Proof positive that much of the U.S. government grinds on whatever the political tumult surrounding it: Despite the controversies that erupted due to the largely unexpected, still-incomplete, and increasingly contested Presidential election results, the Census Bureau nonetheless still put out the new monthly U.S. trade report yesterday – this one taking the story through September.
And by the bizarro economic standards of the bizarro CCP Virus era, the figures were strangely normal: The various September deficits remained awfully high given an economy whose levels are still markedly subdued despite a powerful growth rebound in the third quarter (which ended in September). Yet although these results have been widely interpreted as a stinging rebuke to effectiveness of President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies (see, e.g., here and here), widely overlooked details reveal major mitigating developments – and resulting reasons for continued encouragement.
As for the awfully high deficits: The combined goods and services trade gap actually decreased on month by 4.73 percent, from a downwardly adjusted $67.04 billion to $63.86 billion. Yet this monthly total (during a troubled economic time) was still firmly in the neighborhood of trade shortfalls during the bubbly mid-2000s, when Washington’s trade policy was about as cluelessly import- and especially China-friendly as possible.
Moreover, back in those days, oil made up a much bigger share of the total goods deficit than today. So obviously, most of the remaining gap owes a good deal to U.S. trade policy decisions – as will be seen below.
Encouragingly, total U.S. exports to a world still largely struggling with virus-related downturns of its own were up 2.55 percent sequentially in September, and registered their best performance ($176.35 billion) since March – just as major pandemic effects were taking hold. Total September imports of $240.22 billion also represented the highest amount ($240.22 billion) since March, but the monthly increase was only 0.51 percent. And where export growth has consistently been strong since May, import growth has begun slowing markedly.
Yet the persistence of high combined goods and services U.S. trade shortfalls stems mainly from problems with services trade that are clearly CCP Virus-related. For example, the longstanding services surplus (which of course includes travel services) is on track for its biggest drop since recessionary 2001. So far, through the first three quarters of 2020, it’s sunk by 20.47 percent on a year-to-date basis.
Indeed, the $43.96 billion reduction in the services surplus has been greater than the $38.54 billion increase in the overall deficit – meaning that if the service surplus had simply remained the same, the total deficit would have declined year-to-date (although still less than expected at least during a normal deep recession).
As indicated above, however, the total trade numbers don’t tell the whole story about the successes or failures of trade policy. That’s because, as known by RealityChek regulars, services are one huge sector where trade agreements and similar decisions have had relatively little impact so far. Ditto for oil
At first glance, examing trade flows that are substantially “Made in Washington” also reveals a nice-sized monthly September reduction in that deficit (4.62 percent), but to a level that’s the third worst on record ($80.74 billion) – just behind the August and July totals, respectively. And on a year-to-date basis, the Made in Washington deficit is up 3.80 percent from last year,to $663.55 billion.
Yet here’s where another detail comes in. This entails the woes of Boeing, which have spread beyond the safety debacle stemming from crashes of its popular 737 Max model to the global virus-induced collapse in air travel.
The safety problems of 2019 cut the longstanding U.S. civilian aircraft trade surplus by nearly 28 percent, or $8.86 billion on a January-September basis. Had the surplus stayed stable, it would have risen only from $600.08 billion during the first three quarters of 2018 to $630.39 billion, rather than $639.25 billion. Given all the import front-running seen throughout 2019 to try to avoid the Trump China tariffs (which artificially inflated the entire non-oil import total), that’s not a bad performance at all.
The aircraft effect has been much more dramatic this year. Year-to-date through September, the Made in Washington deficit is up from that $630.29 billion to $663.55 billion. Yet the nosedive in the aircraft surplus (all the way from $23.16 billion to just under $3 billion) accounts for nearly 83 percent of that increase.
Want another aircraft effect? Check out the manufacturing trade deficit – so rightly the focus of the President’s attention. Month-to-month, it rose by only 1.46 percent. But the new September level of $103.87 billion is the second-worst monthly total of all time – just behind July’s $104.63 billion. Even worse: The aircraft industry’s problems didn’t add to this number, since its trade deficit actually shrunk slightly on month.
But for the entire year so far, the plunge in the aircraft surplus (which, not so coincidentally, has been mirrored by smaller but not trivial reductions in the surpluses of all sorts of aircraft parts, including engines) has made a sizable difference. From January-September, 2019 to this year’s comparable period, the manufacturing trade shortfall has grown by $10.18 billion, from $777.60 billion to $787.78 billion. Take out the $20.16 billion worsening of the aircraft trade surplus, and the $10.18 billion higher year-to-date manufacturing trade deficit becomes a nearly $10 billion lower year-to-date manufacturing trade deficit.
And when it comes to both the manufacturing and overall Made in Washington trade deficits and a virus effect, don’t forget its healthcare goods component. Specifically, the U.S. trade deficit in pharmaceutical preparations jumped by $12.58 billion year-to-date between last year and this year, and in the categories containing (but not restricted to) protective gear like masks and gowns, testing swabs, ventilators, and oxygen tents by another $2.33 billion.
Since China remains so important for Made in Washington and manufacturing trade flows, bilateral exports, imports, and deficits not surprisingly reveal a major pandemic effect, too. The big China difference is how strongly the September data confirm that President Trump’s goals of reducing the bilateral trade gap and decoupling economically from the People’s Republic are being achieved even without taking the CCP Virus into account.
On a monthly basis, the goods trade gap with China dipped fractionally in September, to $29.67 billion. This total represented the second straight such drop and the lowest level since Aprils $28.40 billion. These merchandise imports inched up sequentially in September by just under one percent and have been virtually flat since July, but goods exports improved by 4.53 percent.
On a year-to-date basis, America’s China trade looks like it’s in even better shape. U.S. goods imports from China are off by nearly 11 percent ($37.54 billion) over this stretch, and the trade gap has become 15.24 percent ($40.06 billion) smaller.
This progress, moreover, has been achieved even though total U.S. exports of civilian aircraft and parts (including engines) to China have shrunk by $4.09 billion and the trade deficit in the virus-related medical equipment categories has risen by $1.25 billion. (Oddly, the bilateral pharmaceutical preparations trade balance has improved with the surplus improving from $449 million to $836 million.)
When all of these virus-related complications and the inevitably disruptive and therefore initial efficiency-reducing impact of the Trump trade policies are considered, two questions arise that are equally fascinating and important. First, once these temporary shocks pass, will this approach to globalization look more like a win or a loss for the U.S. economy? Second, will American election politics give the nation a chance to find out?