November 5, 2019
By Alan Tonelson
When last month’s U.S. trade figures (for August) came out, I wrote about how the economic narratives about the woes of domestic manufacturing and America’s trade accounts during the Trump Tariffs Era have been turning into a story about the safety related troubles of Boeing. This morning, the September data were issued, and the Boeing drag on the trade performances of industry and the entire economy look bigger than ever. Especially interesting, the Boeing effect worsened during a data month when total U.S. trade, manufacturing trade, and civilian aircraft trade all took modest turns for the better.
Specifically, the overall U.S. trade deficit in September dropped by 4.70 percent, from an upwardly revised $55.04 billion to $52.45 billion. The total was the lowest since April’s $51.98 billion, and the sequential decrease the biggest since January’s 12.61 percent nosedive.
Partly as a result, the year-to-date trade deficit is up by 5.47 percent – a rate of increase less than half that of the previous year’s 12.68 percent.
Combined goods and services exports rose by 0.88 percent from $207.83 billion to $205.99 billion – their worst monthly performance since April’s $205.76 billion. Total imports, however, sank by nearly twice as much proportionately – 1.68 percent. And September’s $258.44 billion figure was also the lowest since April ($257.74 billion).
Services trade, however, provided an oddly glum counterpoint. It’s long been a trade surplus generator, and remained so in September. But the new monthly surplus of $19.27 billion was the lowest since December, 2012’s $18.55 billion. The main culprit? The fourth straight high for monthly services imports ($49.89 billion).
At the same time, the huge and chronic manufacturing trade deficit fell sequentially in September for the second straight month, from $92.08 billion by 4.53 percent, to $87.91 billion. That total was the best since June’s $83.63 billion. And this progress was mirrored in civilian aircraft. Their exports jumped month-to-month in September by 25 percent. Imports rose even faster – by 41.58 percent. But their amount is much smaller ($1.35 billion vs $3.29 billion). Therefore, the civilian aircraft trade surplus improved from $1.69 billion to $1.95 billion.
What, then, is the problem? It becomes glaringly visible upon examining trade in civilian aircraft during the entire stretch of Boeing’s current woes (which essentially began this past March with many national aviation authorities grounding the plane in their own countries’ airlines, and/or barring it from their national air spaces), and comparing it with the aircraft trade figures for the same periods of previous years, and with the performance of overall manufacturing exports and imports.
Last month, I described how civilian aircraft’s trade performance between this past April (the first full month in which the Boeing effect could be expected to begin showing up) and August had deteriorated markedly from the same period last year. Today’s trade data show that the deterioration has grown far worse.
As made clear in last month’s post, despite its reputation as a major American trade winner, the civilian aircraft sector has experienced ever poorer results since 2017, and the new trade figures confirm this trend.
Between April and September of 2017 and April and September of 2018, civilian aircraft exports fell by 10.32 percent, even though overall U.S. manufacturing exports increased by 6.84 percent. The industry’s record on the import side was better – they dropped during this time by 13.98 percent, while manufacturing imports in total climbed by 11.64 percent.
But the comparison between the following April-to-September periods looks considerably drearier for aircraft. Between April and September of last year and the same period this year, although manufacturing exports were down by 3.82 percent, civilian aircraft foreign sales sank by 26.80 percent. And although manufacturing imports edged up only 0.27 percent between these periods, American purchases of civilian aircraft surged by just over 26 percent.
Further, the impact of aircraft’s slump on manufacturing and overall U.S. trade has been substantial and growing. As of last month’s trade report, the fall in these products’ exports between the April-August 2018 and April-August 2019 periods accounted for 30.72 percent of the decrease in total manufacturing exports during that time, and 16.81 percent of the increase in total manufacturing imports.
As of today’s figures, the civilian aircraft share of manufacturing’s total export decline is up to 31.35 percent of the total, while their share of industry’s total import increase has shot up to more than half manufacturing’s total.
Expanding the focus to all U.S. goods trade except for energy products (which to date haven’t received significant attention in free trade negotiations or any other aspects of American trade diplomacy) also reveals a sizable Boeing effect. Between the April-September 2018 and 2019 periods, civilian aircraft’s export decline accounted for fully 42.39 percent of the total U.S. non-oil goods export decrease recorded then, and 20.61 percent of the non-oil goods import increase.
In addition, to repeat a crucial point, this major Boeing effect on manufacturing and overall trade has absolutely nothing to do with the Trump trade wars, since civilian aircraft so far have not been subjected to foreign tariffs on American exports imposed in retaliation for Mr. Trump’s levies. This situation will change due to recent and upcoming rulings in the long-running World Trade Organization case between Boeing and the European Union’s Airbus. But as of now, any evaluation of the Trump effect on U.S. trade flows ignoring the powerful drag created by Boeing’s troubles deserves a grade of “incomplete” – at best.
Alan Tonelson, a columnist for IndustryToday, is founder of the RealityChek blog (alantonelson.wordpress.com), which covers manufacturing, trade, the economy, and national security. He has written for many leading publications on these subjects and is the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2000).