The nation's trade deficit swelled to a record $19.7 billion in March, according to a govermment report. As a result the first quarter economic growth rate may be revised downward.

Exports rose a modest 0.9%, but were overwhelmed by the 1.9% gain in the value of imports. Economists had expected this jump because of the rise in cost of imported oil, but nonoil imports were also up for the third straight month.

The monthly deficit may surge past $20 for April, but "will not rise so quickly for the rest of 1999," said Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics, Valhalla, N.Y. Merrill Lynch economist Stan Shipley said the GDP change may not be severe because of inventory accumulation and construction.

The monthly trade deficit with Japan rose to $6.5 billion in March, up from $5.3 billion in Feburary and the highest since October 1994.

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