The gap grew 5.7 percent to $62.3 billion, the highest since November, from a revised $59 billion in January, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. The 3.1 percent gain in imports was the biggest in almost a year, even as purchases of petroleum and goods from China dropped.
The increase in demand for products from overseas may be short lived as more recent evidence showed U.S. consumer and business spending has slowed. Exports rose for the 12th consecutive month, representing one of the few bright spots helping the economy avoid a deeper and longer recession.
The trade gap was forecast to narrow to $57.5 billion from an initially reported $58.2 billion in January, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey of 74 economists. Deficit projections ranged from $55 billion to $61 billion.
The dollar, which fell earlier today, remained lower against the euro and the yen after the report. It dropped 0.3 percent from late yesterday to $1.5875 per euro at 8:34 a.m. in New York, and was at 100.34 yen, down 1.4 percent.
Imports rose to a record $213.7 billion in February as Americans bought more foreign-made autos, industrial machines, and pharmaceuticals. The latter category is often volatile and economists tend to downplay month-to-month changes.
The petroleum deficit shrank to $32.5 billion, the first decline in eight months. A drop in the quantity imported offset a record price of $84.76 a barrel.
Americans also bought fewer goods from China. The politically sensitive gap with the Asian nation shrank to $18.4 billion, the lowest since March 2007, as imports dropped 7.8 percent.
Some U.S. lawmakers accuse China of keeping its currency, the yuan, undervalued to boost its exports, and advocate legislation to force faster appreciation.
American exports increased 2 percent to $151.4 billion, boosted by sales of fuel oil, autos, food oils and corn.
After eliminating the influence of prices, which are the numbers used to calculate gross domestic product, the trade deficit widened to $51.5 billion from $49.7 billion. The average gap for the first quarter so far is lower than the $51.3 average from October through December, indicating trade will still add to growth.
The U.S. economy will not expand at all in the first six months of 2008 as consumer spending cools, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News from April 2 to April 8. A majority now projects the U.S. is, or will soon be, in a recession.
Imports may be restrained in coming months as consumers, facing mounting job losses and record fuel bills, slow spending. Companies are also investing less in foreign-made equipment as concern grows that consumer demand will continue to weaken.