WASHINGTON — The nation's trade deficit narrowed to $13.6 billion in March as a record amount of imports was offset by the largest export surge in six years, the Commerce Department reported today.
The trade shortfall was down from a $15.1-billion deficit in February.
Exports increased 12.9% in March, to $21.1 billion--the highest level since March, 1981, when they were $22.9 billion.
That 1981 figure was a record. Thus, the March export figures represented the second-best export performance ever.
Imports also rose in March, but at a slower pace--up 2.9% to $34.7 billion. Still, that was enough to bring imports to a record level, surpassing the $34.3 billion of last October.
'Good News on Trade Front'
President Reagan's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said "the nominal trade deficit is gradually declining," and pronounced "good news on the trade front."
But House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), noting that imports hit a record, called today's report "more chilling news."
"In spite of repeated rosy predictions and promises by the Administration of dramatic improvements in the trade balance arising from the falling dollar, the deficit for March was still $13.6 billion. That is the same level as January and February averaged out."
Analysts have long expected the steep decline in the value of the U.S. dollar against other major currencies to make U.S. goods more competitive abroad.
So far this year, the trade deficit has been running at an annual rate of $163.8 billion, suggesting a slight improvement over all of 1986, when the deficit was a record $166.3 billion.
European Gap Grows
The U.S. trade deficit shrank against Japan in March, to $4.9 billion from $5.1 billion in the previous month. However, the deficit with Japan, which reached nearly $60 billion last year, remained this nation's largest.
The trade gap with Canada also narrowed, to $1.5 billion from $1.9 billion the previous month.
But the trade deficit with Western Europe rose in the same period, to $2.5 billion from $1.9 billion last month.
The deficit with Western Europe included a $1.6-billion trading shortfall with West Germany, the largest trade gap ever with that nation. Sales of U.S.-manufactured goods overseas amounted to $15 billion in March, accounting for 80% of the increase in exports. A $300-million increase in the sale of U.S. computers and other office equipment paced the export surge.
Auto imports decreased in March from both Canada, down 10% to $956 million, and from Japan, down 15.5% to $1.4 billion. But auto imports from other countries increased 13.4%, reflecting the popularity of cars like the South Korean Hyundai.