WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. trade deficit in goods widened to a record high in March likely as businesses who are worried about shortages front-loaded imports after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, raising the risk that economic growth stalled in the first quarter.
The report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday also showed solid increases in retail and wholesale inventories. That could offset some of the hit to gross domestic product growth from the sky-high trade gap.
The data prompted economists to downgrade their already low GDP growth estimates for the first quarter to show the economy barely growing or even contracting. The government is due to publish its snapshot of first-quarter GDP on Thursday. Economists cautioned against reading too much into any number as it would be a misleading picture of the economy.
“While first-quarter GDP growth looks weak overall, domestic final sales performed fairly well during the quarter,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
The goods trade deficit jumped 17.8% to an all-time high of $125.3 billion. The increase likely reflected both higher volumes and prices. Imports of goods accelerated 11.5% to $294.6 billion. They were boosted by a 15.% surge in imports of industrial supplies, which include petroleum products.
Graphic: Trade balance – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-STOCKS/byvrjnmkmve/tradebal.png
Imports of consumer goods vaulted 13.6%, while those of motor vehicles increased 12.0%. There were also solid gains in imports of food and capital goods.
“Front-loading of imports related to the Russia-Ukraine war likely drove much of the import spike, as firms boosted inventories of commodities and finished goods in anticipation of potential shortages,” Goldman Sachs said in a note.
The United States and its allies have imposed a range of sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of commodities, including wheat and sunflower oil.
Exports of goods increased 7.2% to $169.3 billion. They were led by a 12.3% rise in exports of industrial supplies. Motor vehicle exports advanced 8.4%. There were also increases in exports of food, capital and consumer goods.
Trade has subtracted from GDP growth for six straight quarters, the longest such stretch since the beginning of 2016. With the goods trade data in hand, Goldman Sachs lowered its first-quarter GDP estimate to a 1.3% rate from a 1.5% pace. JPMorgan slashed its forecast to a 0.7% pace from a 1.1% rate. IHS Markit believes the economy actually contracted at a 0.6% rate, a downgrade of 0.7 percentage point.
The surge in imports is being driven by businesses replenishing inventories amid strong domestic demand. Wholesale inventories rose 2.3% in March after shooting up 2.6% in February. Retail inventories increased 2.0% after gaining 1.5% in February. Motor vehicle stocks rose 1.2%.
Excluding motor vehicles, retail inventories increased 2.3% after rising 1.5% in February. This category goes into the calculation of GDP. Inventories added 5.32 percentage points to the fourth quarter’s robust 6.9% growth pace.
Graphic: Wholesale inventories – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-STOCKS/akvezyemopr/wsinv.png
Economists are split on whether inventories contributed to growth in the first quarter. They would need to increase by more than the fourth quarter’s $193.2 billion rate.
While the housing market likely supported GDP growth last quarter, momentum is slowing as mortgage rates and home prices surge. Other data on Wednesday from the Mortgage Bankers Association showed applications for a loan to buy a home decreased 8% last week from a week earlier.
Cooling housing demand was corroborated by a third report from the National Association of Realtors showing its Pending Home Sales Index, based on signed contracts, fell 1.2% in March to 103.7. That was the fifth straight monthly decline and pushed contracts to the lowest level since May 2020.
Pending home sales rose in the Northeast, but fell in the South, Midwest and West. Economists had forecast contracts, which become sales after a month or two, would decline 1.6%. Pending home sales dropped 8.2% in March on a year-on-year basis.
Graphic: Pending home sales – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-STOCKS/egpbkejabvq/phs.png
Data last week showed sales of previously owned homes tumbled to the lowest level in nearly two years in March.
The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5.11% during the week ended April 21, the highest since April 2010 and up from 5.00% in the prior week, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac.
Reports on Tuesday showed the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller’s 20 metropolitan area home price index surged a record 20.2% on a year-on-year basis in February. Home prices measured by the Federal Housing Finance Agency accelerated 19.4% in the 12 months through February.
“The aspiration to purchase a home remains, but the financial capacity has become a major limiting factor,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist.
Mortgage rates are set to rise further, with the Federal Reserve expected to hike interest rates by 50 basis points next week, and soon start trimming its asset holdings.
The U.S. central bank raised its policy interest rate by 25 basis points in March, the first rate hike in more than three years, as it battles surging inflation.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Paul Simao)