Coronavirus Takes Swipe At The United States’ Top 10 Exports


Motor vehicle part exports, down 22.37%.

Computer part exports, down 31.29%.

Computer chip exports, up 16.53%.

LNG and other petroleum gases, up 17.31%.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data is offering a first glimpse at the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on U.S. trade. It’s a first glimpse because the data, released last week, is for March, as the world began waking up to the coming threat, rather than April.

Unfortunately, there’s a five-week lag on the data release, meaning April data won’t be released until the first week of June.

But the data is, nonetheless, instructive.

Overall, U.S. exports fell 9.22 percent, when compared to March of 2019.

Here’s a quick look at the top 10, which accounted for 43.97% of all U.S. exports in March.

  1. Civilian aircraft and parts. Boeing BA ’s problems — and this is largely a Boeing category — predates the pandemic though it will certainly be exacerbated by it. Who’s getting on a plane and when? Translation: Who is ordering new planes and when? Prediction: The numbers will get worse before they get better.
  2. Gasoline. One of the nation’s faster-growing exports over the last several years, the value of gasoline and related petroleum products fell 6.86% in March. With downward pressure on gasoline prices that predates coronavirus and accelerated by it, my prediction: More challenges ahead, at least from a value if not tonnage measurement.
  3. Oil. The value of oil exports increased in March. Startling as this might been given the bloodbath in oil prices, this is testament to the massive growth of the domestic mining industry centered in Texas but also in New Mexico, North Dakota and elsewhere. The value of crude oil exports is up 655.41% when compared to March 2016. Prediction: Oil’s reckoning is coming.
  4. Passenger vehicles. Car and light truck exports fell 12.24% in March. A great deal of the decline was with China, which accounted for 13% of U.S. exports last year but only 6.5% in March. Was it the U.S.-China trade war? Was it that China was largely shut down in February by the Chinese New Year and the rapidly advancing coronavirus? Prediction: Frosty relations between the leaders of the two countries will only hurt U.S. exports.
  5. Computer chips. This was a bright spot, as mentioned above, with an increase of 16.53%. While U.S. manufacturing of computer chips has waned over time, leading to more imports, exports have been ranked No. 5 in March three of the last four years. Prediction: I imagine increased demand — if exporters can find cargo space, with so many passenger flights cancelled.
  6. Low-value exports. Think of this as e-commerce, though it can include almost anything under $2,500, including “just-in-time” parts for the automotive industry. Generally, more that 40% of these exports head to NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico. As the automotive industry wobbles, I would expect some downward pressure here.
  7. Motor vehicle parts. A tough month for motor vehicle part exports, to be sure, with the value off 22.37%. The percentage going to Canada and Mexico has slipped from 76% last year to 70% in March, with China’s market share increasing. Prediction: Motor vehicle parts might do well, if people put off buying new vehicles due to what we are now starting to call a deep recession.
  8. Petroleum gases. LNG and other petroleum gases, like oil and gasoline, are part of the hydraulic fracturing story, which was given a boost when President Obama decided to allow U.S. oil exports toward the end of his second term. (They had been largely restricted for four decades, after the Arab Oil Embargo.) Petroleum gas exports were up 17.31% in March and are up 197.45% from March of 2016.
  9. Medical instruments. These exports, which can be a wide range, from syringes to MRI machines, fell 4.95% in value. I would expect these to do well in a coronavirus-hobbled world, though many expenditures in health-care going forward might be more specific to attacking the pandemic.

Vaccines, plasma and other “blood fractions.” These slipped 6.30% in March but have been a rapidly growing exports — and import — for several years. Prediction: There’s only one risk to these exports continuing to do well: restrictions on exports of life-saving vaccines or blood fractions, like white-blood cells, plasma and the like.

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