A tugboat helps guide a ship loaded with freight containers as it approaches… (Tim Rue / Bloomberg )
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. trade picture dimmed at the start of this year as exports fell back and American imports rose more than most expected. On both sides, it was all about oil.
The result was a sizable widening of the trade deficit in January, to a seasonally adjusted $44.4 billion from a revised $38.1 billion in December, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Analysts on average had forecast a smaller trade imbalance of about $42.5 billion for the month.
On an inflation-adjusted basis, the January deficit was an even bigger $48 billion, which if it continues will put additional strain on a domestic economy already burdened by higher payroll taxes and fiscal cuts under the so-called sequestration.
The January trade report showed that even though the U.S. may be on the path to energy independence one day -- given the country's trove of shale gas reserves and drilling techniques -- the American economy remains very much dependent on foreign petroleum.
Total U.S. imports of goods and services jumped 1.8% in January from the pevious month, seasonally adjusted, and that was entirely due to increases in crude oil and other petroleum-related products.
U.S. exports, meanwhile, fell 1.2% in January after surging 2.1% in the previous month. Here also the drop was related largely to energy; the U.S. shipped less fuel oil and other industrial supplies. American exports of other major categories, including farm items, cars and capital goods such as industrial machines, rose a tiny bit over the month.
The U.S. merchandise trade deficit with Europe rose to $9.7 billion in January from $9.3 billion in December. Those figures are not seasonally adjusted, but American exports to Europe, where many countries are in recession, were down about 5% in January compared with a year earlier.
America's trade shortfall with China widened to $27.8 billion in January, from $24.5 billion in December and $26 billion in January 2012. Making its own seasonal adjustments, Capital Economics said that it appears that the bilateral trade deficit with China hit a new record in January.
Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, cautioned against reading too much into monthly data that can be volatile and especially Chinese trade flows around the Lunar New Year holiday season. Still, he said, "at face value it doesn't suggest that onshoring" -- bringing back manufacturing from overseas to the U.S. -- "is gaining much traction."
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