At least if you don’t factor in inflation, this morning’s official U.S. figures (for October) show that an encouraging recent winning streak for America’s trade flows and their impact on the economy has come to an end for now.
The winning streak consisted of overall monthly trade deficits that shrank sequentially from April through August, which means – according to how Washington and most economists calculate such things – that trade was contributing to the economy’s growth. And that five month stretch was the longest since the shortfall declined for six straight months between June and November, 2019.
Even better, this contribution translated into expansion that was healthier, fueled more by producing and less by borrowing and consuming. Better still, during the last part of this period, the deficit was falling while growth was taking place – as opposed to the more common pattern of a declining deficit limiting contraction mainly because a shriveling economy was buying fewer imports. And better still, for most of these months, the trade gap shrank both because exports climbed and imports dropped.
In October, however, the combined goods and services deficit rose for the second consecutive month, and by 5.44 percent, from an upwardly revised $74.13 billion to $78.16 billion. That total, moreover, was the highest since June’s $80.72 billion. And also for the second straight month – exports dipped and imports advanced.
That consecutive sequential export decrease was the first such stretch since the peak CCP Virus period of March thru May, 2020. The actual decline was 0.73 percent, from an upwardly revised $258.51 billion to $256.63 billion – a total that was the lowest since May’s $256.08 billion
The total import increase was also the second straight, and marked the first back-to-back improvements since January through March of this year (which capped an eight-month period of increases). These foreign purchases advanced by 0.65 percent in October, from an upwardly revised $332.64 billion to $334.79 billion.
Up for the second straight month as well as the goods trade deficit – a development that last happened from November, 2021 through January, 2022. The gap widened by 6.51 percent, from upwardly revised $93.50 billion to $99.59 billion, and this figure was the highest figure since May’s $104.33 billion.
Goods exports fell for the second straight month in October, too – a first since that peak virus period of March through May, 2020. (The streak actually began in February.) The October retreat was 2.06 percent, and brought the total from a downwardly revised $179.69 billion to $175.98 billion – its worst since April’s $176.80 billion
Goods imports grew a second straight month, too, from an upwardly revised $273.19 billion to $275.57 billion. The 0.87 percent increase resulted in the highest monthly level since June’s $282.68 billion.
Services trade, which is dwarfed by goods trade, nonetheless produced some bright spots in the October trade report. The longstanding surplus in this sector, which was so hard hit by the pandemic, improved for the first time in three months, froma downwardly revised $19.37 billion to $21.43. The 10.62 percent increase produced the best monthly total since last December’s $21.66 billion.
Most of this progress stemmed from the ninth consecutive advance and the seventh straight record in services exports. In October, they expanded from an upwardly revised $78.82 billion to $80.65 billlion.
Services imports dipped by 0.38 percent, from an upwardly revised record of $59.45 billion to $59.22 billion.
Manufacturing’s chronic and enormous trade shortfall became more enormous in October, worsening by 4.32 percent, from $129.14 billion to $134.73 billion. That total was the second highest ever, after March’s $142.22 billion.
Manufacturing exports inched down by 0.24 percent, from $110.69 billion to $110.42 billion, while imports surged by 2.07 percent, from $240.10 billion to a second-highest ever $245.17 billion (behind only March’s $256.18 billion).
At $1.2745 trillion (up 18.06 percent from the 2021 level), the year-to-date manufacturing trade deficit is already close to the annual record – last year’s $1.3298 trillion.
By contrast, dictator Xi Jinping’s over-the-top Zero Covid policies no doubt helped depress the also chronic and enormous U.S. goods trade deficit with China by 22.58 percent on month in October. The nosedive was the biggest since the 38.93 percent plummet in February, 2020, when the People’s Republic was locking itself down against the first CCP Virus wave. And the October monthly trade gap was the smallest since August, 2021’s 31.66 percent.
Interestingly, U.S. goods exports to China soared by 31.38 percent on month in October, from $11.95 billion to $15.70 billion. That amount was the highest since last November’s $15.87 billion, and the monthly increase of 31.33 percent was the fastest since October, 2021’s 51.23 percent.
Imports, however, sank by 9.49 percent, from $49.25 billion to $44.57 billion. The level was the lowest since May’s $43.86 billion and the rate of decrease the greatest since April’s 11.82 percent.
Year-to-date, the China goods trade gap has ballooned by 18.68 percent, once again faster than the rise of the U.S. non-oil goods deficit (17.53 percent), its closest global proxy.
In October, for a change, the widening of the overall U.S. trade deficit – and then some – came largely from a booming imbalance with Europe. The goods gap with the continent skyrocketed by 48.51 percent, sequentially, from $15.78 billion to $23.44 billion. That new total was the biggest since March’s $28.50 billion and the rate of increase the fastest since it shot up by 68.37 percent that same month.
U.S. goods exports to Europe actually set a new record in October ($44.27 billion, versus the old mark of $43.61 billion in June). But American global sales of natural gas, which are up 52.51 percent on a year-to-date basis due largely to the continent’s need to replace sanctioned Russian energy supplies, oddly pulled back by 9.90 percent.
At the same time, American goods imports from Europe, surely reflecting a weak euro, leaped by 16.35 percent, from $58.19 billion to $67.71 billion. That total was the second highest on record (trailing only March’s $70 billion) and the monthly increase (16.35 percent) the fastest since March’s 32.43 percent.
October trade in Advanced Technology Products (ATP) set several records, but most were the bad kind. The deficit worsened by 7.70 percent, from $24.32 billion to $26.19 billion, and hit its second straight all-time in the process.
Exports set a new record, rising 4.08 percent on month, from $34.33 billion to $35.73 billion. (The old mark of $34.91 billion dates back to March, 2018.)
Imports also reached their second straight all-time high, climbing 5.58 percent sequentially, frm $58.65 billion to $61.92 billion.
Moreover, year-to-date, the ATP trade shortfall is up 32.17 percent, and at $204.21 billion, it’s already set a new annual record.
Some relief could be in store for America’s trade flows in the coming months. The dollar has weakened in recent weeks, which will restore some price competitiveness for U.S.-origin goods and services at home and abroad. And a recession, a further growth slowdown, and/or continued high inflation could keep reducing imports as well (though that’s the kind of recipe for smaller trade deficits that no one should welcome).
At the same time, solid economic growth could continue, as it has throughout the second half of the year. Americans’ spending power could remain strong, given still huge (though dwindling) amounts of savings amassed during the pandemic. At the behest of U.S. allies, President Biden seems likely to weaken the Buy American provisions governing the green energy production incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act. And China’s export machine could revive as Beijing decides to back away from economically crippling levels of lockdowns.
At this point, however, I’m thinking that recent deficit improvement will keep “rolling over” as Wall Streeters call a steady reversal of investment gains. It’s not much more than a gut feeling. But my hunches aren’t always wrong.