Mixed News on Trade

The Department of Commerce released trade balance numbers for January this morning, reporting that the monthly deficit jumped to $46.3 billion, up from $40.3 billion in December. Economists had been projecting a deficit of $41.5 billion. The larger than expected number may lead some economists to “lower their estimates for economic growth in the January-March quarter based on the wider deficit.”

However, buried within the dark clouds is a silver lining. U.S. exports actually hit an all time high of $167.7 billion during the month, potentially showing signs of a strengthening economic recovery. This is up from $125.4 billion in January, 2009 and $144.7 billion in January, 2010. American exporters appear to be on a roll, and gaining momentum.

Exports of services also continues to be a point of trade strength for the nation. While year over year increases were smaller than those in overall exports (47.2 billion, up from 44.2 billion in January, 2010) the nation actually had one month trade surplus of $13.4 billion in services. This is up from past years, and is not an anomaly- the nation has marked a trade surplus in the services sector throughout the past two years.

The increase in the size of the deficit can largely be attributed to issues in two areas; petroleum and consumer goods. As oil prices continue to rise, the cost of oil imports have surged as well. In January alone, the nation imported 34.9 billion in petroleum products, leading to a deficit of $26.7 billion. This represents an increase of 21.5% over last January, and up 4.7% over the previous month.

The rise in the consumer goods deficit may actually be good news, of a sort. While the deficit itself is disconcerting, the detailed numbers show that imports of apparel, textiles, appliances, and other household related products are up notably. While increased imports in these sectors serve to worsen our trade balance with China (up to $23.3 billion in January, from $20.7 billion in December), increased demand for such retail goods could be a sign that the American economy, largely centered around consumer spending, is starting to catch some momentum again. According to economist Joseph LaVorgna, interviewed by CNN, while the deficit is wider, “the numbers actually imply a very healthy economy… The gain in imports was in every category. Domestic demand is still very firm and producers are rebuilding their inventories.”