Were this morning’s latest monthly U.S. trade figures (for March) just one of those things? Or a sign of CCP Virus-affected trade patterns to come? Evidence for both propositions can be found in the weeds, though on balance I remain confident that as the nation’s economy remains gravely wounded (and could well face worse), its trade shortfall will continue its recent (and highly beneficial) Trump-era trend of narrowing.
The reasons for dismissing the new trade report as an outlier stem from the tendency (with numerous exceptions) of the gap to narrow when the economy weakens and to expand when it strengthens. So it was a real surprise to find that, from February to March, when all indicators showed that a major downturn was beginning thanks to the pandemic, the trade deficit rose a strong 11.57 percent – from a downwardly adjusted $39.81 billion to $44.42 billion.
Also surprising for a U.S. economy that’s not very export focused but that’s usually voracious importer: The main reason for the deficit’s growth both in absolute and percentage terms was a drop-off in the former. In March, total U.S. overseas sales sank on month by 9.63 percent, from an upwardly adjusted $207.75 billion to $187.75 billion. That was the lowest monthly total since November, 2016’s $185.49 billion. Combined goods and services imports were down, too – but by a smaller 6.22 percent, from an upwardly adjusted $247.56 billion to $232.16 billion. That total was the lowest for a month since December, 2016 ($234.56 billion).
Moreover, in terms of the trade balance, March’s worse U.S. performance can’t be pinned on the virus-produced collapse in travel. Make no mistake about it – international travel both to and from the United States did collapse. In value terms, two-way travel sank from $28.77 billion in February to $13.49 billion. In other words, it was more than cut in half. But the travel services trade surplus actually improved during that period – from $4.53 billion to $4.72 billion. That means not only that, on net, legal visitors to the United States (including students) as usual spent more in America than Americans spent overseas between February and March. It means that foreign spending in the United States exceeded Americans’ spending abroad by an even greater amount.
Another puzzling result that doesn’t have obvious staying power – at least not to me: The biggest single contibutor to the March trade deficit increase was a more than doubling of the monthly goods trade shortfall with Europe – from $11.37 billion to $22.97 billion. That’s the biggest monthly total ever and the biggest absolute increase ever (the figures go back to 1997), and the third biggest percentage increase of all time (after July, 1997’s 418.80 percent and March, 1998’s 205.89 percent – both totals coming when trade volumes were much smaller, and big percentage increases therefore much easier to generate).
The big Europe merchandise trade deficit surge, moreover, came on the the import side. These soared to $56.04 billion in March (another record), and the 26.42 percent sequential rise was the biggest since March, 2011’s 29.35 percent.
U.S. goods exports to Europe didn’t do badly – they hit $33.07 billion in March, the third best total ever. But the monthly increase was a bare 0.26 percent.
Some of the Europe trade results were due to a much bigger goods deficit and much greater goods imports from Ireland – which is a major foreign supplier of pharmaceuticals to the United States. Despite the overall sequential decrease in American merchandise exports and imports in March, trade in pharmaceutical preparations rose both coming and going. The trade shortfall increased by 13.25 percent, with imports rising by 14.92 percent. And the goods trade gap with Ireland (not all due to pharmaceuticals, to be sure) soared by 45.81 percent with imports up 41.91 percent.
It’s true that both the deficit with Ireland and imports from the Emerald Isle fell sharply on month in February. But both totals were all-time highs.
At the same time, India is another big pharmaceutical supplier to the United States, and although its March merchandise trade deficit with America shot up by 47.87 percent month-to-month, imports actually dipped (by 0.37 percent).
And what about March U.S. trade with China – which gave the world the virus, and remains a major supplier of the chemical building blocks of pharmaceutical products as well as protective medical gear?
In an unmistakably good development for those who recognize both the health security and broader economic dangers of doing extensive business with a predatory trader that’s increasingly hostile geopolitically, the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with the People’s Republic plummeted dramatically again – by just over 26 percent month-to-month, to $11.83 billion. You’d have to go back to March, 2004 to find a lower monthly figure ($10.44 billion).
U.S. goods exports to China actually improved sequentially in March – by 16.98 percent, to $7.97 billion. That’s far from the biggest absolute or percentage monthly increase on record. But with China’s economic growth at multi-decade lows due largely to the virus and the Trump tariffs, it’s encouraging that America’s goods exports to China have held up since the Phase One trade deal was signed in January.
U.S. goods imports from China, meanwhile, fell by 13.18 percent on month in March, to $19.81 billion. That total is the lowest since February, 2009 ($18.85 billion), during the depths of the Great Recession.
On a year-to-date basis, the American merchandise merchandise deficit with the People’s Republic is now down an astonishing 32.61 percent. That’s nearly three times more than the comparable drop in the global U.S. goods deficit, and a clear sign that trade diversion and decoupling from China are taking place even as the overall American trade gap narrows – and are likely to continue taking place.
Two other oddities worth noting in the March trade report. First, the manufacturing deficit rebounded from February’s $63.01 billion (the lowest total since February, 2017’s $60.47 billion) to $75.80 billion. That’s a very big 20.30 percent higher. Even though overseas markets for America’s domestic manufacturers are tumbling into recession and maybe worse along with the U.S. economy, manufacturing exports still managed a monthly gain of 3.55 percent in March – to $93.26 billion. But despite signs of weakness in domestic U.S. manufacturing and the overall economy, manufacturing imports shot up by 10.45 percent, to $169.06 billion. It’s difficult to see how either trend lasts until the CCP Virus is brought under control.
Incidentally, the March totals bring the manufacturing trade gap to $220.75 billion so far this year – down 7.01 percent from last year’s comparable $237.38 billion. Manufacturing exports year-to-date as of March are down four percent, and imports have declined 5.38 percent.
Similarly, the longstanding U.S. trade shortfall in high tech goods more than doubled sequentially in March, from $5.13 billion to $10.30 billion. Sure, this increase followed a 55.62 percent plunge in February, but the turnaround is still stunning. And although high tech exports rose in March on month by a healthy 8.55 percent, the big change, as in February, was on the import side – where U.S. purchases from abroad jumped by 22.24 percent.
More detailed March trade data — particularly shedding more light on U.S. trade in healthcare-related goods — should be out from the federal government shortly, and I’ll be sure to keep you up to date on those developments.