As known by RealityChek readers, yesterday I decided to put off finishing my normal same-day report on the new official monthly U.S. trade figures in order to spotlight some critical (and oddly neglected) developments in the Ukraine war/crisis.
But the trade results (for January) are still worth examining in detail, even though (as always), they’re lagging indicators, and even though they of course pre-date all the likely disruption to the global economy and U.S. trade flows seemingly sure to stem from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensuing conflict.
Notably, the combined goods and services trade gap hit its second straight monthly record in January, rising 9.43 percent sequentially, to $89.69 billion. Moreover, the deterioration came on virtually all key fronts. And the December total was revised up by a big 1.52 percent, from $80.73 billion to $81.96 billion.
The January goods deficit increased, too and hit its third consecutive record. The increase was 6.99 percent, from an upwardly revised $101.75 billion to $108.86 billion.
Meanwhile, the longstanding U.S. surplus in services, which has been considerably depressed by a CCP Virus pandemic that’s hit this sector particularly hard the world over, sank by 4.40 percent, from $19.79 billion to $19.17 billion. The sequential decrease came to 3.13 percent, the decline was the first since August, and the downward revision of the initially reported December level was a huge 4.40 percent.
Total exports fell on month for the first time since September – by 1.73 percent, from an upwardly revised and all-time high of $228.35 billion to $224.40 billion.
Goods exports dipped, too, and also for the first time since September. The decline was 1.47 percent, from a downwardly revised $158.21 billion to $155.89 billion.
As for services exports, they sagged by 2.32 percent, from an upwardly revised $70.14 billion to $68.51 billion. This decline was the first since August.
Overall imports climbed by 1.04 percent, from an upwardly revised $310.30 billion to $314.09 billion, and they hit their sixth monthly record in a row.
Goods imports rose 1.84 percent, from an upwardly revised $259.96 billion to $264.75 billion, and achieved their fifth consecutive all-time high.
Services imports in January, however, decreased month-to-month for the second time in a row – which hasn’t happened since January and February, 2021. The fall-off was 2.01 percent, from an upwardly revised $50.35 billion to $49.34 billion. That latter total was the lowest since August, and the December revision was a substantial 2.38 percent.
As known by RealityChek regulars, non-oil goods trade is the vast portion of U.S. trade flows heavily affected by America’s trade deals and other trade policy decisions – hence my monicker “Made in Washington” trade. (Trade liberalization in services remains at an early stage globally, and oil is rarely on the table in national trade policy-making or diplomacy.)
The export-import gap in this category hit its third straight record in January, widening by 6.55 percent, from $100.56 billion to $107.15 billion.
Non-oil goods exports sank sequentially by 1.72 percent, from $138.38 billion to $136.00 billion, while imports set their fifth straight record. They increased by 1.76 percent, from $238.94 billion to $243.14 billion.
The nation’s oil trade gap soared on a relative basis in January – nearly quadrupling on a pre-inflation basis (the same gauge used for all the numbers in RealityChek trade reports unless specified otherwise). But the January total of $426 million was tiny in absolute terms.
The two big (but modest) exceptions to the January pattern of expanding trade shortfalls came in manufacturing and Advanced Technology Products (ATP).
The former’s chronic and mammoth trade deficit actually retreated for the second straight month in January. The decline was 1.32 percent – from December’s $122.65 billion to $121.03 billion. But the new total was still the third highest ever.
Manufacturing exports plunged by 7.80 percent on month in January, from $100.14 billion to a $92.33 billion level that was the lowest monthly total since August’s $97.13 billion.
Industry’s imports shrank by 4.23 percent in January, from a record $222.79 billion to $213.36 billion – the lowest since September’s $211.33 billion.
The decrease in the January ATP trade deficit was 1.77 percent, from $19.80 billion to $19.45 billion, and the drop was the second in a row – a first since last June and July.
ATP exports plummeted in January from a record $34.46 billion to $29.65 billion. That 13.96 percent drop was the biggest such figure since the 16.55 percent nosedive in January, 2020 – as the pandemic was raging through and locking down China. And the January figure was the lowest since August’s $29.49 billion.
ATP imports were off significantly, and from a record, too. The December-January swoon of 9.66 percent, from $54.36 billion to $49.11 billion, was the biggest since last February’s 13.09 percent, and brought these purchases to their lowest level since last August’s $45.56 billion.
The enormous U.S. goods deficit with China was up in January, but by just 0.61 percent sequentially, from $36.15 billion to $36.37 billion. The increase was much smaller than that for non-oil goods (the closest global proxy for U.S.-China trade) – and adds to the evidence (see most recently here) that the Trump China tariffs have helped rein in this trade gap. But the monthly level was the highest since December, 2018’s $36.60 billion.
U.S. goods exports to China, however, decreased in January for the third consecutive month – by 14.27 percent, from $13.38 billion to $11.47 billion. That drop, moreover – to the lowest level since last September’s $10.91 billion – illustrates again, how short the Trump Phase One trade deal with China keeps falling of its targets.
U.S. goods imports from China declined as well in January – by 3.41 percent, from $49.53 billion to $47.85 billion. That shrinkage was the first since last April, and brought the monthly total to its lowest level since September’s $47.41 billion.
Since, as noted, these January trade figures predate the invasion of Ukraine (as will February’s), future prospects are especially murky. So the wisest course of action seems to be holding off on the prognostication and focusing on data as it comes out until some clarity emerges – at least until the next next global shock.