Trade Gap in U.S. Narrows on Lowest Oil Imports in a Decade

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The U.S. trade gap shrank in September to a seven-month low, reflecting declining purchases of foreign fuel as the world’s largest economy continued its drive toward energy independence.

The deficit decreased 15 percent to $40.8 billion from a revised $48 billion in August, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday in Washington. The value of imported petroleum fell to the lowest level in more than a decade, and China replaced Canada as America’s top trading partner.

The narrowing meant trade had little impact on the economy in the third quarter, easing concern that slower global growth and a stronger dollar would cause exports to slump, and growing demand from American consumers would swell imports. An increase in exports, however, was led by volatile categories such as food and artwork, indicating the gain could be reversed in coming months.

“It does suggest that the trade deficit didn’t really widen much at all in the third quarter,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Financial Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida, whose forecast was among the closest in the Bloomberg survey. While the dollar has stabilized, “we know trade decisions don’t really turn on a dime, so it may take a while before we see the full impact.”

The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of 67 economists called for a $41 billion shortfall, with estimates ranging from $39 billion to $49 billion.

The reading was in line with the advance report on merchandise trade issued last week, indicating the report will have little influence on gross domestic product when those figures are revised at the end of the month.

Imports Fall

Imports decreased 1.8 percent to $228.7 billion from $233 billion in August. In addition to petroleum, the drop reflected slower sales for civilian aircraft, telecommunications equipment and mobile phones.

Conversely, demand for goods and services from China increased, driving the trade gap with the world’s second-biggest economy to a record $36.3 billion.

Total trade in goods with China reached $441.6 billion this year through September, surpassing the $438.1 billion balance with Canada -- the first time that’s happened in data going back to 1985, according to the Commerce Department.

The U.S. imported $13.8 billion worth of petroleum from around the world, the least since May 2004, partly reflecting a slump in prices. The trade shortfall excluding crude and oil products narrowed to $35.2 billion in September from $41.1 billion.

Exports rose 1.6 percent to $187.9 billion in September. The increase in food shipments was paced by sales of soybeans.

After eliminating the effects of price fluctuations, which generates the numbers used to calculate GDP, the trade deficit narrowed to $57.2 billion in September from $63 billion the previous month.

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