The U.S. government’s second look at the gross domestic product (GDP) for the first quarter of the year, which came out yesterday, didn’t significantly change the message sent by last month’s initial read on the economic impact of President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies so far – and that’s good news for anyone who’s not afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome. (Actually, if extreme Never Trump-ers’ well-being is tied to the American economy’s, it’s good news for them, too, in real life.)
This newest look provides yet more evidence that Mr. Trump’s long overdue overhaul of the nation’s approach to trade – no doubt coupled with other measures like regulatory reform and possibly the tax cuts – is enabling the economy to grow in a healthy, sustainable way. Specifically, the economy’s overall inflation-adjusted growth (the measure that attracts the most attention) has not only been strong. It’s become stronger than the growth of America’s still oversized, debt-producing trade deficits.
The quarter-to-quarter results show this trend emphatically. According to the second GDP read, the economy grew at a price-adjusted annual rate of 3.03 percent in the first quarter of this year. That’s down only slightly from the 3.13 percent real growth previously reported, and considerably faster than the 2.15 percent results for the fourth quarter of last year.
But during that first quarter, the after-inflation overall trade deficit dropped by 5.45 percent. That’s a bit less than the 5.90 percent sequential drop found in the last month’s GDP report (because the trade shortfall was revised slightly higher), but still considerable given the rapid overall expansion. And it’s a major turnaround from the 0.63 constant dollar trade deficit increase between the third and fourth quarters of last year.
All the same, one quarter does not a trend make. That’s why it’s crucial to note that developments over longer time-frames also support optimism about the Trump trade policies’ results. And as previously shown, the most revealing comparison is between the last high growth period recorded by the economy during President Obama’s administration, and the current Trump surge.
Despite the marginal reduction in the first quarter’s real growth figure, it still leaves after-inflation expansion over the last four data quarters at 3.18 percent. That’s the fastest such growth since the 3.37 percent recorded between the second quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015.
But during that Obama-era growth spurt, the real U.S. trade deficit increased by 21.55 percent. During the current Trump high growth period, this trade gap is up only 0.13 percent so far.
Some other trade-related highlights of the new read on first quarter GDP:
>In absolute terms, the inflation-adjusted overall trade deficit for the first quarter was revised up from $899.3 billion to $903.6 billion. That’s the lowest level since the second quarter, 2018’s $841.0 billion.
>Consequently, the real trade deficit as a share of price-adjusted GDP stood at 4.78 percent, not the 3.76 percent reported in the advance GDP release. That’s still the lowest such number since the second quarter of 2018’s 4.54 percent.
>Trade’s contribution to economic growth in the first quarter remained at its best level in years. In the advance read, the sequential shrinkage of the constant-dollar trade deficit fueled 1.03 percentage points of 3.13 percent annualized growth. As of the new GDP report, these figures stood at 0.96 percentage points of 2.03 percent growth.
In other words, the trade deficit’s improvement accounted for 31.64 percent of the first quarter’s real growth. That’s down from the 32.91 percent figure from the initial read on first quarter GDP, but still the highest such figure since 38.56 percent of the fourth quarter of 2013 (when a reduction in the inflation-adjusted trade deficit fueled 1.23 percentage points of its 3.19 percent annualized growth.
>Because total goods and services exports were revised slightly higher (from $2.5765 trillion annualized to $2.5836 trillion), they remained at record levels.
>Real goods exports exports were estimated to be slightly higher, too – $1.8028 trillion annualized instead of $1.7598 trillion. But that’s still only the second best total on record (after the $1.8092 trillion in the second quarter of 2018).
>After-inflation services exports were also upgraded slightly – from $783.2 billion annualized to $783.6 billion. That still represents their fifth straight quarterly record.
>First quarter constant dollar total imports are still estimated to have fallen sequentially in the first quarter, but only to $3.4871 trillion annualized, not to $3.4758 trillion. That upward revision still left them as representing the third highest level on record.
>The same story unfolded for after-inflation goods imports. Their quarterly drop left them at $2.9229 trillion annualized, not $2.9131 trillion – also a third all-time highest level.
>Real services imports, however, came in higher than the $562.2 billion at annual rates previously reported. The new $563.8 billion total represented a new record.