The big mystery about yesterday’s monthly U.S. trade report (for May) concerns China. Specifically, why are imports from the People’s Republic streaming into the American economy again, considering the stiff, sweeping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese-made goods destined for U.S. markets, and of course the continuing troubles faced by the U.S. economy from the CCP Virus?
I won’t be able to provide a detailed answer till sometime next week – when I expect the U.S. International Trade Commission to post the data on its website. But I can say right now that these imports were great enough account for more than all of the blame for $4.85 billion (9.74 percent) sequential widening of the overall U.S. trade gap in May.
That combined goods and services trade shortfall hit $54.60 billion – its highest level since October, 2008’s $60.88 billion. And back then, more than half that overall trade deficit was oil. In May, the United States ran an oil trade surplus – as it’s done since last fall.
Moreover, the overall May U.S. goods trade deficit (also known as the merchandise deficit) of $76.06 billion was the biggest such total since December, 2018’s $80.21 billion –and represented a $4.24 billion (5.90 percent) increase from April’s levels.
The specific China goods numbers? The bilateral trade gap widened by $4.49 billion (19.99 percent) sequentially in May – a figure 92.58 percent as big as the entire monthly U.S. trade deficit increase and, as mentioned above, greater than the monthly increase in the merchandise shortfall. In other words, as the goods trade deficit from everywhere else in toto fell during May, it rose from China. (Of course, because the U.S. trades with so many different countries, this doesn’t mean that goods trade shortfalls fell with every one of them other than China. But overall, the non-China goods trade gap narrowed.)
And the role of merchandise imports was as crucial as it is puzzling. U.S. goods imports from China rose on month in May by $5.53 billion (or 17.79 percent). So they alone exceeded the $4.85 billion sequential increase in the overall trade deficit and the $4.24 billion rise in the goods deficit.
Even weirder – goods imports from China were up in May while overall imports and global goods imports were down (by 0.88 percent and by 0.76 percent, respectively).
Despite the widening of the merchandise trade gap with China, U.S. goods exports to the People’s Republic improved on month in May – by $1.04 billion, to $9.64 billion. That’s not terribly surprising, since all indications are that China’s economy began recovering sooner than America’s from its own CCP Virus-induced shutdown. In fact, that monthly merchandise export total is the highest since last November’s $10.10 billion – meaning that those U.S. sales are back in their range for the whole of last year, before the virus broke out in China.
But was the U.S. economy rebounding strongly enough in May to explain easily a resumption of buying from China that also brought goods imports back to their highest level since November, and well inside their range, too, for all of last year? That’s hard to accept, if only because overall U.S. goods imports remain significantly depressed from last year’s levels, and because of those Trump tariffs. Such bewilderment seems justified even given that in recent years, May has been a month during which merchandise imports from China have risen strongly. After all, this wasn’t a normal May.
It’s true that on a year-to-date basis through May, U.S. goods imports from China in 2020 are down 15.90 percent – more than the 12.60 percent drop for goods imports total (but not that much more). The difference is somewhat greater with the 10.35 percent decrease in January-May total U.S. non-oil goods imports – which are a better global comparison with China goods imports, since China doesn’t sell oil to the United States.
It’s also true that the United States’ merchandise deficit with China through May of this year has shrunk much faster (24.58 percent) than its overall global goods deficit (7.78 percent) and much, much faster than its global non-oil goods deficit (2.34 percent). But it’s true as well that a non-trivial amount of this progress has reversed itself this month (as well as in April).
And that’s why I’ll get you the detailed answer to the “what are these China imports” question ASAP.