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U.S. exports in April reach all-time high

WASHINGTON — Record U.S. exports in April tempered fears that the economic recovery was running off the rails, even though first-time claims for jobless benefits edged higher last week.

A Commerce Department report released Thursday showed the U.S. trade deficit narrowed unexpectedly in April as exports hit a new high and imports from Japan tumbled more than 25% after its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

The trade gap narrowed 6.7% from March to $43.7 billion even though oil prices hit their highest level since September 2008. The data suggested stronger second-quarter economic growth than economists had expected.

“A lot of forecasters, ourselves included, had lowered expectations for the second quarter, and this will reverse some of that reduction in expectations,” said David Resler, chief U.S. economist at Nomura Securities International in New York.

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Oil prices slid in May from April peaks but are creeping higher again after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries failed to agree Wednesday to increase production.

A second report from the Labor Department showed the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment aid unexpectedly edged higher last week, reinforcing a view that the job market recovery has stalled.

Initial claims for state jobless benefits increased 1,000 to 427,000. Economists had forecast claims to drop.

First-time claims have now been perched above the 400,000 mark for nine weeks in a row. Analysts normally associate a level below that with steady job growth.

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“It’s the same dismal trend continuing. It’s not getting worse, but it’s not getting better either,” said Keith Hembre, chief economist at Nuveen Asset Management in Minneapolis.

U.S. exports, buoyed by a weakening of the U.S. dollar, rose 1.3% to an all-time high of $175.6 billion.

Imports from Japan dropped $3 billion, the largest amount on record. U.S. auto and auto-parts imports from Japan and other suppliers fell $2.8 billion, partly reflecting supply-chain disruptions in the aftermath of the triple disaster.

Once those problems are worked through, many analysts expect the trade gap to widen again.

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The closely watched U.S. trade deficit with China jumped nearly 20% in April to $21.6 billion. It continues at a pace to exceed last year’s record of about $273 billion.


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