America’s trade deficit widened in February to a six-month high as an increase in imports exceeded a more modest pickup in shipments overseas.
The gap increased 2.6 percent to $47.1 billion from a revised $45.9 billion in January, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for a $46.2 billion February shortfall.
The gain in exports was just the first in five months and highlights the squeeze on American manufacturers from a stronger dollar that’s made U.S.-made goods less attractive in a weaker global marketplace. A third straight increase in the deficit indicates trade will weigh on first-quarter growth.
“American economic demand is stronger than abroad,” said David Sloan, senior economist at 4Cast Inc. in New York. Still-weak overseas growth in the months to come will mean a “slow and steady gradual increase in the deficit, which will be a modest drag on growth in the U.S.”
Estimates in the Bloomberg survey for the deficit ranged from $48.3 billion to $41.6 billion after a previously reported $45.7 billion January shortfall.
After eliminating the effects of price fluctuations, which generates the numbers used to calculate GDP, the trade deficit grew to $63.3 billion in February, the largest in nearly a year, from $61.8 billion a month earlier.
That figure exceeded the fourth-quarter average, showing trade is on pace to subtract from economic growth at the start of 2016.
Imports rose 1.3 percent to $225.1 billion from $222.2 billion in January. Purchases of pharmaceuticals increased by $1.3 billion, while demand for civilian aircraft climbed $442 million. U.S. companies also imported more toys, apparel, mobile phones and computers than in January.
While inbound shipments of foods and feeds were the highest on record, the total value of petroleum imports was the lowest since September 2002. The average cost of a barrel of imported crude oil was $27.48, the lowest since December 2003, while American refiners took receipt of fewer barrels in February than a month earlier.
As a result, the U.S. surplus with OPEC nations was the highest ever at $1.8 billion.
Exports rose 1 percent to $178.1 billion in February from $176.3 billion the prior month. Shipments from the U.S. of industrial supplies such as petroleum, chemicals and steel dropped to the lowest level since March 2010.
Weaker overseas economies also crimped demand for capital goods. Exports of such equipment, including aircraft and industrial machinery, were the lowest since November 2011.
Demand was especially tepid in Asia and South and Central America. U.S. exports to China declined to the lowest level since June 2011, while shipments to South and Central America were the weakest in six years.