The value of passenger vehicle exports and imports each fell to their lowest monthly total in at least 18 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Thursday.
The automotive statistics are a critical piece of the deterioration the United States saw in its overall trade in May, with total exports and imports down almost 30%.
As recently as two months earlier, in March, motor vehicles were the United States’ fourth most valuable export, trailing only aircraft, gasoline and oil. In May, the category had slipped to No. 14.
On the import side, passenger vehicles had ranked No. 1 for five consecutive years. In May, the category fell to No. 10.
The overall trade decline of 29.83% is nearly quadruple the decline in overall trade measured just two months earlier, when the number of U.S. coronavirus cases was less than a 10th of the current total and unemployment was only beginning its ascent.
Effect on President Trump’s campaign
While the automotive statistics are not good news for the overall U.S. economy, the decline in exports holds particular risk for President Donald Trump and his re-election efforts.
Many of those vehicles are assembled by employees working for foreign manufacturers with plants in the Southeastern United States, so-called “red states,” as well as the iconic U.S. brands built in the battleground state of Michigan.
Exports, imports both fell more than 70%
In the month of May, U.S. exports of motor vehicles fell 79.42% from the same month in 2019, to $1.09 billion. That’s more than double the rate for overall U.S. exports, which tumbled 36.27%.
On the import side, the numbers are just as severe. Overall imports fell 25.69% while passenger vehicle imports tumbled three times that much, down 76.88% to $3.62 billion. Those imports are tied to a host of jobs as well, largely in logistics and sales, of course.
Not since July of 2011 had motor vehicle imports fallen below $10 billion in a month. That has now happened two months in a row.
The automotive industry losses extend beyond the passenger vehicle category, which is largely cars and light trucks. Exports in the primary category of motor vehicle parts dropped 74.13% in May, when compared to the previous May. Imports of motor vehicle parts dropped 66.17%.
It’s a pretty safe bet that those steep declines in motor vehicle exports and imports extend well beyond 18 years, particularly on the import side. Unfortunately, the data I use only goes back 18 years, to early 2002. The import total in January of that year was $7.74 billion, seven times the May 2020 total.
But, if you think deficits and surpluses are what should guide U.S. trade policy, there’s good news in all of this. The difference between the value of passenger vehicle exports and imports was the second-lowest in the last 18 years, down to $2.53 billion — in favor of imports.
The lowest total? That came in February of 2009, during the last global economic crisis, when the difference was $2.31 billion.