After getting good if incremental news on the jobs front this morning from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Obama administration got more mixed news from the Bureau of Economic Analysis on the trade front. The US trade deficit jumped up 4.3% in January, thanks to a big rise in imports, but exports also nudged upward:
The U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, through the Department of Commerce, announced today that total January exports of $180.8 billion and imports of $233.4 billion resulted in a goods and services deficit of $52.6 billion, up from $50.4 billion in December, revised. January exports were $2.6 billion more than December exports of $178.2 billion. January imports were $4.7 billion more than December imports of $228.7 billion.
In January, the goods deficit increased $2.4 billion from December to $67.5 billion, and the services surplus increased $0.3 billion from December to $14.9 billion. Exports of goods increased $1.9 billion to $128.6 billion, and imports of goods increased $4.3 billion to $196.1 billion. Exports of services increased $0.7 billion to $52.2 billion, and imports of services increased $0.4 billion to $37.3 billion.
The goods and services deficit increased $5.0 billion from January 2011 to January 2012. Exports were up $12.9 billion, or 7.7 percent, and imports were up $18.0 billion, or 8.4 percent.
The trade deficit in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The change in direction is more important, and that’s what makes this report such a mixed bag. An increase in exports is always good, but the increase in goods exports was slightly under 1.5%, while the increase in imports — which takes away from domestic production — increased 2.2%. In services, the news was somewhat better, with a small increase in exports outstripping an increase in imports by $300 million.
Coupled with disastrous durable-goods and factory orders and shipment reports from January, the change in direction looks like the start of a bad trend. Job numbers looked good today, but if this trend continues into February and March, the growth numbers for the US economy will begin to look poor — and that will kill whatever impulse there is now to create jobs, especially in the manufacturing sector.
The AP expects more of the same this year, thanks to the European fiscal crisis and declining demand for US products:
The U.S. trade deficit surged to the widest imbalance in more than three years in January as imports hit an all-time high, reflecting big demand for foreign-made cars, computers and food products.
U.S. exports to Europe fell, raising concerns that the debt crisis in that region could dampen U.S. economic growth. …
Economists are looking for the deficit this year to widen from last year’s $560 billion imbalance, reflecting in part the economic woes in Europe, which represents about 20 percent of America’s export market.
Economic growth weakens when exports decline because factories tend to produce fewer goods. And U.S. companies earn less.
We already saw that happen in January’s factory reports. Keep an eye on these trends as we move into spring, and as Europe absorbs the impact of the solution to the Greek crisis.
Update: Also today, wholesale inventories continue to rise while sales fell:
Sales. The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that January 2012 sales of merchant wholesalers, except manufacturers’ sales branches and offices, after adjustment for seasonal variations and trading-day differences but not for price changes, were $413.1 billion, down 0.1 percent (+/-0.7%)* from the revised December level, but were up 7.9 percent (+/-1.1%) from the January 2011 level. The December preliminary estimate was revised upward $0.5 billion or 0.1 percent. January sales of durable goods were down 0.2 percent (+/-1.2%)* from last month, but were up 10.2 percent (+/-1.4%) from a year ago. Sales of metals and minerals, except petroleum were down 3.0 percent from last month, while sales of computer and computer peripheral equipment and software were up 1.7 percent. Sales of nondurable goods were down 0.1 percent (+/-0.9%)* from December, but were up 6.1 percent (+/-1.4%) from last January. Sales of paper and paper products were down 3.1 percent from last month.
Inventories. Total inventories of merchant wholesalers, except manufacturers’ sales branches and offices, after adjustment for seasonal variations but not for price changes, were $475.5 billion at the end of January, up 0.4 percent (+/-0.4%)* from the revised December level and were up 9.4percent (+/-1.2%) from the January 2011 level. The December preliminary estimate was revised upward $0.5 billion or 0.1 percent. January inventories of durable goods were up 0.8 percent (+/-0.5%) from last month and were up 10.7 percent (+/-1.9%) from a year ago. Inventories of machinery, epuipment, and supplies were up 1.2 percent from last month and inventories of metals and minerals, except petroleum were up 0.9 percent. Inventories of nondurable goods were down 0.2 percent (+/-0.5%)* from December, but were up 7.6 percent (+/-1.1%) from last January. Inventories of chemicals and allied products were down 2.8 percent from last month, while petroleum and petroleum products were up 2.3 percent.
When inventories rise and sales fall, it puts downward pressure on future wholesale purchases and eventually forces discounting, which cuts into profits. Small wonder that wealthier Americans still feel that we are in a recession.