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Oct. 28, 2020, 12:22 p.m. EDT

U.S. trade deficit in goods falls 4.5% in September, recedes from record high

Yet high U.S. trade deficits are unlikely to go away soon

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By Jeffry Bartash, MarketWatch

The U.S. trade deficit in goods is near a record high.

The numbers: The U.S. trade deficit in goods fell slightly in September a month after hitting a record high, but it’s likely to remain elevated in the next few months as retailers restock ahead of the holiday shopping season.

The gap in goods dropped to $79.4 billion from $83 billion, the U.S. Census Bureau said Wednesday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast a small increase in the trade gap to $83.5 billion.

Big trade deficits subtract from gross domestic product, the official scorecard for the U.S. economy. Although trade was a small drag on third-quarter growth, a huge surge in consumer spending and a rebound in business investment are expected to fuel a record 30%-plus increase in GDP.

The government will publish the GDP results on Thursday morning.

Read: Record 30% surge in GDP is coming, but it may be too late to help President Trump

What happened: Exports rose 2.7% in September to $122 billion, largely reflecting an increase in shipments of farm products as well as capital goods.

Exports are still lagging well below pre-crisis levels, however. Many other countries have been slower to recover from the pandemic or the disruptions in trade that it caused, reducing demand for U.S.-made products. Although American manufacturers have expanded for five months in a row, exports are still a soft spot for the economy.

Imports of foreign goods such as autos and consumer electronics, meanwhile, slipped 0.2% in September to $201.4 billion.

Imports are now back to pre-pandemic levels and that’s actually good news in many ways. It shows businesses and consumers are more confident and that the U.S. economy is regaining strength.

Read: U.S. durable-goods orders climb 1.9% as manufacturers grow for fifth straight month

The advanced trade report only includes goods. Services such as travel and tourism — some of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic — aren’t included until the full report that gets released next week.

An advanced look at wholesale inventories, meanwhile, showed a 0.1% decline in September. And an early look at retail inventories pointed to a robust 1.6% increase.

The big picture : U.S. trade deficits are poised to stay extremely high in the short run given the slower economic recovery in many other parts of the world. Americans can afford to buy more foreign goods — and have become more reliant on them.

The slower recovery in exports, for its part, will act as a small drag on the ongoing recovery in U.S. manufacturing.

What’s less clear is how the latest outbreak of coronavirus cases in the U.S., Europe and other countries will affect the global trading system. Few countries are likely to adopt the same strict lockdown measures they did last spring, but the outbreak is bound to cause harm.

What they are saying? “With second waves of the virus globally hindering demand, the recovery in exports is expected to be choppy in the months ahead,” said economist Katherine Judge at CIC Economics.

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA +1.06% and S&P 500 /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +1.49% sank in Wednesday trades amid worries about the rise in coronavirus cases around the world and more government restrictions on business.

US : Dow Jones Global
+360.68 +1.06%
Volume: 307.38M
May 14, 2021 5:02p
+61.35 +1.49%
Volume: 1.91B
May 14, 2021 5:02p

Jeffry Bartash is a reporter for MarketWatch in Washington.

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