Strong Exports Help to Narrow Trade Deficit

The U.S. trade deficit narrowed more than expected in August to $57.6 billion, as the weak U.S. dollar and stronger growth overseas helped push exports to a record, a U.S. Commerce Department report showed on Thursday.

Wall Street analysts had pegged the August trade gap at $59 billion, down slightly from the previously reported figure of $59.25 billion for July, which the Commerce Department revised on Thursday to $59 billion.

The trade deficit might have narrowed further if not for record oil import prices. The non-petroleum trade gap totaled$40.2 billion, the lowest since $39.5 billion in May 2004. In contrast, the $24.3 billion petroleum trade deficit was the highest since $26 billion in August 2006.

The trade data and a separate government report showing that fewer Americans than expected filed new claims for jobless benefits in the latest week highlighted pockets of improvement in the U.S. economy and helped pushed government debt prices lower in early trading. The dollar pared losses.

Keith Hembre, chief economist at FAF Advisors in Minneapolis, said the August trade data could, if repeated in September, add 1 percent to third-quarter U.S. economic growth, "bringing it to roughly 3 percent."

The narrower trade gap "stems from a combination of domestic weakness and strength abroad. It's a material slowing of import growth. You have pretty robust export growth. It does provide support for the economy when domestic conditions are on the slower side," Hembre said.

U.S. exports of goods and services rose for the sixth consecutive month to a record $138.3 billion, led by record shipments in several categories, including overall goods; overall services; foods, feeds and beverages; industrial supplies and materials; and consumer goods.

Exports to China set a record at $5.9 billion, helping to trim the politically sensitive trade gap with that country to $22.5 billion in August, down 5.4 percent from July.

U.S. imports fell slightly to $195.9 billion from the record set in July, while the average price for imported oil jumped to a record $68.09 per barrel.

Imports from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries set a record at $15.9 billion, and the value of overall petroleum imports hit $27.5 billion, the highest since the August 2006 tally of $28.6 billion.

The U.S. trade deficit with OPEC also set a record, but so did U.S. exports to those countries.

Imports of advanced technology products, services, capital goods and foods, feeds and beverages set records in August, as did imports from Germany and Mexico.