US trade deficit shrinks as goods imports hit five-year low

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States trade deficit fell more than expected in March as imports of goods tumbled to their lowest level since 2010, a potential boost to first-quarter economic growth estimates that also hints at sluggish domestic demand.

The Commerce Department said on Wednesday the trade gap fell 13.9 per cent to US$40.4 billion (S$54.3 billion), the smallest since February 2015, also as exports fell.

February's trade deficit was revised slightly down to US$46.96 billion from the previously reported US$47.1 billion. When adjusted for inflation, the deficit declined to US$57.4 billion from US$63.2 billion in February.

The government reported last month that trade subtracted 0.34 percentage point from first-quarter gross domestic product, helping to hold down growth to an annual rate of 0.5 per cent. The smaller-than-forecast trade gap suggests that the advance GDP growth estimate could be bumped up when the government publishes its revised estimate later this month.

A strong dollar and soft global demand have hampered exports, but there are signs that some of the drag is starting to fade. The Institute for Supply Management reported on Monday that a gauge of export orders received by U.S. manufacturers rose in April for a second straight month, reaching its highest level since November 2014.

The dollar has weakened 3.8 per cent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners so far this year, which should improve the competitiveness of US-made goods on international markets. The greenback gained 20 per cent on a trade-weighted basis between June 2014 and December 2015.

In March exports of goods slipped 1.6 per cent to US$116.8 billion. Overall exports of goods and services fell 0.9 per cent to US$176.6 billion. Exports of food were the lowest since September 2010. Exports of industrial supplies and materials fell to a six-year low, while consumer goods exports were the lowest since March 2013.

Exports to the European Union surged 9.2 per cent, while goods shipped to Canada and Mexico jumped 10.9 per cent and 6.1 per cent, respectively. Exports to China climbed 11.2 per cent.

Imports of goods tumbled 4.3 per cent to US$175.3 billion, the smallest since December 2010. Weak imports potentially signal slackening domestic demand, but could also be related to ongoing efforts by businesses to reduce an inventory glut.

Lower oil prices and increased domestic energy production are also helping to keep the import bill in check.

In March, imports were held down by industrial supplies and materials imports which hit their lowest level since April 2004. Petroleum imports were the lowest since September 2002, even as oil prices rose to an average US$27.68 per barrel.

Imports from China fell to their lowest level in three years. With exports rising, the politically sensitive U.S.-China trade deficit declined 25.7 percent to US$20.9 billion in March.