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US trade gap widens as oil imports rebound

A container ship sits at a dock at the Port of Los Angeles on March 1, 2013
A container ship sits at a dock at the Port of Los Angeles on March 1, 2013. The US trade deficit widened in January after a decline in December.

The US trade deficit swung wider in January as oil imports rebounded, government data released Thursday showed in a report suggesting slower economic growth in the first quarter.

The Commerce Department said the trade gap rose to $44.4 billion in January, up from a revised $38.1 billion in December.

"Not a good way to start the year and so far, it looks like trade will subtract from growth," said economist Jennifer Lee of BMO Capital Markets.

Exports fell by 1.2 percent to $184.5 billion, led by declines in exports of industrial supplies and materials.

Total imports jumped by 1.8 percent to $228.9 billion. The increase included gains in imports of capital goods, foods and beverages, and autos and automotive equipment.

The January shortfall came in larger than the average analyst estimate of $43.0 billion and underscored a widening trend.

The three-month moving average of the US trade gap was $43.6 billion, up from the rolling average of $42.8 billion in December.

The US imported a lot more oil in the first month of the year despite increased domestic production. Petroleum imports rose 12.3 percent from December.

Crude oil imports jumped 17 percent as the price per barrel eased 1.1 percent, according to data that was not seasonally adjusted.

As imports headed higher, China was a principal gainer. The politically sensitive trade gap with China ballooned 13.5 percent to $27.8 billion.

The deficit with Canada -- the biggest US trade partner, mainly due to imports of oil and gas -- grew to $4.9 billion, up sharply from $3.6 in December.

The trade deficit with the European Union was little changed at $8.6 billion.

"Looking through the monthly swings, the trend in both export and import growth has been one of positive but moderating growth following the initial post-recession rebound in trade flows," Barclays Research said.

The jump in imports, which subtracts from the government's gross domestic product data, weighed on prospects for first-quarter GDP growth.

The US economy has been struggling to maintain momentum after exiting severe recession in mid-2009 and grew at a pace of only 0.1 percent in the 2012 fourth quarter.