U.S. Merchandise-Trade Deficit Widens to Biggest on Record

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The U.S. merchandise-trade deficit widened to the biggest on record in February as imports dropped from an all-time high and exports retreated by a larger margin.

The deficit grew to $86.7 billion from a revised $84.6 billion in January, according to Commerce Department data released Friday. Economists in a Bloomberg survey had called for an $86 billion shortfall in February. Imports fell 1.4% to $216.9 billion, while exports decreased 3.8% to $130.1 billion, the first drop since May.

Demand from American companies and consumers has been propelling U.S. merchandise imports to record highs, overwhelming U.S. ports, even as exports remain sluggish. Freight rates have soared after a trade boom in the second half of last year caught container producers by surprise, leaving them to scramble to meet a surge in demand.

Inbound products have clogged the nation’s biggest ports, from Savannah, Georgia, on the East Coast to Los Angeles -- the biggest gateway for trade with Asia. And that was before a massive container ship blocked the Suez Canal, forcing carriers and other vessels to weigh costly and time-consuming voyages around Africa that threaten to destabilize the already fragile underpinnings of global trade.

Meanwhile, a global shortage of semiconductors has idled production at some auto plants and prompted President Joe Biden to direct his administration to address shortfalls in production of the chips as it reviews supply chains.

Overall, the value of U.S. exports plus imports dropped for the first time since May, declining to $347 billion in February, a reflection of supply-chain bottlenecks and semiconductor shortages.

Auto production slumped 8.3% in February, the largest fall since April and reflecting both a global shortage of semiconductors and the severe weather, Federal Reserve data showed last week.

Automotive-vehicle imports retreated 10.7%, the most since May, to $28.2 billion. Inward-bound shipments of consumer goods fell from January’s record figure, dropping 4.6% to $60.4 billion.

The report Friday also showed retail inventories were little changed from the prior month. Wholesale inventories rose 0.5%.

The trade picture will come into greater focus when the final report, which includes services, is released on April 7.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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