With all the other news of the last few days, it’s been easy to overlook the release last Friday of the first read (of three soundings that will be released in the near term) the nation got on U.S. economic growth in the third quarter. That’s unfortunate because these data on the gross domestic product (GDP) continued to be distorted by sizable fluctuations generated by President Trump’s recent trade policy moves. As a result, the outlook for future growth looks especially cloudy, and that goes double for the odds that its recent acceleration from the crummy rates so far during the current economic recovery can continue.
The impact of trade-generated short-term noise is clear from the change seen in the U.S. trade deficit between the second and third quarters. In inflation-adjusted terms (the GDP measure that’s most widely followed) during that period, the shortfall dropped by 6.80 percent, from $902.4 billion on an annualized basis to $841.0 billion. That was the biggest sequential decrease since the fourth quarter of 2013 (9.24 percent).
But in the third quarter, the real trade gap rebounded to $939.0 billion – its all-time highest (besting the previous record of $932.5 billion in the third quarter of 2006, during pre-financial crisis days). In addition, the quarterly increase of 11.65 percent was the biggest since the 13.18 percent during the second quarter of 2010 – during the early stages of the current economic recovery.
What’s been going on? As widely reported, both American exporters and importers have been rushing shipments of goods to each other’s markets in order to beat the tariffs at home and abroad that have been actually imposed or threatened. During the second quarter, the biggest rush was made by U.S. exporters – their shipments overseas jumped by 3.21 percent quarter-to-quarter on an annualized basis. That was the biggest surge since the 3.93 percent annualized rise in the fourth quarter of 2013. That’s largely why the trade deficit narrowed.
During the third quarter, at least according to these preliminary figures, goods exports fell back by 1.79 percent – their worst performance since the 2.44 percent decline registered in the first quarter of 2015. Hence, in part, the rebound in the trade deficit. (Again, all these numbers and those in the next paragraph are annualized.)
On the merchandise import front, U.S. purchases of foreign goods in the second quarter stayed pretty flat sequentially – which also contributed to the trade shortfall’s improvement. But in the third quarter, goods imports advanced by 2.48 percent – the biggest such rise since the fourth quarter of 2017 (3.37 percent).
At the same time, as just indicated, these fluctuations have been multi-year highs, not multi-decade highs. So even though the data were noisy, they weren’t epic-ally noisy, or even close.
More epic was the bite from after-inflation growth taken by the higher trade deficit in the third quarter. It chopped fully 1.78 percent points off the 3.46 percent annualized increase. That’s the highest such toll in absolute terms since the 1.91 percentage points taken from growth in the third quarter of 1985! But the picture looks much less dramatic if you measure this growth loss as a share of the actual growth.
During the third quarter, the trade bite amounted to 51.44 percent of that growth. But that’s only the biggest such figure since the fourth quarter of 2016, when the sequential increase in the trade deficit subtracted 75.43 percent (1.32 percentage points) of that period’s 1.75 percent annualized constant dollar growth.
All the same, for the time being, the trade drag on cumulative after-inflation growth over the course of the entire economic recovery is up again. As of the second quarter, it had cost the economy 10.77 percent of its cumulative growth – or $363.7 billion. The third quarter numbers reveal the trade hit at 13.05 percent of cumulative growth – or $461.7 billion.
Moreover, the growth lost during the recovery because of the increase of the Made in Washington trade deficit remains much greater. This gauge measures inflation-adjusted trade flows minus sectors (services and oil) still generally unaffected by trade agreements and related policy decisions.
The latest data are from the second quarter, but they show a Made in Washington trade drag of 18.01 percent on cumulative real recovery growth – which translates into $608.12 billion worth of foregone expansion The next set of monthly U.S. trade data, slated to come out on Friday, will provide the first look on the third quarter statistics.
Some more perspective can be gleaned from the price-adjusted trade deficit’s share of the price-adjusted gross domestic product on a stand-still basis. It’s definitely on the upswing – reaching 5.03 percent as of the third quarter. That’s the highest level since just before the financial crisis-induced ensuing Great Recession struck – during the third quarter of 2007, when the share hit 5.23 percent.
The only consolations identifiable are that overall economic growth today is faster than it was eleven years ago, and that it’s still possible that the real trade deficit’s share of GDP, and the size of the trade drag, will settle down once the trade noise goes away. Not that hope will be the test of Mr. Trump’s trade policy success.