WASHINGTON, April 13 (BSS/AFP) - The US trade gap shrank in February, driven by a drop in imports, mainly from China as it celebrated the lunar new year, according to Commerce Department data released yesterday.
The trade deficit fell to a seasonally adjusted $46 billion from $52.5 billion in January, and sharply below the average analyst estimate of $53 billion.
Imports dived 5.2 percent from January, the steepest monthly decline in three years, to $227.2 billion.
Sharp drops were seen not only in imports of industrial supplies and materials, down 2.3 percent, including a 17 percent dive in crude oil, but also in consumer goods, food and automobiles and parts.
"Much of the decline was concentrated in China, reflecting payback for an earlier acceleration in imports ahead of the Chinese New Year," said Aaron Smith at Moody's Analytics.
The lunar new year, which fell early this year on January 23, normally brings widespread shutdowns of factories across China as workers head home for up to two weeks.
Even so, this year, the holiday-related slowdown in exports from China, the United States's biggest source of imports, was more pronounced than in recent years.
US exports, meanwhile, edged up 0.1 percent, to $181.2 billion. Growth appears on track to reach President Barack Obama's 2009 goal of doubling exports by 2014.- The February improvement in the trade shortfall followed a sharply wider gap in January as imports surged that had raised concerns about a negative impact on first-quarter growth.
"These numbers are volatile month-over-month but even assuming partial rebounds in March it now seems trade will be less of a hit on Q1 growth than we previously expected," said Ian Shepherdson at High Frequency Economics.
"We feared a 1.3 percent drag; now (it) looks like -0.6 percent," he said estimating gross domestic product growth at an annual 2.7 percent rate for the first three months of the year.
The world's biggest economy, still recovering from the severe 2008-2009 recession amid high unemployment and a collapsed housing sector, grew 3.0 percent in the 2011 fourth quarter.
The February trade data by country, not adjusted for seasonal variations, showed the US trade gap shrank with its biggest trading partner, Canada, to $2.8 billion from $4.9 billion in January.
With China, the deficit stood at $19.4 billion, the lowest level since March 2011. In January the politically sensitive shortfall was $26.0 billion.
In February Obama took direct aim at China's huge trade surplus with the United States, ordering the creation of the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center to expedite unfair trade complaints from US business.
The trade gap with the 17-nation eurozone shrank to $5.8 billion from $7.6 billion in January.