The recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has included a precipitous decline in U.S. trade: The FRED graph above shows that both imports and exports have declined more than 20% relative to a year ago. This decline may not be too surprising, given that international trade flows are usually more volatile than domestic economic activity. Large changes in economic activity typically feature even larger changes in trade flows.
The only other recent time period with such a decline was early 2009, during the Great Recession. But the graph above shows a key difference between the two recessions: Recently, exports have declined substantially more than imports, which is the opposite of what occurred during the Great Recession.
The second graph shows the difference between exports and imports—i.e., the trade balance. During the Great Recession, U.S. exports increased relative to imports, narrowing the trade deficit. During the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. exports decreased relative to imports, widening the trade deficit.
This difference may stem from the different natures of the two recessions. Imports often decline during a recession more than exports do, but the COVID-19 pandemic may be an exception: Increased demand for imported essential medical goods to combat the pandemic may have caused imports overall to decline less than they would have otherwise. Of course, exports may have declined more than in a typical recession because of decreased economic activity in an environment of social distancing and related policies.
How these graphs were created: First graph: Search for “Imports of Goods and Services: Balance of Payments Basis” and select the relevant data series with the units “Percent Change from a Year Ago.” From the “Edit Graph” panel, use the “Add Line” tab to search for and select “Exports of Goods and Services: Balance of Payments Basis.” Finally, select the period as 2007-01-01 to the present. Second graph: Again, select “Exports of Goods and Services: Balance of Payments Basis” and use the “Customize data” option to search for and add the series “Imports of Goods and Services: Balance of Payments Basis.” In the formula bar, type a-b and click “Apply.” Finally, select the period as 2007-01-01 to the present.