US trade deficit expected to be unchanged in February

Economic IndicatorsAssociated Press

The Commerce Department reports on the February U.S. trade deficit at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Thursday.

GAP STAYS PUT: Economists that the trade deficit was unchanged at $41.8 billion in February, according to a survey by data provider FactSet. The trade deficit dropped 8.3 percent in January from December. Both imports and exports fell in December. Imports likely fell due to a since-resolved labor dispute that interrupted shipping at West Coast ports and falling oil prices that made petroleum cheaper. At the same time, exports fell because the strengthening dollar has made American-made goods more expensive overseas.

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EXPORTS AND IMPORTS: Imports account for roughly 16 percent of gross domestic product, while exports account for 13 percent of GDP, according to analysts at Bank of America. The resulting trade deficit — which totaled $505 billion last year — represents roughly 3 percent of GDP and causes a drag on overall growth.

The dollar has risen in value against the euro and other currencies in recent months, constraining exports.

But the disruptions at West Coast ports might have an equally significant impact. Those ports manage roughly 20 percent of U.S. imports, goods that were unable to come to market. Just 10 percent of U.S. exports flow through the same ports.

Economists expect the deficit to widen further in 2015, as continued growth in the United States increases imports and a stronger dollar reduces exports.

The politically sensitive deficit with China set another record last year, surging 23.9 percent to $342.6 billion. That constant gap has created pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to take tougher actions against what critics see as China's unfair trade practices. U.S. manufacturers say that China is manipulating its currency to keep it artificially low against the dollar.

Yet a domestic energy boom has kept the deficit in check.

Not only have oil costs plunged since June, but the U.S. production made possible by fracking has reduced dependence on foreign oil. For 2014, petroleum imports fell 9.6 percent to $334.1 billion, the lowest level since 2009.