Rebound in imports points to sustained U.S. demand

The trade deficit in the U.S. widened in April from a more than three-year low, reflecting a rebound in imports that points to sustained gains in consumer and business spending.

The gap grew by 8.5% to $40.3 billion from a $37.1 billion shortfall in March that was smaller than previously estimated, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of 68 economists called for the deficit to grow to $41.1 billion. Imports climbed by 2.4%, twice the increase in exports.

The pickup in purchases of foreign-made mobile phones, automobiles and computers indicates growing demand by American households and businesses at the start of the quarter that will help the world’s largest weather government cutbacks. Record U.S. exports of autos and parts and consumer goods also show global growth is stabilizing.

“U.S. consumers are doing their part for the global economy,” said Millan Mulraine, an economist at TD Securities USA LLC in New York, who projected the deficit would grow to $40 billion. “Things are relatively soft in the U.S. this quarter, but it certainly isn’t the level of softness that had been expected a few months ago.”

Stocks fluctuated between gains and losses as investors gauged prospects for economic growth and central bank stimulus. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was little changed at 1,640.7 at 11:25 a.m. in New York.

Elsewhere today, U.K. construction unexpectedly grew in May and retail sales increased, adding to indications of a tentative economic recovery.

Europe’s Economy

“Recent reports suggest Europe is past the worst for now,” Mulraine said. “It indicates the beginning of stabilization in global demand.”

Bloomberg survey estimates for the trade gap ranged from deficits of $36.7 billion to $43.5 billion. The March shortfall, which was revised from an initially reported $38.8 billion, was the smallest since October 2009. The Commerce Department today issued its annual revisions, affecting data back to 1999.

Imports grew to $227.7 billion from $222.3 billion in March. Purchases of foreign-made autos and parts climbed by $1.28 billion, while demand for mobile phones rose by $816 million. In addition, American purchases of computers shot up by $429 million and rose by $330 million for telecommunications gear.

The import total would have been even larger excluding a pullback in oil demand. U.S. petroleum purchases of $29.6 billion were the lowest since November 2010.

Excluding petroleum, the trade shortfall grew to $20.6 billion in April from $16.7 billion.

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