The U.S. trade deficit in goods and services is expected to have hit a fresh high in March at $107 billion, potentially setting the stage for a further cooldown in economic growth. Here is what to watch in the March trade balance report, set for release by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET:
- Sticker Shock: The trade deficit is expected to have widened by some huge amount in March, but not only because Americans binged on more foreign goods and services than they shipped abroad. The headline trade balance has been somewhat misleading in recent months, since it’s not adjusted for the decades-high inflation we have seen. The trade deficit is based on the value of exports minus imports. That means that it also reflects higher prices of goods and services that the U.S. exports and imports, not only higher volumes of shipments.
- Cool It: There are disagreements among economists about what exactly the trade balance means for the economy, but it’s clear that a large deficit weighs on nominal measures of output. The deficit is subtracted from gross domestic product, the broadest measure of output in the economy. In the first quarter, the deficit shaved 3.2 percentage points from GDP, the BEA said last week. There’s no end in sight to the record trade deficits in the U.S., so don’t be surprised if they cloud GDP forecasts in the coming months.
- High Energy: All eyes will be on energy exports and imports in March, when the Biden administration banned Russian shipments of oil, petroleum and other products to the U.S. in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Companies were given a 45-day window to wind down these purchases, so any trade flow shifts from that and a separate U.K. ban on Russian oil could be seen in the report. The U.S. doesn’t rely on Russia or Ukraine for many goods or services, but broader war-related sanctions and shortages could ripple through and add to the supply chain crisis.
- Supply, And A Lot More Demand: The trade balance will offer the latest snapshot of a global supply chain in disarray. Americans are as hungry as ever for foreign-made goods, and factories and transporters still can’t keep up. Many simply don’t have the inventory or manpower to. There are worker shortages in the U.S. and other major economies, particularly after a fresh wave of coronavirus lockdowns in China. In February, the U.S. imported far more oil shipments but fewer cars, and increased exports of industrial supplies abroad.
- Travel Turnaround: The travel industry was one of the hardest-hit industries by the coronavirus pandemic, but now it’s on its way to an epic rebound as cases recede. The trade balance will likely show an uptick in services exports and imports in March, when airfare shot up by more than 10%. The recovery is significant after more than two years of pain in the services sector, which typically fueled U.S. economic activity before the pandemic but then fell behind goods.