Concerns about weak incomes weighed on consumer confidence in early February, but rising optimism over the jobs market should help to support spending and the broader economy.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan overall index of consumer sentiment was 72.5 in early February, data showed on Friday, down from 75.0 in January and below the reading of 74.5 expected in a Reuters poll of economists.

The pull-back in sentiment is rather surprising given that job creation has picked up, with employers adding 243,000 workers to their payrolls in January and the unemployment rate falling to a three-year low of 8.3 percent.

The survey respondents might have been reacting to higher prices at gasoline pumps more than anything else, said Cary Leahey, a senior economist at Decision Economics in New York.

The Conference Board's survey of consumer attitudes published last month also showed a fall in sentiment.

While households in the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey worried about weak incomes, they reported a record level of optimism about job prospects.

This pattern of responses - less favorable current assessments and more favorable prospects - is not surprising. It simply indicates that consumers find their current situation all the harder to bear when improvement is finally in sight, said survey director Richard Curtin said in a statement.

Other data showed the nation's trade deficit widened to $48.8 billion in December as goods imports climbed to the highest level since July 2008, just before the financial crisis caused world trade to plunge.

However, the gap was not as big as the government had anticipated when it made its advance estimates for fourth-quarter gross domestic product.

That, together with sturdy construction spending in December and rising wholesale inventories, suggest the fourth-quarter's preliminary growth pace of 2.8 percent could be raised to a 3.2 percent annual rate, economists said.

The improvement in both import and export demand can be seen as a positive development as it not only suggests that the U.S. economy is enjoying improved global demand for its products, but the improving U.S. economy is being reflected in growing appetite for foreign goods. said Millan Mulraine, senior macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.

The closely watched deficit with China last year soared to a record high $295.5 billion, underscoring a continuing irritant in the U.S.-China relationship ahead of top level talks next week.

U.S. exports grew slightly in December, with records set for petroleum, services and advance technology goods.

Traders shrugged off the reports, remaining focused on developments in Europe. U.S. stocks fell on news of a setback in Greek debt bailout talks, while U.S. Treasury bond prices rose. The dollar climbed against the euro.

For the year, the U.S. trade gap rose 11.6 percent to $558.0 billion, the largest since 2008.

Exports last year rose 14.5 percent to a record $2.1 trillion, keeping the United States on pace to meet President Barack Obama's goal of doubling exports in five years.

Imports grew 13.8 percent to a record $2.7 trillion, with records set in several categories.

Auto imports rose to the highest level since 2007 and petroleum was highest since 2008. The average price for imported oil in 2011 was a record high $99.78 per barrel.


The record trade deficit last year with China is certain to reinforce concerns in Congress about Beijing's currency and trade practices ahead of a meeting next week between Obama and the Asian giant's expected next leader, Vice President Xi Jinping.

U.S. exports to China jumped 13.1 percent to $103.9 billion. But that was overwhelmed by a 9.4 percent increase in imports from China, which pushed the tally to a record $399.3 billion.

Even as the U.S. trade shortfall with China grew, other data on Friday showed China's overall current account surplus shrank in 2011, offering Beijing fresh evidence to show critics of its currency policy that it is relying less on external demand.

However, a big import drop in January combined with a smaller export decline left China with the biggest trade surplus in six months, confounding expectations of a further narrowing.

Last year, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed legislation to pressure China to raise the value of its currency, but that bill hit a dead end in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Many lawmakers believe that China deliberately undervalues its currency to give its companies an unfair price advantage, contributing to the huge bilateral deficit.

The U.S. trade deficits with the European Union and Canada also expanded in 2011.

(Writing by Lucia Mutiknai and Doug Palmer; Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci)