Strong dollar pushes US trade deficit higher

The US economy contracted 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2015, the Commerce Department said Friday, with the impact of a ports slowdown and cautious consumer spending worse than originally estimated (AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan)

Washington (AFP) - The US trade deficit expanded sharply in 2014 as the stronger dollar encouraged record imports from China and the European Union, Commerce Department data released Thursday showed.

The trade gap stood at $505 billion at year's end, growing six percent from 2013 despite the lowest quantity of crude oil imports since 1993.

In December alone, the trade deficit soared 17.1 percent to $46.6 billion as the country notched record consumer goods imports. It was the largest month-over-month increase, in dollar terms, on record.

For the whole year, the trade deficit widened as imports rose 3.4 percent to $2.85 billion, outstripping a 2.9 percent rise in exports to $2.35 billion.

In 2014 the world's largest economy benefited from its shale oil and natural gas boom and the steep decline in global oil prices. The US petroleum deficit shrank to its lowest level since 2004, at $188.4 billion.

The US also pumped out record exports of autos ($159.5 billion), capital goods ($550 billion) and consumer goods ($199.2 billion) last year.

Exports, which set a record for the fifth year in a row, were nearing the goal set by President Barack Obama to double exports in five years from 2010 to boost the economy's recovery from the Great Recession.

"Exports have played a critical role in America's economic comeback, and they continued to do so in 2014," said Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

"President Obama has set an ambitious trade agenda that will open up more markets to 'Made in America' goods and services, allowing our businesses to sell their products all over the world so they can expand and hire here at home."

But the US last year also had record imports of goods, at $2.3 trillion, helping to deepen the trade imbalance which in 2013 had shrunk by 11 percent.

- Strong dollar impact -

Economist Jay Morelock of FTN Financial noted the implicit effects of the strong dollar.

"The trade gap with China and the European Union widened to an all-time high as US consumers take advantage of the increased spending power of the greenback and a relatively healthy economy," he said in a client note.

The monthly deficit jumped by $6.8 billion from November to $46.6 billion. Exports fell $1.5 billion to $194.9 billion, while imports rose $5.3 billion, to $241.4 billion.

The politically sensitive goods deficit with China, by far the largest shortfall of any US trade partner, eased more than five percent in December but grew almost $24 billion year-over-year to stand at a record $342.6 billion.

The Obama administration has long criticized Beijing's policy of keeps its yuan currency undervalued, saying it gives the world's second-largest economy an unfair trade advantage.

The gap with the 28-nation EU widened a sharp 15.5 percent in December and ended the year at $141.1 billion.

Analysts said the surprisingly weak December trade data likely would force officials to pare the government's economic growth estimate for the fourth quarter.

The Commerce Department's first estimate of fourth-quarter gross domestic product growth, at an annual pace of 2.6 percent, could be shaved as much as half a point, said Jennifer Lee of BMO Analytics.

"Growth in the first half of this year will be weaker than previously projected, since demand is shifting away from goods produced in the US to goods produced abroad," Lee said.

But the surprising December surge in oil and oil products imports, despite the plunge in crude prices, may have distorted the monthly figures, analysts said.

Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics called the surge in the deficit in December "baffling," with the volume of oil imports surging 31.7 percent to "far above the underlying trend" and handily offsetting the drop in oil prices.

"We have to expect a big correction in January," he said.