It wouldn’t be accurate to start off this post with a statement on the order of “As bad as the full-year 2021 inflation-adjusted trade figures released last week were, the new pre-inflation data for February were good.” But a contrast was unmistakable, with yesterday’s latest monthly report from the Census Bureau containing some decidedly encouraging news – even though the numbers were pre-Ukraine war, and therefore pre- all the disruption to global supply chains – in particular in the food and energy sectors – that the conflict has already brought.
And the story even begins at the beginning. The combined goods and services trade deficit decreased sequentially for the first time since October. The slippage was only 0.05 percent, and the monthly total ($89.19 billion) was still the second highest ever (behind January’s $89.23 billion). But that January figure itself was revised down 0.52 percent.
Goods trade produced somewhat better results. February’s shortfall of $107.47 billion represented its first monthly drop since October, and the decrease was 1.04 percent. The February goods trade gap was the second biggest on record, too, but January’s $108.60 billion mark was downgraded by 0.24 percent.
When it comes to the broadest trade balance results, the only black mark was found in the service sector. In February, its long-time surplus shrank for the second straight month, decreasing by 5.62 percent, from $19.37 billion to $18.29 billion. That total was the smallest since November’s $18.30 billion. At least the January number was revised up by 1.05 percent.
More good news came on the export front. Total American sales abroad climbed 1.84 percent on month to $228.63 billion – a new record that nosed ahead of the previous all-time high (December’s $228.35 billion) by 0.12 percent.
Goods exports were up to on a monthly basis in February – by 1.79 percent, to $158.78 billion. That total was the second highest ever – 0.15 percent below October’s $159.02 billion.
Services exports improved, too in February. At $69.85 billion, they were 1.96 percent higher than January’s $68.51 billion. But reflecting the outsized hit this sector took from the CCP Virus and related lockdowns and behavioral changes, these totals remain below pre-pandemic levels.
Combined goods and services imports set their seventh straight monthly record in February, increasing 1.30 percent from $313.72 billion in January to $317.81 billion. The January total, however, was revised down by 0.12 percent.
Goods imports alone lengthened their string of monthly records, too, in February, with its $266.25 billion total topping January’s $264.59 billion by 0.63 percent. Their January total was downgraded fractionally.
The biggest relative imports increase came in services, where February’s $51.57 billion in purchases from abroad represented a 4.95 percent jump from January’s $49.13 billion. And the February total marked an all-time high – beating November’s $50.49 billion by 2.14 percent.
Oil was responsible for the overall February trade figures not being considerably better. The petroleum deficit soared by $2.67 billion on month, from a miniscule $115 million to $2.78 billion – the highest.monthly total since September’s $3.37 billion. And this surge was led by an 18.57 percent increase in oil imports. The monthly total of $23.11 billion, moreover, was the highest since December, 2014’s $25.01 billion.
Much higher prices per barrel of oil bought obviously deserve the blame for much of this news. But even adjusting for inflation, U.S. oil imports for February increased by 4.31 percent – the biggest relative rise since last May’s 6.47 percent.
In line with the improvement in the overall February trade deficit, the non-oil goods shortfall fell by 3.43 percent on month in February. At $103.56 billion, this deficit – which RealityChek regulars know covers the trade flows most affected by U.S. trade policy – was still the second highest on record, after January’s $107.24 billion. But the decrease was the first since October. And it resulted from the ideal combination of both a rise in exports and a decline in imports.
This ideal combination also encouragingly appeared in the February data for two long-term (and related) problem areas in U.S. trade flows – manufacturing and China.
The chronically huge American manufacturing trade gap shrank in February by 12.01 percent – from a record $121.03 billion to $106.49 billion. The decrease was the third straight and the biggest percentage-wise since the 12.70 percent plunge in November, 2019. In addition, the new level the lowest since April, 2021’s $103.60 billion.
As indicated, moreover, manufacturing exports were up on month in February – by 2.40 percent, from $92.33 billion to $94.55 billion. The increase, however, did follow a 7.80 percent sequential decrease in January that brought these foreign sales to their lowest level since last August.
Manufacturing imports, though, decreased for the third straight month – by 5.78 percent, from $213.36 billion to $201.03 billion. The monthly drop was the biggest in percentage terms since February, 2021’s 6.98 percent (amid the CCP Virus’ powerful second wave), and the new February total was the lowest since last April’s $198.06 billion.
America’s trade with China is dominated by manufactures, so it’s not surprising that its also chronically huge goods surplus with the United States plummeted by 15.69 percent sequentially in February, from $36.37 billion to $30.67 billion. This nosedive was the greatest in percentage terms since the 25.19 percent of February, 2020, when the Chinese economy was still seized up by sweeping CCP Virus-induced lockdowns.
Just as important, this monthly cratering was more than 4.5 times bigger than the monthly drop in the U.S. global non-oil goods deficit – the closest worldwide proxy for U.S.-China goods trade. It’s the latest evidence of the Trump tariffs’ effectivness at keeping enormous amounts of Chinese products out of the U.S. market.
As for the new February U.S.-China goods deficit’s level, it was the lowest since last July’s $28.65 billion.
And goods exports to and goods imports from China moved in exactly the right ways from an American standpoint. The former edged up 1.04 percent, from $11.48 billion to $11.59 billion – a performance that snapped a three-month losing streak. But the latter dropped for the second straight month, by 11.68 percent, from $47.85 billion to $42.26 billion. Decreases in imports from China are typical in post-holiday season February, and this latest drop-off was the biggest in percentage terms since last February’s 13 percent.
All the same, as promising as these February trade results are, one month’s worth of data alone reveal nothing about longer term trends and possibilities. And as mentioned at the outset, the Ukraine war impact is yet to be recorded. Further, more major changes may be in store in the U.S. and global economies, especially as the Federal Reserve is sounding more determined than ever to cool torrid inflation dramatically even if it means slowing growth dramatically. (Unless the central bank chickens out, if only because of the unmistakably political impact such tightening would have during an election year?) And as if all this uncertainty wasn’t enough, never forget that the trade figures are just about the most lagging-y set of indicators that the federal government releases.
So as with so many other dimensions of the U.S. economy, meaningful clarity on trade flows looks unlikely to emerge until the impacts of external shocks like the CCP Virus and the Ukraine war wear off. That day will come at some point, won’t it?
P.S. Yes, because my own schedule this past week has been disrupted nearly as much as the economy these last few years, this is my latest effort to catch up on reporting on recent economic releases. More to come!