Trade deficit widens in February

WASHINGTON — The U.S. trade deficit worsened in February as imports swelled to meet American consumers' renewed appetite for electronics, toys, apparel and other goods from abroad.

The $39.7 billion deficit was up from a revised $37 billion in January, according to figures released Tuesday by the Commerce Department.

U.S. imports climbed 1.7 percent to $182.9 billion in February. American purchases of foreign-made consumer goods were particularly strong, jumping 3.1 percent from January to $38.1 billion.

Imports of petroleum and computers also posted significant gains.

American exports of goods and services also rose in February, to $143.2 billion from $142.9 billion the month before. Increases were seen in American-produced cars and capital goods such as engines and semiconductors.

Some economists viewed the latest report as evidence that economies around the world are strengthening. But as global trading activity resumes after the sharp fall during the recession, American economists and political leaders are concerned about a return to a familiar pattern of soaring trade deficits, which drags down overall economic growth and domestic employment.

"The trick here is to reduce the trade deficit . . . and that's just not happening," said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland professor and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.

"I expect the deficit to get worse because the economy is recovering moderately and imports are growing faster than exports."

If that pattern continues, Morici and other economists warn that more domestic jobs will be lost. Although rising imports can boost employment at ports, warehouses and trucking companies, deficits can supplant domestic production, leading to excess capacity and job cuts at factories that trickle down to suppliers and other service businesses.

Of particular concern is the worsening trade picture in advanced-technology goods. In the first two months of this year, the U.S. exported $41.1 billion worth of technology goods but imported $48.2 billion of such products. The resulting $7.1 billion deficit — mainly in information and communications products — was more than double the shortfall in January and February of 2009.

The Obama administration is trying to support American exporters by helping them with financing and marketing, among other initiatives. But some lawmakers, economists and manufacturers argue that China's undervalued currency remains a major barrier to American competitiveness.

Tuesday's report showed that the U.S. trade deficit with China narrowed 9.8 percent in February from a year earlier to $16.5 billion.