US trade deficit edges lower in March

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US trade deficit drifted lower in March despite record imports from Mexico and a drop in total exports, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Rising oil import prices, which hit a near two-year record, helped fuel the trade deficit, which has become a central focus of the Trump administration's nationalist economic agenda.

The trade gap slipped 0.1 per cent in March to US$43.7 billion (S$60.9 billion), seasonally adjusted. Analysts had expected the deficit to rise by 1.4 per cent, according to a consensus forecast.

Total exports fell 0.9 per cent for the month to US$191 billion, the biggest drop since October. Imports were also down, falling 0.7 per cent to US$234.7 billion.

Imports from Mexico hit US$28.1 billion, their highest on record, pushing the deficit with the southern neighbor to its highest level in nearly 10 years.

President Donald Trump is poised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links Canada, Mexico and the United States, and has threatened to pull out unless the US gets a favorable deal. He has called NAFTA a "disaster". For the first three months of the year, the trade gap 7.5 per cent higher than the same period in 2016.

"This is a modest pleasant surprise," Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics said in a client note. "The advance data pointed to a small increase in the deficit." The flow of US goods and services to several trading partners criticized by the Trump administration were robust in the latest month.

Exports to the European Union and South Korea hit all-time monthly records at US$25.7 billion and US$4.4 billion respectively while exports to Germany were the highest in nearly nine years at US$5 billion.

But a four-year record for Japanese imports, valued at US$13.3 billion, saw the US deficit with that country hit its highest level since April 2008 at US$7.6 billion.

Monthly oil imports rose to their highest level in nearly four years at 260 million barrels, helping push the petroleum deficit to US$7.9 billion, its highest level since July 2015.

Production cuts agreed to last year by petroleum producing countries helped drive up the average import price to US$49.33, the highest since August 2015.

Mr Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics also noted that goods exports, excluding oil and aircraft, were up 7.7 per cent for the month, the best performance since October 2011.