The U.S. trade deficit swelled to a record $68.5 billion in January, as America’s ravenous appetite for foreign goods hit new heights and overpowered record exports, a government report Thursday showed.
The monthly trade gap widened 5.3% from a revised estimate of $65.1 billion in December and surprised Wall Street analysts who had forecast less of a surge.
It prompted renewed calls for government action -- including tougher enforcement of U.S. trade laws and a surcharge on manufactured goods imports -- to narrow the gap.
The January trade gap followed the record annual trade deficit of $723.6 billion in 2005.
Another annual record of more than $800 billion would be set in 2006 if the trade gap continued to run at the pace set in the first month of the year.
The January gap was “little short of a disaster” that could trim U.S. economic growth in the first quarter if it remains as large in coming months, said Paul Ashworth, senior international economist at Capital Economics.
Economists estimated that economic growth could be trimmed as much as 1 percentage point if the trade gap does not narrow.
U.S. imports rose 3.5% in January to a new high of $182.9 billion, as American companies and consumers lapped up record volumes of foreign goods in categories including food, animal feed, beverages, autos and auto parts.
High prices for imported oil, which increased more than 4% in January to $51.93 per barrel, helped push the trade gap to a new high. The United States ran an $8.4-billion deficit with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, growing 11.6% from December.
However, many analysts focused on the trade gap for non-petroleum goods, which was a record $49.6 billion.
“You can’t blame it all on energy because the trade deficit excluding petroleum rose faster than the overall deficit. The main culprit once again continues to be that imports are growing faster than exports,” said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at Spencer Clarke in New York.
The monthly trade gap with China widened 9.9% to $17.9 billion in January as U.S. exports to that country slipped and imports grew.
In a sign of improved economic growth overseas, U.S. exports increased in January to a record $114.4 billion, up 2.5% from the previous month. The export rise was led by record shipments of industrial supplies and materials, capital goods, and auto and auto parts.
Separately, a Labor Department report showed the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week to 303,000, the highest level since the start of the year, from 295,000 the previous week. Economists had expected claims to fall to 290,000.