Will the U.S. Treasury’s Imminent Report to Congress on Trade Partners’ Currency Practices Once Again Fall Short of Its Mandate?
Third-Quarter Data Shows Record U.S. Trade Deficits During Trump Presidency

When Third-Quarter Data Is Released Friday, U.S. Trade Deficit Likely to Show A Continued Climb Under Trump

Deficit for Nine Months of 2018 Likely to Be Largest Ever Recorded With China and Largest With NAFTA in a Decade as Imports from Mexico Grow

The United States is on track to post a record high goods trade deficit for the first three quarters of 2018, contradicting President Donald Trump’s midterm campaign trail triumphalism on trade.

Instead of the speedy reduction in the trade deficit that Trump promised as a focal point of his presidential campaign, during his presidency, the U.S. trade deficit with the world, China and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) nations has steadily grown. The data underscores that the Trump administration has chosen not to employ all of the tools at its disposal to bring down the trade deficit.

When the U.S. Census Bureau releases nine-month data Friday, the global and China deficits are likely to be higher than the nine-month level of Trump’s first year, which was higher than the nine months of President Barack Obama’s last year. The U.S. also is on track to end 2018 with the highest goods trade deficit with NAFTA partners since 2008. This is being driven by increasing imports from both Canada and Mexico since 2016, but especially from Mexico this year.

This note provides comparison data for the cumulative third-quarter 2018 deficit relative to past years. This offers a clearer picture of overall trade flow trends than changes in month-to-month numbers. Monthly trade figures are volatile, and the “seasonal adjustment” of the monthly data done by the Census Bureau does not control for key factors, such as U.S. exporters trying to speed up shipments to avoid imposition of various countervailing tariffs. We focus on goods balances because services data by country lags the goods data by months. (The relevant services data will not be available until December 2018.) All figures are adjusted for inflation, so they represent changes in trade balances expressed in constant dollars.

Graph-Third-Quarter-Trade-Deficit-oct-2018

When Friday’s data is released, we will post updated nine-month cumulative data, which also will be available on our Trump trade deficit tracker. But year-to-date trends through the first three quarters of 2018 likely will be in line with the following major trends observed through the first eight months of the year:

  • The U.S. trade deficit with China is on pace to set another all-time record. The goods trade deficit with China over the first eight months of 2018 was the highest first eight months ever recorded – a 12 percent increase over 2016. Comparing the first eight months of Trump’s first year in office to his second year, the China goods trade deficit increased 7 percent from $245 billion in 2017 to $261 billion in 2018. This compares to $234 billion for the first eight months of 2016, Obama’s last year in office.
  • After increasing steadily during the Trump presidency, with a total increase of 24 percent over 2016, the U.S. goods trade deficit with NAFTA partners during the first eight months of 2018 was the highest in the decade since the financial crisis. The U.S. trade deficit with NAFTA partners during the first eight months of 2018 increased 10 percent from $129 billion in 2017 to $142 billion in 2018 after falling to $115 billion in 2016, the last year of Obama’s term. The 2008 eight-month deficit, before the effect of the crisis was felt, reached a record $167 billion before falling to $88 billion in 2009 over the same period.
  • The overall U.S. goods trade deficit with the world over the first eight months of 2018 was the highest in the decade since the financial crisis and up 13 percent over 2016. The U.S. trade deficit with the world over the first eight months of 2018 increased 7 percent from $532 billion in 2017 to $570 billion in 2018, up from $506 billion in 2016, the last year of Obama’s term. The 2008 eight-month deficit, before the effect of the financial crisis was felt, reached a record $658 billion before falling to $362 billion over the same period in 2009.

The growth of the NAFTA trade deficit has been overshadowed by focus on U.S.-China trade conflicts. But it is notable that the growth of the U.S.-Mexico deficit is accelerating, with 10 percent growth from the first eight months of 2017 relative to the same period in 2018 compared to 7 percent growth over that period from 2016 to 2017. The U.S. deficit with Canada is still growing, but the rate has not accelerated. 

This data is likely to color the debate next year as a renegotiated NAFTA heads toward congressional consideration. Public Citizen’s analysis of the NAFTA 2.0 text revealed some improvements progressives have long demanded, damaging terms long opposed and important unfinished business. The analysis showed that fixing NAFTA’s trade-deficit-raising terms that incentivize U.S. firms to outsource jobs to Mexico to pay workers poverty wages, dump toxins and bring their products back here for sale remains a work-in-progress.

The latest trade data spotlights actions the Trump administration has chosen not to take to bring down the U.S. trade deficit.

The data arrives on the heels of Trump’s Treasury Department failing to label any country a currency manipulator. An analysis released recently by Public Citizen shows how the Trump Treasury Department’s decision to rely on reporting criteria created by the previous administration has ensured no action on the issue, despite then-candidate Trump pledging to crack down on countries that gain trade advantages by distorting currency values.

As well, Trump has not exercised the authority he has to reverse waivers of “Buy America” procurement policies that outsource U.S. tax revenues to purchase imports for government use. He also has not followed through on his campaign pledges to penalize imports from firms that consistently outsource jobs or limit government contracts to firms that outsource jobs.

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