Thankfully, a deeper dive into the data suggests we likely needn't fret. Total imports have weakened lately, but most of that weakness comes from declining petroleum imports. Excluding petroleum products and adjusted for inflation, first-quarter imports rose 1.3% ($5.63 billion) over the first quarter of 2012. Demand for capital and consumer goods appears plenty healthy. As does petroleum demand overall -- we just happen to be importing less of it thanks to the shale revolution. This trend has been brewing for some time. As shown in Exhibit 1, which indexes total imports, petroleum imports and nonpetroleum imports to 100 in the second quarter of 2009 (total trade's cyclical low), total imports increased at a pretty healthy pace through 2011, then pulled back a bit in early 2012.
Nonpetroleum imports rose at a slightly slower pace but stayed positive through the second quarter of 2012, then plateaued. Petroleum imports jumped ahead at first, but they're down nearly 13% since the second quarter of 2011 -- and that's after a fourth-quarter 2012 rebound. Exhibit 1: Total, Petroleum and Nonpetroleum Imports Since Second Quarter 2012