It could be worse. The last year of Donald Trump’s presidency involved widespread business shutdowns as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted nearly everything. Many critics grade his presidency an F, across the board.
But the Trump economy has a few redeeming traits, according to the final rendition of the Yahoo Finance Trumponomics Report Card. We inaugurated the report card after Trump took office in 2017, to measure the economy under Trump compared with six prior presidents, going back to Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. We use data provided by Moody’s Analytics and follow a strict methodology that involves no interpretation.
The high-water mark for the Trump economy was an A- in September 2017, when he had the top score among the seven presidents for hourly earnings, and the second-highest score for GDP growth and manufacturing employment. The Trump economy was in the B range for most of his term. It dropped to C in April, as layoffs surged, and it has stayed there ever since.
Plumbing the components of our report card shows where the real damage to the economy persists, and where recovery has begun. Trump now ranks worst among the seven presidents in three of the six categories we track: total employment, GDP growth per capita, and exports. The economy has lost 3 million jobs since Trump took office, the worst performance by far. Next worse was the 74,000 jobs lost during George W. Bush’s first term, from 2001 to 2005. All of the Trump job losses have come in the last nine months.
GDP per capita has grown just 1.6% since Trump took office. GDP growth under Trump was solid until the second quarter of last year, when it plunged and went negative for the entirety of Trump’s term. It rebounded in the third quarter to become slightly positive for Trump’s presidency. The second-worst reading was 2.4% growth at the end of George H. W. Bush’s term.
Exports also plummeted at the onset of the pandemic, as trade flows contracted. Exports are down 4.4% since Trump took office, again, the worst showing by far.
What saved Trump from a D or F grade were top numbers for earnings and a relatively strong showing for manufacturing employment and the stock market. Average hourly earnings under Trump have been the highest of any president since October 2019, and that hasn’t changed. It might be surprising that earnings are strong in a grueling downturn, but the coronavirus layoffs actually pushed measured earnings higher. That’s because many of the layoffs were among lower-paid workers, which pushed average wages higher for those still lucky enough to have a job.
The manufacturing sector has lost 60,000 jobs during Trump’s term, but that’s still better than under four other presidents. Manufacturing has sharply declined during the last 30 years, with the worst job losses—2.8 million—coming during George W. Bush’s first term. Trump policies didn’t bring many new factories to America—even though he claimed they did—but manufacturing may have held up under Trump simply because it had bottomed out after a 30-year decline and begun to stabilize. Manufacturers also managed to adopt coronavirus protections that let them keep cranking out products Americans needed during lockdowns.
Then there’s the bubbly stock market, which endured one of the shortest bear markets ever last spring, before stocks took off again and began hitting new record highs. The S&P 500 stock index under Trump registered the third-best performance, with only Barack Obama and Bill Clinton enjoying better returns during their first terms. Stocks have had a lot of help, mostly from the Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary stimulus measures. That’s one reason stocks have sailed far beyond the broader economy, which remains depressed. But the Fed rolled out similar measures during Obama’s first term, when the economy was still reeling from the 2008 financial wipeout. Friendly Fed policy has buoyed stocks for most of the last decade, in fact.
Trump, of course, is leaving office amid unprecedented turmoil, much of it generated by Trump himself. The economy may not figure as much in his legacy as the Jan. 6 riots at the US Capitol, which he encouraged, or his flagrant effort to overturn the 2020 election results to keep himself in power. If there’s a coda to the final Trumponomics Report Card, it may be that the nation is lucky it might be able to recover once Trump is gone, instead of failing for good.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.