- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

The U.S. trade deficit unexpectedly declined in January as both exports and imports fell, while the volume of imported crude oil dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade.

U.S. exports dipped for the first time in nine months, but imports fell more steeply, leading to a $2.6 billion drop in the trade deficit, which totaled $37.3 billion in January, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

“One month’s decline in trade volumes does not mean that the trade recovery is over,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight. “But it indicates that future gains will be less dramatic than in the second half of 2009.”

Overall, American exports fell just $0.5 billion (0.3 percent) to $142.7 billion, following a 3.4 percent surge in December.

Except for December, January’s exports represented the highest total since October 2008, when U.S. exports were in free fall from their July 2008 record level of $164.4 billion to their cyclical nadir of $121.7 billion in April 2009. January’s exports were down 13 percent from that all-time peak.

Imports fell more steeply than exports, dropping $3.1 billion (1.7 percent) in January to $180 billion. In December, however, imports jumped $8.6 billion.

Compared to their record peak of $229.3 billion reached in July 2008, when the average price of imported crude oil hit nearly $125 per barrel, total imports for January were down 22 percent.

The price of imported crude ticked up less than 1 percent, to an average of $73.89 per barrel in January. But that’s down more than 40 percent from its 2008 record peak. On the other hand, it’s up nearly 90 percent from a year ago, when imported crude cost less than $40.

As a result, gasoline prices have been rising. This week’s average national price of $2.80 per gallon is up more than $1 since early last year, and economists have been forecasting $3 a gallon gasoline prices soon.

The volume of imported crude oil plunged 11 percent in January, falling to fewer than 250,000 barrels per day and reaching its lowest level since February 1999. The nation’s crude-oil import bill fell more than $2 billion in January to $18.1 billion.

The politically sensitive trade deficit with China increased by $200 million to $18.3 billion as a surprising decline of $1.3 billion in imports was overwhelmed by a surprising $1.5 billion (18 percent) drop in exports to China.

“The signs of failure on the China trade front keep multiplying, most recently with the plunge in U.S. goods exports to this rapidly growing giant,” said Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, which represents mainly family-owned domestic manufacturing companies.

“Without rebalancing U.S.-China trade,” Mr. Tonelson warned, “U.S. factories will keep closing, and U.S. manufacturing workers will keep losing their jobs.”

Since the recession began in December 2007, manufacturing employment has plummeted by 2.2 million jobs, representing more than 25 percent of the 8.5 million private-sector jobs that have been lost so far.

Also on the jobs front, the Labor Department reported Thursday that first-time claims for unemployment benefits decreased last week by 6,000 to 462,000.

“The U.S. labor market still displays little evidence of sustained recovery,” said Andrew Gledhill of Moody’s Economy.com. “Employment growth still is not at hand.”

President Obama will travel to New Zealand next week, where he will begin negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement with New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Chile and Peru.

On Thursday, the president issued an executive order formalizing the National Export Initiative to further his goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years in part “by working to remove trade barriers abroad.” The executive order did not mention the pending free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, which have been languishing in Congress since they were signed by the Bush administration.

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