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Third-Quarter Data Shows Record U.S. Trade Deficits During Trump Presidency

Contrary to Trump’s Campaign Pledges to Speedily Reduce the Deficit, Nine-Month Data Show Largest Deficit Ever Recorded With China and Largest With NAFTA Nations in a Decade

Government data released today reveals the highest U.S. goods trade deficit in a decade for the first three-quarters of 2018, contradicting President Donald Trump’s midterm campaign trail triumphalism on trade. During Trump’s presidency, the U.S. trade deficit with China has risen to the highest ever recorded, while the deficits with the world and with North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) nations have steadily grown, reaching nine-month levels in 2018 higher than any year since before the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

“Instead of the speedy reduction in the trade deficit that Trump promised as a focal point of his campaign, during his presidency, the U.S. trade deficit with the world, China and NAFTA countries has steadily grown,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “This alarming data spotlights that the Trump administration has chosen not to employ all of the tools at its disposal to bring down the trade deficit.”

Today’s U.S. Census Bureau release of the nine-month 2018 trade data reveals a global deficit and a China deficit that is 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 (all figures adjusted for inflation). 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 Canada and Mexico since 2016, but especially from Mexico this year.

As our Trump trade deficit tracker shows, the nine-month 2018 data indicate:

  • The U.S. trade deficit with China sets another all-time record. The goods trade deficit with China over the first nine months of 2018 was the highest deficit ever recorded for the first three quarters of a year – a 13 percent increase over 2016. Comparing the first nine months of Trump’s first year to his second year, the China goods deficit increased 8 percent, from $280 billion in 2017 to $301 billion in 2018. This compares to $268 billion for the first three quarters of 2016, Obama’s last year in office.
  • After increasing steadily during the Trump presidency, with a total increase of 23 percent over 2016, the U.S. goods trade deficit with NAFTA partners during the first three quarters of 2018 was the highest in a decade. The U.S. trade deficit with NAFTA partners during the first nine months of the year increased 11 percent, from $144 billion in 2017 to $160 billion in 2018 after falling to $130 billion in 2016, the last year of Obama’s term. The 2008 nine-month deficit, before the effect of the crisis was felt, reached a record $188 billion before falling to $101 billion in 2009 over the same nine-month period.
  • The overall U.S. goods trade deficit with the world over the first nine months of 2018 was the highest in the decade since before the financial crisis and up 13 percent over 2016. The U.S. trade deficit with the world over the first nine months of 2018 increased 7 percent, from $599 billion in 2017 to $643 billion in 2018, up from $570 billion in 2016, the last year of Obama’s term. The 2008 nine-month deficit, before the effect of the financial crisis was felt, had reached a record $744 billion before falling to $420 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 11 percent growth from the first nine months of 2017 to the same period in 2018 compared to 6 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 likely will 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 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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