The Bureau of Economic Analysis releases its tally of goods and services traded in March on Tuesday morning. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect the U.S. trade balance to shrink to $41.3 billion for the month. Here are five things to watch in the report.
By Nico Grant
The U.S. trade deficit has been volatile since February 2015 as the U.S. outperforms other economies and the dollar has strengthened. In the last few months, the rising trade deficit weighed down first quarter GDP growth, which is estimated to be a paltry 0.5 percent. Analysts are waiting to see how much of a drag trade will be on the upcoming final GDP number.
1. It’s not yet time to celebrate a lower trade deficit.
Tuesday’s report will likely reflect a smaller trade deficit. The U.S. trade in goods advance report estimates the U.S. goods deficit shrank by $8 billion, from $62.9 billion to $56.9 billion.
But Americans shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet.
The trade deficit has risen and fallen over the last year, but two factors have been consistent. The U.S. economy has glided upward as foreign economies face turbulence. Additionally, the dollar has been strong compared to the currencies of American trading partners. The result has been a swollen trade deficit of $47.1 billion in February.
Although the dollar has come off of its high, those underlying factors continue.
“The price of the dollar remains very much a concern,” said Gregory Daco, a head economist at Oxford Economics Ltd. “It’s hurting businesses in the U.S. and tourism.”
Global economic weakness has also persisted.
“Emerging markets growth excluding China is half the pace of the long-term average,” Daco said. “Europe is doing better, but not good enough.”
So even if there’s a blip of lower imports, it’s unlikely to be the start of a new trend.
2. Did the Lunar New Year have an impact on the numbers?
Tuesday’s report will lay out the trade balances with Asian countries. The shrinking goods imports may be attributable to fewer products coming from Asia – especially China, America’s second largest trading partner.
The explanation could be Lunar New Year. Though it landed on February 8th, some analysts believe it could have knock-on effects slowing down inventory and creating a backlog of orders.
“We saw less imports coming from the West Coast port data,” said Joseph Lavorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities. “We’ll see a reversal in the next months.”
That’s more reason to believe that a good number on Tuesday would be more noise than signal.
3. Can U.S. service exports rebound?
Usually, the U.S. maintains a growing services surplus. But in February, there was an unexpected tick-down of service exports of $0.1 billion while service imports rose $0.3 billion. The disappointing service numbers didn’t offset the U.S. deficit in goods trading.
Economists expect services to be back to normal, reflecting the advantages of the U.S. being a service-oriented economy.
“We’re getting the services side of trade in the report, and we have a surplus there,” Lavorgna said. “It won’t vary much.”
The drastic decline in the price of oil continues to affect the economy, even as the price of oil has since risen to over $40 a barrel.
Tuesday’s trade report will answer what that means for imports of oil.
In the trade balance report, oil trade has been volatile because of fluctuations in price, which is why some analysts look at the volume.
“It’ll be interesting to see imports of oil on volume front,” Daco said. “On exports, will we see upward momentum on exports of fuel?”
5. Consumer vs. Capital Goods
Throughout the last year, stable and sometimes rising consumer spending has led the way, demonstrating the strength of the U.S. compared to other global economies.
“The household sector has been leading the way,” said Jim O’Sullivan. “The plunge of oil prices have been a transfer of money from businesses to households.”