So many records (mainly the wrong kind) were revealed in the latest official monthly U.S. trade figures (for March) that it’s hard to know where to begin. Some important points need to be made before delving into them, though.
First, don’t blame oil. Sure, this trade report broke new ground in containing a full month’s worth of Ukraine war-period data. But despite the disruption in global energy markets triggered by the conflict, on a monthly basis, the U.S. petroleum balance actually improved sequentially, from a $2.94 billion deficit to a $1.58 billion surplus on a pre-inflation basis (the trade flow gauges from these monthly government releases that are most widely followed)
And even on an inflation-adjusted basis, February’s $8.73 billion oil deficit shrank to $5.15 billion in March.
Second, don’t blame inflation much at all. The Census Bureau doesn’t report after-inflation service trade results on a monthly basis, but it does provide this information for goods (which comprise the great majority of U.S. trade flows). And the March figures show that before factoring in inflation, the goods trade deficit worsened by 18.89 percent from $107.78 billon in February to a new record $128.14 billlion, whereas when inflation is counted, this gap widened on month by 18.86 percent, from $115.96 billion in February to $137.83 billion in March. (Major trade wonks will note that these goods and services data are presented according to two different counting methods, but trust me: the difference in results is negligible.)
Third, don’t blame China. The March pre-inflation goods deficit with the People’s Republic was up sequentially from $42.26 billion to $47.37 billion (12.10 percent). But neither that absolute level nor the rate of increase was anything out of the ordinary, much less a record. In fact, the monthly percentage increase was just half the rate of that of the shortfall for total non-oil goods (a close worldwide proxy for China goods trade) – which hit 24.06 percent. One big takeaway here: the Trump China tariffs are still exerting a major effect, along of course with the supply chain knots Beijing has created with its over-the-top Zero Covid policy.
But regardless of where the blame lies, (and it looks like major culprits are continued strong U.S. spending on both consumer goods and capital equipment, combined with an improvement of the supply chain situation outside China), all-time highs and worsts abounded in the March trade report, include worsenings at record paces.
The combined goods and services trade deficit jumped on-month by 22.28 percent, to $109.80 billion. That total was the third straight record for a single month and the increase the fastest since the 43.71 percent explosion in March, 2015 – a month during which much of the country was recovering from severe winter weather.
As mentioned above, the $128.14 billion goods trade gap was the highest ever, too, topping its predecessor (January’s $108.60 billion) by 17.99 percent. As for the 18.89 percent monthly increase, that was also the biggest since March, 2015 (25.18 percent).
Even a seeming trade balance bright spot turns out to be pretty dim. The headline number shows the service trade surplus improving by 1.96 percent – from $17.98 billion to $18.34 billion. Unfortunately, nearly all of this increase stemmed from a big downward revision in the initially reported February surplus, from $18.29 billion.
As known by RealityChek regulars, the aforementioned non-oil goods trade deficit can also be called the Made in Washington trade deficit – because by stripping out figures for oil (which trade diplomacy usually ignores) and services (where liberalization efforts have barely begun), it stems from those U.S. trade flows that have been heavily influenced by trade policy decisions.
And not only was the March Made in Washington deficit’s monthly increase of 24.06 percent the second fastest ever (after March, 2015’s 31.24 percent). The March, 2022 level of $128.70 billion was the biggest ever.
The story of the non-oil goods trade gap’s growth was overwhelmingly a manufacturing story. The sector’s huge and chronic trade shortfall shot back up from $106.49 billion in February (which was a nice retreat from January’s $121.03 billion) to a new record $142.22 billion. And the monthly percentage jump of 33.55 percent was the biggest since the 37.62 percent during weather-affected March, 2015.
Manufactures exports advanced sequentially by a strong 20.53 percent this past March. That topped the previous all-time monthly high of $105.37 billion (set back in October, 2014), by 8.15 percent. But the much greater volume of imports skyrocketed by 27.43 percent. And their $256.18 billion total smashed the old record of $222.79 billion (from last December) by 14.98 percent.
Within manufacturing, U.S. trade in advanced technology products (ATP) took a notable beating in March, too. The $23.31 billion trade gap was an all-time high, and its 73.65 percent monthly growth the worst since the shortfall slightly more than doubled on month in March, 2020 – as the Chinese economy and its huge electronics and infotech hardware manufacturing bases reopened after the People’s Republic’s initial pandemic wave.
Yet as noted above, despite these extaordinary manufacturing and ATP trade numbers, the latest March numbers for manufacturing-heavy U.S. China trade were anything but extraordinary. U.S. goods exports to the People’s Republic increased on-month by 15.36 percent – slower than the rate for manufactures exports globally, but the fastest rate since the 52.47 percent rocket ride they took last October.
Goods imports from China, however, rose much more slowly from February to March than manufactures imports overall – by just 12.10 percent, from $42.26 billion to $47.37 billion.
When it comes to other major U.S. trade partners, the March American goods deficit with Canada of $8.03 billion was the highest such total since July, 2008 ($9.88 billion). It was led by a 30.81 percent advance in imports reflecting the mid-February reopening of bridges between the two countries that had been closed due to CCP Virus restrictions-related protests.
The goods deficit with Mexico worsened even faster – by 35.11 percent, to $11.92 billion. That total was its highest since August, 2020’s $12.77 billion.
Another major monthly increase (31.59 percent) was registered by the U.S. goods shortfall with the European Union, but its March level ($16.87 billion) was subdued relative to recent results.
Anything but subdued was the Japan goods shortfall, which shot up sequentially in March by 49 percent. The $6.77 billion total also was the biggest since November, 2020’s $6.78 billion, and the monthly jump the greatest since the 84.37 percent burst in July, 2020, during the rapid recovery from the sharp U.S. economic downturn induced by the first wave of the CCP Virus and related economic and behavior curbs.
The Europe and Japan trade figures stem significantly from a development that’s bound to turn into an increasingly formidable headwind for the U.S. trade balance for the foreseeable future – the dollar’s rise versus other leading currencies to levels not seen in 20 years. And unless it’s reversed substantially soon, China’s latest currency devaluation, which began in mid-April, will weaken the effects of both the Trump tariffs and the Zero Covid policy. So even if the Federal Reserve’s (so far modest) inflation-fighting efforts do slow the American economy significantly, it’s likely that, as astronomical as the March trade deficits were, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.