The gap grew 0.6 percent to $58.2 billion from a revised $57.9 billion in December that was narrower than previously estimated, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. Overseas demand increased 1.6 percent to the highest level ever.
The slump in the U.S. currency and sales in overseas markets including Asia may avert a deeper decline at American factories as escalating job losses hurt consumer spending. Exports are one of the few bright spots remaining in an economy that is heading toward, or may already be, in a recession.
The trade gap was estimated to widen to $59.5 billion, from an initially reported $58.8 billion in December, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of 71 economists. Deficit projections ranged from $57.5 billion to $62.4 billion.
After the report, the dollar rose versus the yen and the euro. Separately, the U.S. Federal Reserve said it will hold auctions to lend as much as $200 billion in Treasury securities and increase swap lines with two foreign central banks to try to ease renewed turmoil in credit markets.
Exports climbed to a record $148.2 billion as sales of corn, refined petroleum products, computers and pharmaceutical preparations strengthened. Imports increased 1.3 percent to $206.4 billion, also the highest ever.
Imports rose as purchases of crude oil jumped, reflecting increases in the number of barrels bought and a record price of $84.09.
Excluding petroleum, the $32.1 billion trade gap was the smallest since October 2002. The oil deficit exceeded the non- petroleum shortfall for the first time since 1992.
Demand for foreign-made consumer goods slumped reflecting the slowdown in U.S. economic growth. Purchases of televisions, clothing, appliances and toys dropped. Demand for capital equipment, such as computers and machinery, made overseas also fell.
The trade gap with China, which in 2007 passed Canada to become the U.S.'s largest source of imported goods, increased to $20.3 billion from $18.8 billion in the prior month.
The narrower than previously estimated December gap may prompt economists to revise up projections for fourth-quarter growth. The price-adjusted deficit in January was smaller than the average for the last three months of 2007, indicating trade may again contribute to GDP.
The trade gap narrowed to an annualized $506.8 billion in the fourth quarter, adding 0.9 percentage point to growth. Excluding the improvement in trade, the economy would have shrunk at a 0.3 percent annual pace, the first decline since 2001, when the U.S. was last in a recession.
Higher fuel costs are making imports more expensive. Crude oil prices surpassed $100 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange in January for the first time and exceeded $108 yesterday.
Exports are getting a lift from the weaker dollar, which makes American-made goods less expensive for overseas buyers. The dollar has declined about 10 percent over the past year against a trade-weighted basket of currencies from major U.S. trading partners, Federal Reserve data show.
Asian economies are buying more U.S. aircraft and industrial engines. Boeing Co., the second-largest U.S. defense contractor, last month said it plans to sell 50 helicopters to India and Malaysia this year as the two nations boost defense spending.
The trade gap with the European Union was the smallest since 2002. The shortfall with Canada increased in January, while the gap with Mexico shrank.