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March 7, 2018 9:45 AM, EST
US Trade Gap Widens to Post-Recession High
Aaron Showalter/Bloomberg News

The U.S. trade deficit widened more than forecast in January to a post-recession high, adding to figures cited by President Donald Trump as evidence of American weakness while he brings the nation to the brink of a trade war.

The gap increased 5% to $56.6 billion, the biggest since October 2008, from a revised $53.9 billion in the prior month, Commerce Department data showed March 7. Exports fell 1.3% from December, the most in more than a year, while imports were little changed.

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From a current economic standpoint, the widening deficit indicates trade may again be a drag on the pace of first-quarter expansion. The gap has increased in recent months as steady household spending and business investment boost imports. Improving global growth and a weaker dollar have been supporting overseas sales of American-made goods, though not enough to outpace inbound shipments.

From a political standpoint, however, the gap has formed a statistical backdrop first to Trump’s 2016 election campaign and now to his planned tariffs on steel and aluminum. The president has opened multiple fronts in trade battles, from targeting strategic rival China to angering allies like Canada and EU with threats to erect fresh barriers.

The European Union is preparing retaliatory levies on products including motorcycles, jeans and bourbon whiskey if Trump follows through on his threat. A full-blown trade war would risk blunting the effects of the president’s policies such as tax cuts and reduced regulation, aimed at boosting U.S. growth.

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“The United States has been taken advantage of by other countries, both friendly and not so friendly, for many, many decades,” Trump said March 6 when asked if he would push forward with the tariffs despite concerns from fellow Republicans. In an apparent reference to the full-year trade gap in goods, Trump said, “we have a trade deficit of $800 billion a year. And that’s not going to happen with me.”

Analyst Estimates

The median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a January trade deficit of $55 billion in goods and services.

Exports declined to $200.9 billion, led by civilian aircraft, oil and other industrial materials, according to the Commerce Department. At the same time, exports of consumer goods rose to a record $17.9 billion, while shipments of automotive vehicles and parts were the highest since July 2014.

Imports held at $257.5 billion, as petroleum imports rose to a three-year high while capital and consumer goods declined.

The report also showed the merchandise trade gap with China, the world’s second-biggest economy behind the U.S., widened in January to $36 billion, the highest since September 2015, on an unadjusted basis. The goods trade deficit with Canada hit a three-year high of $3.6 billion.

The trade figures provide a hint of how growth is shaping up in the first quarter, after trade was a substantial drag on the economy in the final three months of 2017. Net exports subtracted 1.13%age points from the annualized pace of gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter, which came in at 2.5%.

Trump, who ran on a campaign promise to level the playing field for American companies, said March 6 that the planned tariffs won’t apply to Canada and Mexico if the U.S. is able to “make a deal” with those countries as they renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Other Details

After eliminating the influence of prices, which renders the numbers used to calculate GDP, the merchandise trade deficit widened to $69.7 billion — the highest since August 2006 — from $68.5 billion in the prior month

Real petroleum trade gap widened; excluding petroleum, the real merchandise-trade shortfall narrowed to $68.5 billion from $69.5 billion

Imports, exports of services both rose to records in January

Exports and imports of goods account for about three-fourths of America’s total trade; the U.S. typically runs a deficit in merchandise trade and a surplus in services

With assistance by Jordan Yadoo