The gap increased 7.4 percent to $39.7 billion from a revised $37 billion the prior month, the Commerce Department said. Imports climbed 1.7 percent as Americans bought more computers and televisions made abroad, while exports rose to the highest level since October 2008.
The need to replenish depleted inventories and gains in consumer spending mean purchases of goods and services from overseas will keep growing in coming months. Exports will probably also advance as global growth accelerates, giving companies from Caterpillar Inc. to Dow Chemical Co. a boost.
Prices of goods imported into the U.S. rose less than anticipated in March, indicating few signs of building inflation pressures from abroad, another report showed. The 0.7 percent increase in the import-price index followed a revised 0.2 percent drop in February, Labor Department figures showed. Prices excluding petroleum fell 0.2 percent last month, the first decline since July 2009.
After eliminating the influence of prices, which are the numbers used to calculate gross domestic product, the trade deficit grew to $42.5 billion from $40.9 billion in January. The average for the first two months of the year is about the same as in the prior quarter, indicating trade will have little influence on growth figures.
Purchases of foreign-made goods increased to $182.9 billion as demand for consumer goods, including televisions, toys, pharmaceuticals and clothing climbed to the highest level since October 2008.
The number of barrels of imported crude oil fell in February to the lowest level since February 1999, today’s report showed. After adjusting the figures for seasonal variations, the value of oil imports climbed.
Exports increased 0.2 percent to $143.2 billion, led by growing foreign demand for engines and semiconductors. An $821 billion drop in civilian-aircraft deliveries to buyers overseas, an often volatile category, limited the overall gain.
Sales of U.S.-made goods are getting a boost from growing demand in China and other expanding economies. The U.S. surplus with newly industrialized countries, including Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, reached a record $2.2 billion as exports grew. The surplus with Brazil also climbed.
Today’s report showed the trade gap with China decreased to $16.5 billion, the lowest since March 2009, from $18.3 billion in the prior month. Americans imported the fewest Chinese-made goods in almost a year.