The U.S. trade deficit widened more than expected in March, as rising oil prices helped push imports nearly 5 percent higher while exports leapt to a new record, 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.
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. Oil prices continued to rise in April, but have receded in recent weeks back to early March levels.
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.
It's a pretty good number because of the exports and is an indication of domestic demand. Most in the imports come from higher oil prices, which doesn't help GDP, said Pierre Ellis, senior global economist at Decision Economics in New York.
However, Ellis said the trade data could provide ammunition for members of the Federal Reserve board that want to tighten monetary policy to curb the threat of inflation.
This is a reassurance on growth, which is what the hawkish members of the Fed are looking for. This is a piece of evidence for them to consider removing accommodation before things start overheating a couple of years down the road, he said.
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.
This report shows there is pretty good demand for U.S. goods. the weak U.S. dollar is helping and that should support export growth, said Rudy Narvas, senior economist at Societe Generale in New York.
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.
China's own data this week showed it posted its biggest surplus in four months in April, as exports hit a record on stronger global demand.
U.S. and Chinese officials sparred over China's exchange rate policies during high-level talks this week in Washington.
The United States pressed for a faster rise in the yuan's value to help bring trade into balance, while China said it would continue exchange rate reform at its own pace.
Meanwhile, a separate industry group report showed applications for U.S. home mortgages surged last week at the fastest pace in two months as interest rates dropped for a fourth week in a row.
The Mortgage Bankers Association said its mortgage application index, which includes both refinancing and home purchase demand, jumped 8.2 percent last week. The index of loan requests for home purchases climbed 6.7 percent.
(Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York, Editing by Andrea Ricci)