October Trade Headlines Look Good, Details Not So Much


Trade data for the month of October, released this morning by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), was all good news, as long as you don’t look too deeply into the report.  The big headline is that the trade deficit fell by $2.8 billion to a deficit of $32.9 billion.  Indeed, that is good news.  Exports rose by $3.5 billion – more good news, more than off-setting a smaller rise of $0.7 billion in imports.  However, the 3-month moving average rose from a deficit of $32.5 billion per month in September to $33.0 billion in October – not good news. 

The trade balance is a combination of goods and services.  The balance in services improved by $0.1 billion, so almost all of the improvement is in goods – more good news.  The trade deficit in goods improved from -$47.4 billion in September to -$44.8 billion, a reduction of $2.6 billion. 

Of that improvement in the goods trade deficit, most is due to oil.  The volume of oil imports, 8.34 million barrels per day, was the lowest level since January of 2000.  So our trade deficit in petroleum products fell by $2.7 billion.  But the BEA reports that the deficit in non-petroleum goods (which includes manufactured products) also fell by $0.6 billion.  (The reason these two add up to reductions of more than $2.6 billion is what the BEA calls “adjustments.”)

Any time I hear that the trade deficit in manufactured goods declined in this environment of free trade with overpopulated nations, I get suspicious.  So let’s examine the data more closely.  Click the above link to the BEA report and go to “Exhibit 6.  Exports and Imports of Goods by Principal End-Use Category” found on page 6 of the report.  There you’ll see six end-use categories.  The first, “Foods, Feeds and Beverages,” is exactly that – trade in food products.  The second, “Industrial Supplies,” is dominated by trade in petroleum.  It’s the next four categories that comprise manufactured products – “Capital Goods,” “Automotive Vehicles, Etc.,” “Consumer Goods” and “Other Goods.”  Let’s examine these categories and see where any improvement in manufactured goods may be found. 

The first category, “Capital Goods,” is basically the machinery and equipment used by industry.  As you can see, we have a pretty good balance of trade there, with $33.72 billion in exports and $32.04 billion in imports, a trade surplus of $1.68 billion.  In September we had a trade surplus of $1.6 billion in that category.  So there’s very little improvement there.

The second category, “Automotive Vehicles, Etc.,” includes both cars and parts.  In September we had a trade deficit of -$8.83 billion.  In October it remained unchanged at -$8.83 billion.  Small increases in exports were off-set by imports.  No improvement in the trade balance in this category of manufactured goods. 

The third category, “Consumer Goods,” includes just about every other product you can imagine that you might buy including clothing, appliances, electronics, etc.  In September we had a trade deficit of -$22.63 billion.  It remained unchanged in October at -$22.63 billion.  Once again, absolutely no improvement.

The fourth category, “Other Goods,” by far the smallest of the goods categories, representing only 3.5% of trade in goods, will remain a mystery to anyone who tries to figure out what it is.  Nowhere is it explained in the report.  However, since I’m able to match up the product descriptions found in “Exhibit 8” on page 9 with the product codes in the trade data I track country by country, I can tell you for certain that “military aircraft” and “military equipment” are included in this category.  So what happened in this category?  In September we had a trade deficit of -$1.40 billion.  In October that fell to -$0.46 billion, an improvement of $0.94 billion. 

If you’ll examine the “Other Goods” category more closely, you’ll see that the level of imports and exports swing fairly dramatically (in percentage terms) from one month to the next. 

In conclusion, all of the improvement in the trade deficit in October can be traced to two factors – unusually low levels of oil imports (almost certain to be reversed in November), and a big swing in the category that includes military aircraft and equipment and is likely influenced by big swings in shipments.  In other words, there’s nothing in the October trade deficit data that shows any improvement in U.S. manufacturing vis-a-vis other countries.

3 Responses to October Trade Headlines Look Good, Details Not So Much

  1. Randy says:

    I don’t understand what difference fixing trade would have in the context of today’s impossible debt obligations. The REAL economy cannot possibly grow fast enough to keep the current financial system alive, no matter how well its managed. Look at the numbers yourself:

    P. 14
    Debt Growth by Sector


    2009 – Q1 is 0.5%
    Q2 is -2.2%
    Q3 is -2.8%

    Click to access z1.pdf

    The only thing preventing financial collapse is the government as borrower of last resort. Repetitive stimulus is required. Monetization of debt leads to a lower dollar.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Randy, I don’t disagree with you about the ability of the economy to grow fast enough. That’s really the whole point of my book, that population growth is being used in a vain attempt to do exactly that – to keep the economy growing. The problem with free trade with very densely populated nations is that they’ve already gone beyond that breaking point, and now use exports to shunt the problems onto the American people that they should otherwise be forced to bear. They export their unemployment to us.

  2. ClydeB says:


    The US economy can expect to see 1.5 to 2 times effectiveness from every dollar we remove from the trade deficit. Just cut it in half and we have more “real” money to put to work than the fiat money provided by the so-called stimulus package(s). Certainly, it will take a long time to recover, after all, we’ve been 5-6 decades getting ourselves in to this mess, but the sooner started the sooner we see results.

    Preventing the financial collapse is critical and time is running out. We simply must stop monetizing our debt and the Fed buying T-Bills as a means of increasing the money supply absolutely must stop. FRUGALITY must become a way of life for the gov’t.

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