Although today’s new official figures showed a major dropoff in the U.S. trade deficit between March and April, and the results came from a normally encouraging combination of more exports and fewer imports, the Census data also show that big caveats and questions are hanging over these results and how enduring they might be.
First and foremost, the improvement in the combined goods and services deficits, and all virtually all the trade balances comprising it, could be resulting from a dramatic slowdown in U.S. economic growth. Second, the latest decline in the chronic and huge U.S. goods trade gap with China surely stems from Beijing’s recent over-the-top (but surely temporary) Zero Covid policies, which have further snagged already tangled up supply chains. And third, large revisions in some of the numbers (especially for services trade) inevitably cast some doubt as to their reliability lately.
In fact, these features of the report – along with the still-near historic levels of many of these trade deficits and other usually typical gap-widening developments like a strong U.S. dollar and still-astronomical levels of economic stimulus from Washington – are telling me that my prediction last month of higher deficits to come will age pretty well.
Not that the narrowing of the trade gap in April was bupkis. The combined goods and services deficit fell 19.11 percent from March’s all-time high of $107.65 billion (which itself was revised down a hefty 1.96 percent) to $87.08 billion. This level was the lowest since December’s $78.87 billion and the nosedive the biggest since December, 2012’s 19.85 percent.
And as just mentioned, the improvement came from the right combination of reasons. Total exports hit their third straight monthly record, rising 3.49 percent from an upwardly revised (by 0.99 percent) $244.11 billion to $252.62 billion
Overall imports, meanwhile, tumbled 3.43 percent from their record $351.79 billion to $339.70 billion. The total was the second biggest ever, but the decrease was the greatest since the 13.16 shrinkage during pandemic-y and recession-y April, 2020.
The trade shortfall in goods was down 15.04 percent from a downwardly revised (by 1.04 percent) $126.81 billion in March to $107.74 percent in April. This level, too, was the lowest since December’s $100.52 billion, and the 15.04 percent sequential tumble the biggest since April, 2015’s 15.09 percent.
Goods exports rose sequentially by 3.57 percent in April, from 170.04 billion to a third consecutive record of $176.11 billion. And U.S. purchases of foreign goods sank by 4.38 percent on month in April, from a downwardly revised (by 0.65 percent) record $296.85 billion to $283.84 billion (as with total imports, the second highest result of all time). The decrease was the biggest since the 12.79 percent drop in that pandemic-y April, 2020.
But even the above sizable revisions paled before those made for services trade. The March surplus was upgraded fully 4.48 percent, from $18.34 billion to $19.16 billion, and the April figure grew by another 7.83 percent to $20.66 billion – the highest level since December’s $21.66 billion.
Services exports (apparently) deserve much of the credit. They reached an all-time high of $76.52 billion. This total bested May, 2019’s previous record of $75.41 billion by only 1.46 percent, but the milestone is significant given the outsized hit suffered by the service sector worldwide during the pandemic period.
April services exports, moreover, rose 3.30 percent from March’s $74.07 billion – a total that itself was revised up by 4.23 percent.
Services imports set their third consecutive monthly record in April, rising 1.73 percent, to $55.86 billion, from March’s upwardly revised (by 4.19 percent) $54.19 billion.
A big April fall-off also came in the non-oil goods trade deficit – known to RealityChek regulars as the Made in Washington trade deficit, because by stripping out figures for oil (which trade diplomacy usually ignores) and services (where liberalization efforts have barely begun), it stems from those U.S. trade flows that have been heavily influenced by trade policy decisions.
This shortfall decreased by 14.72 percent in April, to $108.68 billion, from March’s downwardly revised record $127.42 billion. The drop was the biggest since March, 2013’s 16.74 percent.
The enormous and persistent manufacturing trade deficit retreated in April from record levels, too. But even though the month’s $124.41 billion shortfall was 12.71 percent lower than March’s all-time high $142.22 billion, and even though the monthly decline of 12.71 percent was the biggest since pandemic-y February, 2020’s 23.09 percent, this deficit was still the second biggest ever.
April’s manufactures exports of $109.36 billion were 4.03 percent lower than March’s record $113.96 billion, but were still the second best total on record. Ditto for the month’s manufactures imports, which tumbled 8.85 percent from their March record of $256.18 billion to $233.50 billion.
Another April fall-off from a record monthly deficit came in advanced technology products (ATP). After ballooning by 73.65 percent sequentially in March, to $23.31 billion, the recently volatile gap narrowed in April by 21.50 percent, to $18.30 billion.
Both the better manufactuing and ATP trade figures surely stemmed at least in part from the Zero Covid policies that interfered with so much industrial production from China. The U.S. goods deficit with the People’s Repubic, however, narrowed by just 10.02 percent on month in April, from $34 billion to $30.57 billion. Even so, the level was the lowest since last July’s $28.56 billion.
U.S. goods exports to China were down on month in April by 16.25 percent (their biggest drop since February, 2021’s 278.85 percent), from $13.38 billion to $11.20b. This total is the lowest since last September’s $11.03 billion.
The much greater amount of U.S. goods imports from China plummeted 11.82 percent n month in April, from $47.37 billion to $41.77 billion – the lowest level since last July’s $40.32 billion.
Also notable – breaking a pattern going back several years — the 10.02 percent April monthly drop in the U.S. goods deficit with China was smaller than the month’s sequential decline in the non-oil goods deficit (14.72 percent). And on a yar-to-date basis, the China deficit is up only slightly less (27.59 percent) than the non-oil deficit (28.95 percent). So the next few months’ worth of data may shed some light on whether the Trump (now Biden) tariffs on China are losing their effectiveness, or whether the last few months’ numbers are anomalies.
Other significant April results for individual U.S. trade partners: The goods deficit with South Korea set a new record of $4.09 billion – 23.79 percent higher than March’s total of $3.30 billion and 21.70 percent greater than the old record of $3.36 billion set last September.
And the goods deficit with Switzerland cratered in April by 67.63 percent, to $2.89 billion, from March’s $8.93 billion level. The percentage shrinkage of this bilateral trade gap was the biggest since September, 2018, when a $1.22 billion U.S. deficit turned into a $149 million surplus.