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US trade gap widens sharply in January

By Greg Robb, MarketWatch –

WASHINGTON — The U.S. trade deficit widened sharply in January, driven higher by record imports of autos, capital goods and food, government data showed Friday.

The trade gap expanded 4.3 percent in January to $52.6 billion from $50.4 billion in December, the Commerce Department said.

This is the largest monthly differential between imports and exports since October 2008 and came in much bigger than had been expected.

Analysts surveyed by MarketWatch had anticipated that the deficit would widen but just slightly so, to $49.0 billion. The December deficit was revised from its prior estimate of $48.8 billion.

The higher December deficit will subtract from economic growth in the final three months of the year, now estimated at a 3.0 percent rate of expansion in gross domestic product.

For all of 2011, the nation’s trade deficit totaled a revised $560 billion, compared with the prior estimate of $558 billion.

The trade report could also lower expectations for first-quarter GDP growth: Before the report, the consensus of economists surveyed by MarketWatch had been that growth for the first three months of the year would decelerate to a 1.9 percent annual rate.

After the data were released, economists at Goldman Sachs cut their estimate for first-quarter GDP to 1.8 percent growth from a previous estimate of a 2 percent rate.

Analysts at JPMorgan Chase also reduced their first-quarter forecast, to 1.5 percent GDP growth from the 2 percent previously projected.

Economists are worried that the U.S. will once again become the only engine of growth for the world economy.

“The U.S. will suck in goods from abroad while others don’t grow and U.S. exporters will face stagnant conditions overseas, stymieing efforts to make inroads,” said Robert Brusca, chief economist at FAO Economics, in a note to clients.

But Bob Baur, chief global economist at Principal Global Investors, noted that the trade deficit is only 3.7 percent of U.S. GDP, well below the peak of 5.6 percent in 2006.

“I don’t see (the trade deficit) going back to 6 percent of GDP,” especially with a new trend of companies relocating plants back in the U.S. from China, Baur said in an interview.

The U.S. trade deficit with the European Union bumped up to $8.5 billion in January from $5.6 billion a year ago.

Economists believe a recession in Europe will mean that U.S. exports may struggle in 2012. At the same time, Europe will seek to send more exports to the U.S.

And the trade gap with China continues to expand after setting a new annual record in 2011.

The U.S. trade deficit with China widened to $26.0 billion in January from $23.3 billion in the same month the year before.

Economists prefer to compare country-specific trade data on an annual basis because the data are not adjusted for seasonal changes.

In a separate report Friday, the Labor Department said the economy added 227,000 jobs in January. The U.S. unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent.

Imports advanced 2.1 percent in January, the third straight monthly increase, to a new record high. Exports rose almost 1.5 percent, the second straight monthly gain.

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