This morning Americans and the rest of the world found out that the U.S. government now believes that the American economy shrank a little more during the first quarter of this year than first estimated. And the details show that the nation’s towering and still-soaring trade deficit was a major culprit.
According to today’s release from the Commerce Department, the combined goods and services trade gap for the quarter totaled $1.5435 trillion at annual rates adjusted for inflation. That new record total – the seventh straight such all-time high – was 0.12 percent greater than the $1.5417 trillion dollar gap reported by Commerce in its first look at the changing size of the economy (termed the gross domestic product, or GDP).
And accompanying this finding was the news that the first quarter’s inflation-adjusted contraction was 1.52 percent at annual rates – not the 1.42 percent previously reported. So last month’s thoroughly depressing picture of an economy shrinking as its trade deficit surges (which last occurred in the first quarter of 2020) became slightly grimmer.
The swelling trade deficit reduced first quarter real GDP by 3.23 percentage points – more than the 3.20 percentage point subtraction estimated in the initial first quarter GDP report. For good measure, this growth loss was the worst in absolute terms since the 3.25 percentage point hit suffered during the third quarter of 2020 – when the economy roared back from the short but deep CCPVirus-induced downturn earlier that spring.
Yet that lost growth figure was dwarfed by the actual expansion that occurred (an a blazing 30.19 percent annualized in real terms). The trade deficit’s impact on the first quarter of this year helped turn slow growth into shrinkage. Specifically, had the already astronomical trade shortfall simply not gotten worse between the fourth quarter of last year and this year’s first quarter, the economy would have expanded by 1.71 percent
Worse, the growth toll exacted by the ballooning trade deficit in relative terms reached a new record. The 3.23 percentage point drag on an economy that shriveled by a total of 1.52 percent was slightly bigger than the 3.22 percent drag on the 1.53 percent total contraction recorded in the second quarter of 1982 – the previous all-time high.
Moreover, the quarter-to-quarter swing in the trade gap’s growth impact – from a 0.23 percentage point hit during the fourth quarter – was the biggest since mid-2020, when the 1.53 percentage point boost to growth in the second quarter became a 3.25 percentage point subtraction in the third quarter.
Because the real trade deficit during the first quarter was rising faster than first thought even as the overall economy was shrinking faster, the gap’s share of real GDP set a new record, too – 7.82 percent, compared with the 7.81 percent calculable from last month’s initial first quarter numbers. And the increase in this figure over its fourth quarter counterpart was a full percentage point.
In line with that latter result, the latest first quarter trade deficit figure now exceeds the fourth quarter level by 14.32 percent, not the 14.19 percent calculable from last month’s GDP release. That sequential increase remained the biggest since the 31.81 percent jump between the second and third quarters of 2020 – again, when the economy was bouncing back rapidly from that pandemic-induced cratering, not getting smaller.
And all told, the after-inflation trade deficit is now up 82.10 percent since the fourth quarter of 2019, the last quarter before the CCP Virus’ arrival began seriously affecting and especially distorting the economy.
The first quarter U.S. constant dollar goods trade deficit actually came in fractionally smaller in this morning’s government release than reported last month – $1.6680 trillion at annual rates versus $1.6685 trillion. Still a seventh straight record, this total now tops that of the fourth quarter by 13.61 percent, not the 13.65 percent calculable last month. Nonetheless, that increase remained the biggest since the 20.40 percent surge between that second and third quarter of 2020. And since that last pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019, the goods trade deficit has swelled by 55.58 percent.
By contrast, the new estimate shows that the chronic U.S. services trade surplus reached only $119 billion – 1.57 percent lower than the initially reported $120.9 billion. This new figure produced the first sequential decline in this surplus since the second quarter of 2021. Since the fourth quarter of 2019, this surplus has been cut nearly in half – by 47.51 percent, to be precise – as the virus has hit global activity in this sector unusually hard.
As for total inflation-adjusted exports, they’re now judged to be 0.14 percent higher in the first quarter than initially reported – $2.3577 trillion annualized versus $2.3545 trillion. But they’re still 1.38 percent lower than in the fourth quarter, and the sequential decrease remained the fourth in the nine quarters since that first pandemic-affected quarter – the first quarter of 2020. Moreover, in real terms, combined goods and services exports are still off by 7.66 percent since pre-pandemic-y fourth quarter, 2019.
Total inflation-adjusted first quarter imports are also now estimated as higher than initially reported (by 0.13 percent). Therefore, the $3.9012 trillion annual level still represents the fifth consecutive quarterly record. Meanwhile, the new 4.29 percent quarterly increase was the biggest since the 7.04 percent recorded between the third and fourth quarters of 2020 – when the economy was growing. As a result, total real imports are now 14.71 percent greater than in the fourth quarter of 2019.
After-inflation goods exports of $1.7519 trillion were slightly (0.12 percent) higher in the first quarter than previously reported, but still down 2.29 percent from the fourth quarter level. That decrease, moreover, was still the biggest since the 23.08 percent nosedive between the first and second quarters of 2020 – when the CCP Virus-induced downturn hit. And they, too, have fallen on a quarterly basis for four of the nine quarters that have passed since the pandemic first arrived in force in early 2020. In all, goods exports are now 1.72 percent lower than their immediate pre-pandemic levels.
Price-adjusted goods imports were also slightly (0.09 percent) higher in the first quarter than initially reported. The $3.4199 trillion annualized total was still the second straight all-time high and the second straight increase, and the 4.87 percent quarterly rate of increase still the fastest since the 6.80 percent rise in the fourth quarter of 2020. These overseas purchases have now increased by 19.83 percent since that final pre-pandemic fourth quarter of 2019.
Real services exports, however, were 0.05 percent weaker in the first quarter than initially judged – $633.3 billion at annual rates as opposed to $633.6 billion. Even so, that total climbed for the second quarter in a row (by 0.89 percent), and represented the best level since the $695.3 billion annualized recorded for the first quarter of 2020. All the same, and again, reflecting the outsized CCP Virus blows taken by the sector, constant dollar services exports have fallen by 18.15 percent since the last pre-pandemc quarter.
Yet price-adjusted services imports were revised up by a significant 0.31 percent during the first quarter, and the $514.3 bi1lion annualized level was 1.32 percent higher than the fourth quarter total and represented the strongest real services import total since the $547 billion annualized figure for the fourth quarter of 2019.
These new overall GDP numbers confirm that the U.S. economy’s growth has been slowing markedly (as does this usually pretty on-target forecast for the second quarter). But with one possible exception, all the forces and developments cited in my trade and GDP post last month pointing to continued increases in the inflation-adjusted U.S. trade deficit remain in place, ranging from the strong dollar, the Federal Reserve’s stated determination to reduce growth in order to fight inflation, and continued economic troubles in major U.S. trade partners like the European Union and China – which, along with the robust greenback, figures to curb American exports.
The possible exception – recent stock market declines start to crimp American consumer spending in a reversal of the wealth effect. But even if such caution appears, purchases of imports would need to fall much faster than buys of domestically produced goods and services in order even to retard the trade deficit’s surge, and this kind of favorable outcome for the economy is hardly a guarantee.