Trade deficit narrows in April to $43.7 billion

American companies sold more computers, heavy machinery and telecommunications equipment in foreign markets in April, pushing exports to a record high. Imports declined, reflecting a big drop in auto imports from Japan caused by supply disruptions from the March earthquake and tsunami.

The U.S. trade deficit narrowed by 6.7 percent in April to $43.7 billion, the lowest level since December, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Exports of U.S. goods and services rose 1.3 percent to a record $175.6 billion. Imports dipped 0.4 percent to $219.2 billion as imports from Japan plunged 25.5 percent.

The trade deficit with China jumped 19.4 percent to $21.6 billion, a development likely to increase pressure to crack down on Chinese trade practices seen by U.S. critics as unfair to American workers.

So far this year, the deficit is running at an annual rate of $553.4 billion, up 10.6 percent from last year's deficit of $500 billion. Economists believe that the deficit will widen slightly this year but not act as a significant drag on the economy. A higher trade deficit subtracts from overall economic growth because it means more goods and services are being supplied by foreign workers rather than produced in the United States.

Paul Dale, an economist at Capital Economics, said he expected the April narrowing of the trade deficit to be reversed in coming months as Japan's factories get back to normal operations and resume shipping cars and auto parts to the United States. He said the recent boom in U.S. exports is not expected to last.

"The recent slowdown in global growth will soon take its toll on the growth of U.S. exports," Dale predicted.

For April, oil imports fell 5.5 percent to $36 billion as the volume of petroleum shipments 11.4 percent. That was enough to offset a rise in the average price of a barrel of crude oil, which jumped to $103.18 in April, an increase of $9.42 over the average price in March. That was the biggest one-month increase in nearly three years.

The weaker value of the dollar has made U.S. goods cheaper and thus more competitive in many overseas markets but U.S. manufacturers contend that China is keeping its currency undervalued against the dollar as a way of gaining trade advantages.

The Obama administration has been pressuring China to allow its currency to rise at a faster rate against the dollar. But last month, the administration once again refused to name Chin as a currency manipulator in a report it is required to submit to Congress every six months.