Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Let's just say that the US is on track to rack up a -$717bn trade balance this year.
The U.S. trade deficit, exacerbated by surging imports of oil and textiles, soared to an all-time high of $61.04 billion in February.

The Commerce Department said Tuesday that the February imbalance was up 4.3 percent from a $58.5 billion trade gap in January as a small $50 million rise in U.S. exports of goods and services was swamped by a $2.58 billion increase in imports.
One feels like a broken record reviewing these monthly trade statistics. Not only was the overall trade balance a record deficit, but the five largest deficits all-time have occurred in the past five months. We haven't seen a deficit under $40bn since November 2003 and two such deficits in a row haven't occurred since October-November 2002.

Just as the static numbers are ugly, the trends are even uglier. So far the 2005 deficit is 30% larger than in 2004. The annualized deficit of the most recent five months is -$697bn while over the same period in 2003-04 it was an annualized -$521bn -- thus 34% larger. While the goods deficit swells uncontrollably, the services surplus is shrinking weakly. For February it was a meek +$3.7bn, while the monthly average for 2004 was +$4.0bn. The US services balance has shrunk every year since 2000 and it on track to be the smallest since 1991.

US exports are growing at a decent clip -- 10.9% faster this year than last. Imports are growing much faster, of course. Americans' insatiable thirst for imported oil is always a big part of the story these days, but the truly worrisome trend is the steady growth of non-petroleum goods imports. In February they hit $117.4bn -- yes, another record -- and for the year they are 17.2% larger than in 2004. Add in a dependence on imported oil at over $50/barrel for weeks now and you find yourself standing on top of a sink hole with the water rapidly being sucked out of the ground.

And don't be too soothed by US export growth, inadequate as it is. US exports have been more or less stagnant for three months now. If this is a sign of things to come, we'll be looking at the gap between import growth and export growth explode. And then a CA balance of -7% of GDP this year looks all but assured.

As I've said before, the only solution to this out of control trade situation is marked reductions in US import consumption -- i.e. a US recession. There is no realistic scenario of dramatically growing US exports combined with slowing or even stagnant imports. The "hard versus soft" landing debate is stale. The real question now is only "how hard?"


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