Today’s new monthly U.S. trade figures (for April) from the U.S. Census Bureau come at an awkward time statistically speaking. As must be obvious, they predate President Trump’s latest escalation trade war escalations. They’ve been shaped significantly by the safety-related problems at the Boeing Co., long a major American export standout, which may or may not be solved relatively quickly. To make matters more complicated, they incorporate revisions – some of which go back to 2014.
All the same, the trade report contained some data worth noting.
Regarding the macro numbers, the combined U.S. goods and services trade deficit shrank by 2.15 percent on month in April, from an upwardly revised $51.91 billion to $50.79 billion. That’s the second lowest monthly total of this still-young year and, more important, the second lowest total (after February’s $50.03 billion) since June, 2018’s $47.43 billion.
And, in an unusual (literal) footnote, March’s figure was revised up by a substantial 3.81 percent.
Total U.S. exports fell by 2.16 percent on month in April, to $206.85 billion. That’s the biggest percentage sequential decrease since January, 2015’s 2.66 percent. And the April total was the lowest since last December’s $205.66 billion.
Total American imports, though, fell at the same 2.16 percent rate – but the decline was only the fastest since January’s 2.40 percent. The $257.64 billion total import figure was the nation’s lowest since April, 2018’s $257.10 billion.
Year-to-date, the overall trade deficit is 2.02 percent higher than in 2018, although overall economic growth is a little slower.
As known by RealityChek regulars, more insights on how Mr. Trump’s trade policies can be gleaned from examining the “Made in Washington trade deficit” – comprised of U.S. trade flows strongly influenced by trade policy decisions. Such figures strip out oil trade, which is rarely dealt with by trade policy makers, and trade services, where liberalization has still made only modest progress worldwide.
In inflation-adjusted terms (the figures that are used to help calculate overall American economic growth or contraction), this non-oil goods deficit dipped by 0.14 percent month-to-month in April. More revealing, so far in 2019 it’s up 6.13 percent. That sounds like an indictment of the Trump trade record.
But 2018’s comparable figure was 12.71 percent. So even though the economy’s growth changed little, the growth rate of the Made in Washington trade deficit plunged by more than 50 percent – unmistakably good news for anyone wanting the economy to rely less for growth on borrowing and consuming, and more on saving and producing.
The U.S. goods trade shortfall with China shot up 29.66 percent on month in April – which looks like a setback for the President’s trade policy. The more so since the jump was the biggest since the 37.01 percent surge of March, 2015.
All the same, this increase followed the biggest two-month plunge in this trade deficit (39.80 percent) since October-December, 2001 (39.87 percent). In addition, despite the tariff policy gyrations on both sides, the impact of seasonal factors on U.S.-China goods trade can still be detected, as bilateral commerce tends to wane temporarily after big Christmas holiday-related buildups.
Moreover, the China goods deficit through the first four months of 2019 is down 9.88% from the comparable 2018 period – even though the overall goods deficit year-to-date is up 0.33%.
The April widening of the China goods gap was led by a 24.27 percent monthly nosedive in American goods sales to the People’s Republic. This biggest such drop since January, 2018’s 27.35 percent surely represents one sign of the Boeing effect. Although country-specific data aren’t yet available, overall civilian aircraft overseas sales plummeted by 46.89 percent sequentially in April (or just under $2.30 billion in absolute terms).
Goods imports from China rose on month for the first time in six months – by 11.62 percent, to $34.80 billion. This increase was the biggest since May, 2018’s 14.78 percent, by which time tariffs front-running was clearly underway.
The Boeing effect can also be seen in the April manufacturing trade figures. The monthly deficit – which due to trade war factors has been volatile lately – increased sequentially by 12.76 percent, from $76.96 billion to $86.78 billion.
Exports slumped by 9.81 percent month-to-month – or $10.07 billion – with nearly a quarter of the decline due to aircraft.
The much larger amount of manufactures imports was down, too, sequentially in April, but by only 0.14 percent.
Year-to-date, the manufacturing trade deficit stands at $324.17 billion – 4.11 percent higher than the comparable 2018 figure. January-through-April exports are 1.18 percent lower than in the first four months of last year, while imports are 1.21 percent higher.