The Trade Deficit Narrowed in November as Exports and Imports Both Fell: Week of February 4 – 8

The trade deficit shrank in November, as had factory orders. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending February 8.  

#1The trade deficit narrowed in November. The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates export activity slowed $1.3 billion to $209.9 billion (+3.7 percent versus November 2017) while imports fell by $7.7 billion to $259.2 billion (+3.2 percent). The resulting trade deficit of -$49.3 billion was down $6.4 billion from October but 0.7 percent larger than that of a year earlier. The goods deficit contracted by $6.7 billion to -$71.6 billion while the services surplus shrank by $0.3 billion to +$22.3 billion. The former was the result a $7.9 billion drop in imported goods, including steep declines for consumer goods (including cell phones) and industrial supplies/oil. The U.S. had its biggest goods deficits in November with China (-$35.4 billion, down $2.8 billion from October), the European Union (-$13.8 billion), Mexico (-$6.8 billion), and Japan (-$5.7 billion).

#2Factory orders slowed for a second consecutive month in November. The Census Bureau estimates new orders for manufactured goods declined by $3.1 billion during the month to a seasonally adjusted $499.2 billion. This was 4.1 percent greater than the value of November 2017 factory orders. Transportation goods orders grew 3.0 percent, boosted by strong gains for ships/boats (+72.6 percent), defense aircraft (+31.2 percent), and civilian aircraft (+6.9 percent). Net of transportation goods, core factory orders dropped 1.3 percent following a 0.2 percent gain in October. While orders grew for fabricated and primary metals (+0.9 percent and +0.8 percent, respectively), they slowed for nondurable goods (-1.9 percent), machinery (-1.7 percent), electrical equipment/appliances (-1.1 percent), and computers/electronics (-0.3 percent). New orders for civilian capital goods orders net of aircraft (a proxy for business investment) slumped 0 6 percent in November. 

#3Service sector activity remained strong, but softened, in January. The NMI, the headline index from the Institute for Supply Management’s Nonmanufacturing Report on Business slipped by 1.3 points during the month to a reading of 56.7. Even with the pullback, the NMI has been above a reading of 50.0 for 108 consecutive months, indicative of an expanding service sector. Only one of the NMI’s four components grew during the month, with employment adding 1.2 points to 57.8. Shedding points from December were components for new orders (down 5.0 points to 57.7) and business activity/production (down 1.5 points to 59.7. Holding firm was the measure for supplier deliveries at a reading of 51.5. Only 11 of 18 tracked nonmanufacturing industries expanded during the month, however, with the most robust expansion reported in transportation/warehousing, health care/social assistance, and mining. The press released noted continued optimism but also stated that “[r]espondents are concerned about the impacts of the government shutdown.

#4Manufacturing sector productivity edged up during Q4 2018. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that manufacturing productivity grew 1.3 percent on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis during the final three months of 2018, an improvement from Q3’s 1.1 percent gain. Manufacturing output had expanded 2.3 percent, supported by a 1.0 percent advance in hours worked. The productivity gain for the past year was much softer, with a 0.7 percent increase. During Q4, durable manufacturing productivity increased 2.6 percent while the productivity improvement for nondurable manufactured goods was 1.2 percent. (The BLS was unable to report on overall productivity for the U.S. economy due to the partial government shutdown.)

#5Consumers took on credit at a marginally slower pace in December. American households had $4.010 trillion in outstanding consumer debt (not including mortgages and other real estate-backed loans) in December, according to the Federal Reserve. This was up $16.5 billion from November (smaller than the prior month’s $22.4 billion gain) and a 12-month increase of 4.7 percent. Consumers had $1.045 trillion in outstanding revolving credit balances at the end of December, up $1.7 billion for the month and 2.0 percent from a year earlier. Nonrevolving credit balances expanded $14.9 billion to $2.966 trillion (+5.6 percent versus December 2017).

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending February 2, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 234,000 (-19,000 vs. previous week; +11,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 224,750 (-1.4% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Senior Loan Officers Survey (January 2019)

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current employer. No endorsements are implied.

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