US trade deficit widens to $50 billion in March

A container ship arrives at Yusen Terminals on Terminal Island at the Port of Los Angeles, January 30, 2019.

Mike Blake | Reuters

The U.S. goods and services deficit with its global trading partners widened slightly in March as demand for foreign goods buoyed imports, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

The trade deficit rose 1.5% from February to a seasonally adjusted $50 billion in March, the report said. Economists surveyed by Refinitiv expected the U.S. trade deficit in March to grow to $50.2 billion from a revised $49.3 billion in February.

Though the trade deficit widened in March, it remains below the recent December high. The trade gap ballooned to $59.9 billion at the end of 2018, which was the largest gap in 10 years.

On a year-to-date basis, the goods and services deficit decreased $5.8 billion, or 3.7%, from a year earlier; on a month-over-month basis, imports rose 1.1% to $261.97 billion, the Commerce Department said.

Much of the bump in U.S. imports came from energy and crude purchases, which rose by about $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, a 39% surge in soybean exports in March helped drive American exports up 1%.

The rise in soybean exports may be related to a decision by Chinese officials late last year to increase purchases following a productive meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Argentina.

As part that agreement, “China will agree to purchase a not yet agreed upon, but very substantial, amount of agricultural, energy, industrial, and other product from the United States to reduce the trade imbalance between our two countries. China has agreed to start purchasing agricultural product from our farmers immediately,” the White House said at the time.

Despite the rise in soybean exports in March, the latest trade data comes amid renewed concerns that heated trade negotiations between the U.S. and China may not be resolved as soon as hoped.

The U.S. last year slapped tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods at a 10% rate, prompting Beijing to introduce its own duties on American goods.

Trump took many on Wall Street by surprise on Sunday, when he announced that the U.S. tariffs would rise to 25% on Friday in light of attempts by the Chinese to renegotiate terms of the deal. China responded in kind on Wednesday, promising to take “necessary countermeasures” against the U.S. if Washington follows through on its threat. Wednesday night, Trump said China  “broke the deal.”

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