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U.S. trade deficit widens 4.3% to $52.6 billion in January

WASHINGTON — The U.S. trade deficit widened sharply in January, driven higher by record imports of autos, capital goods and food, government data showed.

The trade gap expanded 4.3% in January to $52.6 billion from $50.4 billion in December, the Commerce Department said Friday.

This is the largest monthly differential between imports and exports since October 2008 and came in much bigger than expected.

Analysts surveyed by MarketWatch had predicted that the deficit would reach $49 billion. The December deficit was revised from its prior estimate of $48.8 billion.

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The higher December deficit will subtract from economic growth in the final three months of the year, now estimated at a 3% rate of expansion in gross domestic product.

For all of 2011, the nation’s trade deficit totaled a revised $560 billion, compared with the prior estimate of $558 billion.

The trade report could also lower expectations for first-quarter GDP growth: Before the report, the consensus of economists surveyed by MarketWatch had been that growth for the first three months of the year would decelerate to a 1.9% annual rate.

After the data were released, economists at Goldman Sachs cut their estimate for first-quarter GDP to 1.8% growth from a previous estimate of a 2% rate.

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Analysts at JPMorgan Chase also reduced their first-quarter forecast, to 1.5% GDP growth from the 2% previously projected.

Economists are worried that the U.S. will once again become the only engine of growth for the world economy.

The U.S. trade deficit with the European Union bumped up to $8.5 billion in January from $5.6 billion a year earlier.

Economists believe a recession in Europe will mean that U.S. exports may struggle in 2012. At the same time, Europe will seek to send more exports to the U.S.

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And the trade gap with China continues to expand after setting a new annual record in 2011.

The U.S. trade deficit with China widened to $26 billion in January from $23.3 billion in the same month the year before.

Robb writes for MarketWatch.com/McClatchy.


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