The U.S. trade deficit hit its widest point in more than a year in March, with a jump in imports swamping a rise in exports as the global economy strengthened, a government report showed on Wednesday.

The trade gap increased 2.5 percent to $40.4 billion, the largest since December 2008, up slightly from a revised estimate of $39.4 billion for February.

Wall Street analysts surveyed before the report had expected a smaller increase to $40.1 billion.

The steadily rising trade gap, after falling sharply in 2009, shows the difficulty of curbing global imbalances as world economic recovery takes hold and countries return to old spending and savings habits.

But with sovereign debt problems in Europe raising fears of a renewed global crisis, Pierre Ellis, senior economist with Decision Economics in New York, said the United States could take solace in the trade report.

Heading into a riskier period for the world economy, strong exports put us on a better footing, Ellis said.

U.S. stocks opened higher on Wednesday while Treasury debt prices held onto losses after the report.

The data is generally in line with expectations, said Joe Manimbo, market analyst with Travelex Global Business Payments in Washington, adding it would have little impact on currency values.

Both U.S. imports and exports were the highest since October 2008, when world trade was in the early stage of a free fall caused by the global financial crisis.

Combined U.S. imports of goods and services rose 3.1 percent in March to $188.3 billion, as the average price for imported oil rose to $74.32 per barrel, the highest since October 2008.

Imports of goods alone were also the highest since October 2008, as were individual categories for foods, feeds and beverages, industrial supplies and materials and consumer goods.

Meanwhile, a separate report from the Mortgage Bankers Association showed U.S. mortgage applications rose last week, reflecting a jump in demand for home refinancing loans as interest rates reached their lowest level since mid-March.

U.S. exports of goods and services increased 3.2 percent in March to $147.9 billion, led by gains for consumer goods and industrial supplies and materials. U.S. goods exports were $102.7 billion.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Andrea Ricci)