About a week ago, I wrote here that the new (second quarter) figures on U.S. economic growth displayed some tentative signs of pre-pandemic normality returning to the nation’s CCP Virus-disrupted trade flows. This morning’s release of the detailed official U.S. trade figures for June reveals that those signs (which came from the inflation-adjusted numbers) were awfully tentative, and that pandemic distortions remain the order of the day.
Indeed, the June trade data brought to an end for the time being the pattern this calendar year of the total U.S. deficit and goods shortfall statistics stabilizing on a monthly basis, along with the crucial non-oil goods gap data. As known by RealityChek regulars, those trade flows can be called the “Made in Washington” portion of U.S. trade, since they make up the category of imports and exports whose levels and changes are most influenced by U.S. trade policy. In that way, they differ from oil trade (which is almost never the subject of trade negotiations and other policy decisions) and services trade (where liberalization efforts worldwide have made only modest progress). Moreover, manufacturing trade in June exhibited the same discouraging characteristics.
There is one important exception to June’s trend break: The China goods deficit and goods import numbers changed only slightly (for the worse). In fact, they’ve stayed in the same neighborhoods since China’s export-heavy economy rebounded from its own virus-induced shutdown in early 2020. These results look like strong indicators that the Trump tariffs have played major roles in reducing the harm done to the U.S. economy by Beijing’s predatory trade practices. So does the resilience throughout the pandemic shown by U.S. domestic manufacturing – since industry dominates Sino-American trade flows.
But the trade records set in June remain noteworthy. After staying right around $70 billion on average since January (with the exception of a brief March move to just over $75 billion), the combined goods and services shortfall rose 6.70 percent,from $70.99 billion in May to $75.75 billion in June – an all-time high that broke the record set in March.
Since goods make up the great majority of U.S. trade flows, it wasn’t surprising that their deficit pattern was identical. They remained consistently in the high $80 billions since January (also with the exception of March) and then grew in June by 4.53 percent, from $70.99 billion to $75.75 billion. And this total also replaced March’s total as the new record.
The pattern was the same for Made in Washington trade. Its monthly deficit totals, except for March, remained in the high $80 billion range since January, too, then broke out in June from $86.73 billion to $92.42 billion – a rise of 6.56 percent to another all-time high that surpassed a previous March record.
Services trade set no records in June, but its $17.43 billion surplus was the smallest since August, 2012’s $17.08 billion. Because the CCP Virus’ Delta variant hadn’t raised the prospect of more economic curbs back in June, this figure will be worth following closely, since services are so vulnerable to virus-prompted restrictions.
Combined U.S. goods and services exports did bump up by 0.58 percent on month in June, from May’s $206.47 billion to $207.67 billion. In addition, that represented the biggest monthly total since the $209.88 billion recorded in December, 2019 – just before the pandemic is thought to have arrived in the United States. But the much greater amount of total imports climbed by 2.15 percent, from $277.46 billion to a new record of $283.42 billion.
At $145.91 billion, goods exports set their fourth straight monthly record in June. But they continued to improve slowly – by just 0.19 percent over the May total. In fact, since March, they’ve only advanced by 1.57 percent in all on a monthly basis, no doubt in part to relatively sluggish growth in most of the world outside the United States.
The much larger amount of goods imports climbed much faster in June – by 1.84 percent on month, to reach their second straight all-time high of $239.09 billion.
As for services, exports in June advanced by a respectable 1.53 percent, to $61.76 billion. The monthly improvement was the fourth straight, and their best performance since February, 2020’s $69.12 billion. But clearly these levels remain depressed.
Services imports in June also set a post-February, 2020 high ($44.35 billion versus $47.06 billion) and increased for the fifth straight month. But they rose more than twice as fast (3.84 percent) as services exports, and their levels are also well below pre-CCP Virus levels.
America’s non-oil goods exports actually fell sequentially on month in June – by 1.62 percent, from a record $129.66 billion in May to $127.56 billion. The much greater amount of imports, however, grew by 1.66 percent, to $219.98 billion, a level that slightly topped the previous all-time high of $219.68 billion set in March.
The U.S. goods trade deficit with China did worsen in June – from May’s $26.32 billion to $27.84 billion. But the 5.79 percent increase trailed that of the non-oil goods gap, the closest global proxy (6.56 percent). The year-to-date totals tell the same story: The China goods shortfall is up more slowly ( 20.81 percent) than the global Made in Washington deficit (24.59 percent).
Back to the monthly figures, U.S. goods exports to China fell by 2.49 percent between May and June – from $12.41 billion to $12.10 billion. Imports, however, were 3.13 percent higher ($38.73 billion to $39.95 billion).
Especially interesting: On a monthly basis, U.S. goods imports from China have inched up only from $39.11 billion to $39.95 billion. For all non-oil goods by this measure, U.S. imports have risen much faster – from $205.08 billion to $219.98 billion. So it seems clear that the Trump tariffs keep pricing many Chinese goods out of the U.S. market.
But although America’s China and non-oil goods trade shortfalls have stayed fairly stable on a monthly basis since January, its manufacturing trade gap has widened substantially. Already lofty enough during the first month of the year at $99.79 billion, it stood 4.87 percent higher in June – $114.06 billion.
Further, this total broke the previous record of $110.20 billion, set last October.
Domestic manufacturing exports improved by 1.81 percent on month, from $95.33 billion to $97.06 billion. But the much greater amount of imports jumped by 4.49 percent, from $202.04 billion to $211.11 billion.
On a year-to-date basis, moreover, the manufacturing deficit has surged by just under 30 percent. At $622.12 billion as of June, it’s headed toward an all-time annual record.
Other manufacturing records or multi-year highs revealed by the June data included a record monthly deficit of $28.14 billion goods deficit with Europe (including its eastern and western regions, as well as Russia); the third consecutive record monthly goods deficit with new world semiconductor manufacturing technology leader Taiwan ($3.49 billion); and the highest goods deficit with Canada ($5.46 billion) since October, 2008 ($5.65 billion).
A single month’s worth of data doesn’t prove anything, so truly credible judgments about the possible return to pre-pandemic U.S. trade normality still can’t be made based on the data. Also crucial is examining trade figures and their changes against the backdrop of the entire economy’s size and its changes, in order to provide crucial context. When looking at growth and contraction rates in particular the challenge is difficult because trade flow changes only affect the rest of the economy after the passage of some time.
And of course, if the virus’ Delta variant prompts major, nation-wide U.S. economic restrictions and behavior changes, all trade – and broader economic – forecasting bets are off for the time being.