Today's international trade report confirms that sluggish global growth is taking a toll on the US economy. Exports are now barely up compared to last year:
Calculated Risk notes the wider goods deficit with the Eurozone. I would add that this is clearly on the back of weaker exports (imports are up slightly). On the plus side, exports of services were up 4.3 percent, while goods exports were down slightly, a story consistent with the divergent ISM manufacturing and services surveys.
Also note the negative year-over-year growth around 1998, the time of the Asian Financial Crisis, which means that even a significant external shock does not necessarily induce a US recession. That said, the softer external sector does leave the economy more vulnerable to negative internal shocks. In the late 1990's, the US experienced a positive internal shock, mitigating the impact of the Asian Financial Crisis. In the near-term, such a positive shock does not look as likely this time around.
I take little comfort from the import data:
Flat to negative numbers are typically consistent with recession as they reflect periods of negative domestic demand. We can't write off the slightly negative reading as simply a reflection of falling oil imports (down $625 million); non-petroleum imports (down $792 million) also fell slightly compared to a year ago. Unless the pace of import-substitution is happening very quickly, this data seems like something of a red flag. Something to be cautious of as we head into 2013.
Bottom Line: While I do not believe the US economy is in recession by any stretch of the imagination, I am under no illusions about the lack of underlying momentum. Slow and steady, in my opinion. But slow also means more vulnerable; there was more room to absorb an external hit in the late 1990's than today. Which again leaves me wary about the impact of tighter fiscal policy, and I am not alone. I question the belief that the clarity-induced confidence of a deal will be sufficient to offset the impact of tighter policy. Just as the Federal Reserve has committed to asset purchases until labor markets are substantially and sustainably stronger, fiscal policymakers should commit to easy policy until those conditions are met as well. Instead, we are poised for another austerity experiment. For now, the plan is to squeeze through the choppy first part of 2013 to the restorative powers of improved private sector balance sheets at the end of 2013. Hopefully we make it there relatively unscathed.