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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Sunday, June 15, 2003

What's Up (Or Down) With These Trade Figures?

The InstaPundit sends us off to Mr. Den Beste, who is chatting about French woes vis a vis their new and somewhat frostier relationship with the US. His theme:

...the French are beginning to get worried about business relations with the US. French sales to the US seem to be collapsing. In March they had a €97 million trade surplus with the US, but in April that became a €202 million trade deficit. A change that massive means either a dramatic rise in American sales to France, which seems unlikely, or a dramatic decline in French sales to the US, and it's got to be a lot more than just wine and cheese. There isn't any official boycott or trade sanctions, but there seems to be something big going on.

There may indeed be something big going on, but one month of trade figures is probably not the best way to demonstrate that. First of all, the surplus/deficit figure is the difference between two larger series, imports and exports, both of which are quite volatile. A big aircraft order, for example, could cause a big swing in the monthly figures.

Secondly, the figures for imports and exports rarely add up properly across countries. Consequently, what France reports from their end may not agree with what the US reports. We can only scratch our heads as we puzzle over the trade figures for the US and France as reported from our side of the Atlantic. If we can believe the US Census Bureau reports (no, I have no idea why they are the source for this, but it looks official as all get out, and they are part of the Commerce Dept.), US exports to France fell by $158 million in April, while US imports from France actually rose by $113 million. Thus, from US reporting, the French actually increased their trade surplus with the US in April.

Now, I refer you to the last sentence of this CBS Marketwatch report as evidence that, if I am reading this report backwards, I am not alone. They say:

Despite a loud campaign against French goods in retaliation for its leadership against the war, imports from France rose 4.9 percent in April.

Confused? The French say that their trade balance with the US fell by roughly 300 million Euros; we say that the French trade balance as viewed by the French rose by roughly $270 million. I'll tell you what - if this were my checkbook, I would look to see if I had reversed a sign, or confused imports and exports, or made some such slip-up. Or maybe Jayson Blair is doing press releases for the French. Or the US. Since I don't trust the Feds or the French, my default settings are useless.

However, as noted, these numbers never match. Here are what seem to be French stats for their trade with the US. I do not speak French, and although I have tried speaking loudly and distinctly to my monitor (it always works when I am talking to citizens abroad, and it's not nearly as annoying as the locals pretend), I am still not quite able to comunicate with these charts. Volunteers? And, Eureka Moment, I think this is the report. All in French, as a PDF file, but I recognize the 591 euro number. They also have commentary on what moved the figures with the Etats Unis.

Anyway, I can not say just what it is that is meant to be included in these trade figures. However, the totals and net balances seem quite different from what I presume to be their US counterparts, and I can't find the darn stats for April and March of 2003. Hope that cleared things up.

I will now stagger to my Big Finish: one month's worth of import and export figures don't mean much, especially when the other country is reporting the opposite.

UPDATE: Support for Mr. Den Beste from the Wall Street Journal! Hah, registration required, so perhaps you will never know. Or try here.

Also, a US press release, which echoes the Census website data, and makes a few cryptic comments about what goes into the mix.

UPDATE 2: The current line-up seems to be Den Betse and the Wall Street Journal versus CBS Marketwatch, me, and now MaxSpeak. If I were a betting man, I know where I would put my cash. But the conflict of interest is too obvious.

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