The U.S. trade deficit widened more than expected in March, as exports leapt to a new record but imports rose nearly 5 percent as oil prices jumped, a U.S. government report showed on Wednesday.
The deficit rose to $48.2 billion, the widest since June 2010, from a slightly downwardly revised $45.4 billion in February. Analysts surveyed before the report had pegged the March trade gap at $47.0 billion.
U.S. exports grew 4.6 percent in March to a record $172.7 billion, in the biggest month-to-month gain since March 1994. But imports grew 4.9 percent to $220.8 billion as the average price for imported oil hit $93.76 per barrel, the highest since September 2008.
The wider-than-expected trade gap could prompt analysts to trim their estimates of already weak first-quarter U.S. economic growth. But the rise in imports and exports also suggested strengthening U.S. and global demand as trade returns to pre-crisis levels.
Both U.S. goods and U.S. services exports set records in March, as did two sub-categories - foods, feeds and beverages and industrial supplies. U.S. exports to Canada and South and Central America also set records and exports to the European Union were the highest since July 2008.
U.S. imports were the highest since August 2008, just as the global financial crisis was beginning to bite into trade. Imports hit a record $232.1 billion in July 2008, before tumbling sharply over the next six months.
U.S. petroleum imports were also the highest since August 2008 and the U.S. petroleum trade deficit was the widest since October 2008.
The closely watched U.S. trade deficit with China narrowed slightly in March to $18.1 billion, as U.S. exports to that country grew faster than imports from the Asian giant.
However, the trade shortfall with China for the first quarter of 2011 totaled $60.2 billion, putting it on a pace to exceed last year's record of around $273 billion. (Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Andrea Ricci)