By Alan Tonelson

July 30, 2018

Friday’s government report on U.S. economic growth in the second quarter of this year was a treasure trove of newsworthy information. It not only provided the first peak at how President Trump’s imposed and threatened tariffs have affected the nation’s economic performance. It also incorporated literally decades’ worth of revisions that contained some important surprises about the economy’s strengths and weaknesses – in particular over the last five years. These new findings entail considerably more than trade, but let’s focus on that subject for today, since it’s been making so many headlines.

As widely expected, these new figures on the gross domestic product (GDP) and how it changed in inflation-adjusted terms showed that the threatened tariffs and retaliatory levies boosted American exports significantly. The reason? Many foreign customers for U.S. goods decided to “front-load” their purchases to avoid the paying the new charges for as long as possible.

On a sequential basis, this first of this year’s three estimates for the second quarter judged that U.S. merchandise exports jumped by 8.96 percent on an annualized basis. That’s the biggest such increase since the 11.72 percent surge in the fourth quarter of 2013. At the same time, the contribution to total quarterly growth made by goods exports was nothing special. In fact, at 1.12 percentage points out of the quarter’s 4.10 percent annualized rate of inflation-adjusted expansion, they fueled less real growth relatively speaking than they did in the fourth quarter of last year, when they were responsible for 0.79 percentage points of that period’s 2.30 percent annualized constant dollar growth.

Interestingly, the tariffs didn’t result in U.S. customers of overseas producers displaying the same interest in maximizing their imports to the greatest possible extent. Indeed, these purchases inched up sequentially by only 0.47 percent at an annual rate after inflation. Yet at $2.8798 trillion after inflation and annualized, they set a new record, nosing out the previous quarter’s $3.4201 trillion.

Thanks to exports’ performance, which brought their quarterly total to a new record ($2.5742 trillion annualized in real terms) as well, the inflation-adjusted trade deficit plummeted by 23.27 percent annualized to $849.9 billion. (The absolute numbers are different from those reported in previous RealityChek posts because the new GDP report is presenting the inflation-adjusted figures using 2012 dollars, not 2009 dollars.) That quarterly trade shortfall was the nation’s smallest since the $845.9 billion annualized recorded in the third quarter of last year. And the sequential decrease was the biggest since the 36.96 percent nosedive in the fourth quarter of 2013.

In addition, according to the revisions, America’s trade performance between the fourth quarter of 2012 and the second quarter of this year was considerably worse than previously estimated. Combined goods and services exports rose a bit faster (at a 2.6 percent rather than a 2.5 percent average annual pace in real terms). But total import growth was much stronger during this period – a 4.2 percent average annual increase in constant dollars rather than 3.7 percent growth.

Trade deficits have therefore been higher than previously judged. Again, the changeover from reporting the figures in 2009 dollars to using 2012 dollars makes comparing the old and new levels pointless. But the difference can become clear by examining these deficits as a share of the total economy. Here are the previously reported percentages:

2013: 2.59 percent

2014: 2.67 percent

2015: 3.31 percent

2016: 3.51 percent

2017: 3.64 percent

And here are the revised data:

2013: 3.23 percent

2014: 3.42 percent

2015: 4.17 percent

2016: 4.45 percent

2017: 4.76 percent

Last year’s level was the highest for any year since 2007’s 5.27 percent – just before the Great Recession struck. It’s still a far cry from the historic quarterly high of 6.10 percent, set in the fourth quarter of 2005. But the trend shows that the real trade deficit has been climbing steadily toward these heights.

In fact, during the first quarter of this year, the overall real trade deficit hit 4.92 percent of GDP, before falling back to 4.59 percent in the second.

The revised GDP figures also shed new light on trade’s drag on economic growth during this sluggish recovery. Before this revision, the increase in the constant dollar trade deficit since the expansion began, in the middle of 2009, had sliced $302.1 billion off of the economy’s cumulative inflation-adjusted growth through the second read on first quarter GDP. That amounted to a trade drag of 9.99 percent.

With the revision in place, the trade drag as of the first quarter’s final read was $457.2 billion – or 14.33 percent. The decline in the price-adjusted trade gap as of Friday’s first read on second quarter GDP pushed the drag down to twelve percent. But that figure still represented $404.7 billion in lost real growth.

The growth drag created by the increase in the Made in Washington trade deficit has been much bigger. Before the new GDP revision, the growth of this trade shortfall (which is comprised of constant-dollar trade flows heavily affected by trade policy and trade agreement, and therefore leaves out trade in oil and services) had cut cumulative recovery era growth by 17.37 percent in real terms, or $523.88 billion, as of the final first quarter figures.

It won’t be possible to calculate revised figures for the first quarter and new figures for the second quarter until this Friday, when we’ll get the next monthly trade report (for June).

The Real Trade Messages of the New GDP Report, Industry TodayALAN TONELSON
Alan Tonelson is Founder of the blog – which covers a wide range of domestic and international policy issues along with political and social trends.

For 18 years before leaving to launch RealityChek, Tonelson followed the impact of globalization on the U.S. economy, domestic manufacturing, and U.S. national security for the U.S. Business and Industry Council. This national business organization represents nearly 2,000 domestic American companies, most of them small and medium-sized manufacturers.

Alan Tonelson is a regular columnist with Industry Today.

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