Trade Gap Widens on Oil Prices, Import Demand

Tuesday, 16 Mar 2010 01:41 PM

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. trade deficit widened in June to $27.0 billion, as goods imports increased for the first time in 11 months on the back of higher oil prices, a Commerce Department report said on Wednesday.

Analysts surveyed before the report had expected the monthly trade gap to widen to around $28.5 billion. But stronger foreign demand for U.S. goods and services offset some of the impact of the oil price increase on the deficit.

Both U.S. exports and imports remained sharply below year-ago levels, before the global financial crisis began wreaking a savage toll on international trade.

The trade gap for the first six months of 2009 totaled nearly $173 billion, down more than 50 percent from the same period last year.

At the current pace, the U.S. trade deficit for all of 2009 would be the lowest since $265 billion in 1999.

There was little if any market reaction to the data, even though the trade gap was narrower than expected.

"Unlike 1987, it's not the market-moving number it once was. Investors are trying to catch their breath from the run (in stock prices) we've seen over the past month and a half," said Steve Goldman, market strategist at Weeden & Co in Greenwich, Connecticut.

U.S. imports of goods and services rose 2.3 percent in June to $152.8 billion, the highest since January. Higher oil prices accounted for much of the increase, and imports of consumer products fell to the lowest since November 2005.

Although the smaller trade deficit is positive for second-quarter economic growth, the drop in consumer goods imports suggests "the positive GDP impact of the report is masking the strain on the consumer and near-term growth potential," said Ian Lyngen, senior government bond strategist at CRT Capital Group in Stamford, Connecticut.

OIL PRICE UP

The average price for imported oil rose for the fourth straight month to $59.17 per barrel, helping to widen the U.S. trade gap with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to the highest since October 2008.

U.S. exports rose 2.0 percent in June to $125.8 billion, led by stronger foreign demand for industrial supplies and materials and capital goods.

Exports of foods, feeds and beverages were the highest since October 2008.

The politically sensitive U.S. trade gap with China widened to $18.43 billion, the largest with any single country. Imports from China were $23.98 billion in June, while U.S. exports to that country totaled $5.55 billion.

Other data on Wednesday showed U.S. mortgage applications fell last week, reflecting a drop in demand for home refinancing loans as interest rates soared to their highest levels since June.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted index of mortgage applications, which includes both purchase and refinance loans, for the week ended August 7 decreased 3.5 percent.

The report showed that while refinancings were down sharply, applications for loans to buy homes, which are less sensitive to interest rates than refinancings and are an early indicator of sales, rose slightly.

Still, the tepid interest in purchase loans does not bode well for the hard-hit U.S. housing market, which has been showing signs of stabilization.

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