Find yourself in the numbers

Feb. 7, 2006
Data has little importance unless we take an informed and detailed view of what it means.

There is good news on the trade deficit, unless you don’t really believe it. For November 2005, the latest data available, the overall U.S. trade deficit for goods and services declined from $68.1 billion in October (an all-time peak) to $64.2 billion in November 2005. That was a 5.73% drop-off, and it was aided by a significant decline in what is called the “non-oil” deficit, referring to all the products other than petroleum that are imported for U.S. consumption.

That’s not the only positive news. Goods and services exports rose 1.77% to $109.3 billion, while goods and services imports fell 1.13% to $175.5 billion. The numbers I found especially intriguing are these: The U.S. trade deficit in manufacturing fell 5.25% to $54.36 billion, and U.S. manufacturing imports fell 3.08% to $113.774 billion.

I recognize that all is not rosy, and most of the commentary on this November report emphasized that the U.S. trade deficit is still at the third-highest total on record. More to the point, what usually informs people’s opinions on trade issues is their personal experience.

Still, this reversal in the manufacturing trade deficit will generate a lot of analysis about “the state of manufacturing.” “Manufacturing” is “hot” right now, because marketers, researchers, and investors, among others have realized manufacturing’s got “value,” its got “growth potential,” etc. This means is that people who do something other than manufacturing now understand there’s some gain in knowing about, or promoting, or investing in “manufacturing.”

If they pay attention they’ll find that “manufacturers” don’t have a single concern but dozens of competing concerns. And, mostly because of the long-standing U.S. trade deficit, these various concerns may be ultimately irreconcilable.

Large-scale manufacturers no longer worry too much about U.S. trade issues; they’re operating plants in China and India that are part of the deficit. Others have channeled their attention away from the traditional National Assn. of Manufacturers and toward ad-hoc groups like the China Currency Coalition or the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, to press for specific government policy changes. To them, one month’s data proves very little.

I think about all that because this issue of FORGING will earn me at least one phone call or e-mail per week for the rest of the year. Those analysts, researchers, etc., will want to know: “How can I get a copy of your forging industry census?” And, when they get my attention they’ll press for more insight, etc. They’ll want me to tell them everything they need to know about forging.

There’s a question I get even more frequently: “How can I get in touch with Jim?” Of course, these are readers trying to reach the reliable and resourceful Jim Henning, who answers all sorts of inquiries about production techniques, alloy specifications, treatment and handling procedures, and more, in each issue. These callers have a more personal interest, and a clear idea of what they need.

The census is a one-of-a-kind resource, but each data point in that study represents a trove of insight and understanding about the forging industry and processes. But, all of us should recognize that the numbers don’t have much importance unless we take an informed and detailed view of what they mean.