Trade Deficit Widens; Weakness Abroad Fuels Drop in Exports

Asia-Pacific Trade Deal
Manuel Valdes/AP
By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. trade deficit widened in May, fueled by a drop in exports that could heighten concerns over weak overseas demand and a strong U.S. dollar.

The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that the trade gap grew $1.2 billion to $41.9 billion. That was less than the $42.6 billion deficit expected by analysts and suggests Wall Street economists may slightly raise their forecasts for economic growth in the second quarter.

But the drop in exports in May highlights a change in the tenor of economic growth since the United States exited the 2007-2009 recession. The economy relied more on export-led industries such as manufacturing early in the recovery, but growth is increasingly coming from domestic drivers like construction and services as the economic cycle matures.

Exports fell $1.5 billion, or 0.8 percent, to $188.6 billion in May, led by a drop in overseas sales of U.S.-made capital goods. Imports fell by about $300 million, or 0.1 percent, to $230.5 billion.

Prices for U.S. Treasuries rose after the data, while U.S. stock index futures were unchanged. The dollar gained against a basket of currencies.

Since the middle of last year when the Federal Reserve made clear it was planning to raise interest rates to keep the economy from eventually overheating, the dollar has strengthened, making U.S. exports less competitive.

Since that time, Europe's economy also has been on shaky ground and the European Central Bank has eased monetary policy, causing the euro to weaken against the dollar. European policymakers are currently fighting a debt crisis in Greece that threatens to rip apart the continent's monetary union.

Exports of goods to Germany fell 6 percent in May from the prior month, according to non-seasonally adjusted figures. Sales fell 4.2 percent to France, 2.1 percent to Mexico and 3 percent to Japan.

The U.S. economy contracted at a 0.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter, hit by bad weather, a strong dollar, spending cuts in the energy sector and disruptions at West Coast ports.

Other economic data, including figures on hiring and consumer spending, have pointed to a rebound during the second quarter, and a firming domestic economy could encourage the Fed to raise rates later this year.

In May, the drop in imports came as purchases from China rose 9.5 percent. That could fan further criticism from U.S. manufacturers that Chinese firms are using a cheap currency and unfair subsidies to gain market share in America.

At the same time, U.S. net imports of oil fell to $5.8 billion in May, the lowest level since 2002.

9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
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Trade Deficit Widens; Weakness Abroad Fuels Drop in Exports
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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