Trade deficit in US widens to largest in almost five years

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The United States chalked up its largest trade deficit since March 2012 as a jump in merchandise imports in January exceeded a smaller gain in shipments overseas.

The gap in goods and services trade increased by 9.6 per cent to US$48.5 billion (S$68.4 billion), Commerce Department figures showed yesterday.

The deterioration in January from the previous month reflected a 2.3 per cent gain in imports, the most since March 2015, and a 0.6 per cent pickup in exports.

Rising imports of consumer goods, capital equipment and motor vehicles reflect steady demand from American households and companies, with help from a stronger US dollar.

The wider deficit indicates trade, which subtracted 1.7 per cent from fourth-quarter growth, will weigh on the economy in early 2017.

Bloomberg survey estimates ranged from a trade deficit of US$43 billion to US$49.6 billion.

The Commerce Department left the shortfall for December at the initially reported US$44.3 billion.

The data also showed the merchandise trade gap with China, the world's second-biggest economy, widened to US$31.3 billion in January from US$27.8 billion on an unadjusted basis.

However, the trade deficit with Mexico narrowed to US$3.9 billion, the smallest since July 2015.

US shortfalls with those countries are a focus of the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has said he wants to negotiate better terms with trading partners to trim the gap and boost economic growth.

The US is seeking more "reciprocal" trade with other countries and trying to keep American production capacity out of foreign hands, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said at an economists' conference on Monday.

The Commerce Department's data showed imports increased to US$240.6 billion in January, also the highest since December 2014, from US$235.3 billion in the prior month.

Imports of automobiles and parts climbed to a record, while petroleum products were the highest in two years.

The value of imported capital equipment was the largest since April 2015. Exports increased to US$192.1 billion in January, the highest since December 2014.

The value of petroleum shipments overseas and automobiles picked up. The petroleum deficit was the biggest since July 2015.

After eliminating the influence of prices, which renders the numbers used to calculate gross domestic product, the trade deficit grew to US$65.3 billion in January from US$62 billion in the prior month.

Net exports in the fourth quarter subtracted the most from GDP since the second quarter of 2010, according to previously reported figures that showed the overall economy grew at a 1.9 per cent pace.