- Associated Press - Thursday, September 16, 2010

Americans’ stronger appetites for imported goods, especially cars and computers, lifted the broadest measure of the U.S. trade deficit in the second quarter to its highest point since late 2008.

The current account trade deficit grew to $123.3 billion in the April-to-June period, a 12.9 percent increase from the first quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. It marked the fourth straight quarter that the deficit has increased. That could be viewed as a healing sign for the U.S. economy as Americans slowly regain their appetite to spend.

“We generally view this widening as a necessary consequence of the economic recovery since it largely reflects the resumption of trade flows resulting from increased demand both at home and abroad,” said Nicholas Tenev, economist at Barclays Capital.

The current account is the broadest measure of trade because it tracks the flow of goods and services as well as investments between the United States and other countries.

In other economic news, the government also reported that unemployment claims dropped for the third time in four weeks and wholesale inflation remained tame, adding to evidence that the economy is gradually improving.

New claims for jobless benefits fell by 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 450,000, and the lowest level in two months, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Claims have fallen by 11 percent since mid-August, after jumping to 504,000 in the week ending Aug. 14. The decline indicates layoffs are easing, even as the pace of economic growth has slowed since earlier this year.

“This is a pleasant surprise,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients. “We thought last week’s drop in claims would prove temporary.”

In a separate report, the Labor Department said wholesale prices, which measure price changes before they reach the consumer, rose 0.4 percent in August after rising 0.2 percent in July.

But excluding food and energy costs, so-called “core” producer prices were relatively flat. They rose just 0.1 percent and are up 1.3 percent in the past year. That indicates the weak economy is keeping inflation in check.

But in a more troubling sign, new foreclosure data revealed that lenders took back more homes in August than in any month since the start of the U.S. mortgage crisis three years ago.

Foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc. says 95,364 homes were repossessed by lenders last month. That’s an increase of 25 percent from the same month last year and up 3 percent from July’s tally. The previous high was in May.

On the trade front, the Commerce Department said that exports did rise in the second quarter, but imports rose faster, contributing to the wider trade gap.

Exports of U.S.-made goods to other countries totaled $316.1 billion, a 3.4 percent rise from the first three months of the year. Industrial supplies and materials — including petroleum products and metals — factored into the gain.

Imports grew to $485.7 billion in the quarter, up 6.3 percent from the prior period. That reflected stronger demand for cars, computer as well as pickups in other manufactured consumer goods.

To help boost the economy and job creation, the Obama administration wants to double sales of U.S. exports in five years. It’s an ambitious goal, especially given trade tensions between the United States and China, which offers a huge market to U.S. companies to sell their goods.

“America is going to bat as a stronger partner and a better advocate for our businesses abroad,” President Obama said Thursday at a meeting with his Export Council. “We’re increasing trade missions. We’re removing barriers to help businesses gain a foothold in new markets. We’re increasing export financing for small- and medium-sized businesses.”

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