonstrate that, whether due to Mr. Trump’s policies or not, industry performed considerably better during his watch. The Trump numbers are all the more impressive since 2019 was marked in part by major production woes at Boeing that greatly undercut the output numbers for the huge U.S. aerospace industry and its vast domestic supply chain.
last 3 Obama years first 3 Trump years
Gross output: -6.50 percent +12.71 percent
Real gross output: +1.40 percent +4.63 percent
Value added: +5.41 percent +11.72 percent
Real value-added: +2.33 percent +9.00 percent
This year, of course, has been terrible for domestic U.S. manufacturing. Between the first and second quarters, in real gross output terms it decreased by 1.03 percent at an annual rate between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020, and by 9.47 percent between the first and second quarters.
Interestingly, put together, those are about the same as the declines suffered by the entire U.S. private sector (1.11 percent and 9.14 percent, respectively), even though manufacturing employment during this that period held up notably better than its overall private sector counterpart. During the first and second quarters of this year, the private sector lost 9.92 percent of its jobs, compared with 6.25 percent for manufacturing.
The GDP by Industry figures for the third quarter won’t be out until well after the election (December 22), so voters won’t be able to judge the full Trump manufacturing output record during the CCP Virus period. But from what’s known so far, it looks like something the President can point to during the rest of the campaign as a promise kept.