Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON - The U.S. trade deficit widened to a record in September as energy prices surged and imports of consumer goods reached a new high, government statistics showed.

The $34.3 billion shortfall in goods and services trade came after a gap of $29.8 billion in August that had been the narrowest in four months.

The numbers suggest little slowdown in U.S. demand for foreign-made clothing and electronics goods such as digital videodisc players. Imports of natural gas and heating oil also rose. The dollar has risen 12% this year against a trade-weighted mix of the currencies of its major trading partners, boosting consumers' buying power. The dollar's strength also means U.S.-made goods are more expensive for overseas buyers.

"America's appetite for cheap imported goods continues," said Chris Rupkey, an economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd. in New York. "Much to the chagrin of U.S. business, these goods continue to stream to our shores, making it impossible for them to raise their prices in order to firm up their sagging profit margins."

Imports rose 3.1% in September, to a record $126.6 billion, and the trade gaps with China, Canada, and Mexico all set records. A 25.7% jump in civilian aircraft imports contributed to the rise.

Exports fell 0.7%, to $92.4 billion, as weaker demand for automobiles and auto parts, foods and consumer goods offset increases for semiconductors, civilian aircraft, aircraft engines, and other goods. Exports were still the second-highest for a single month, after August's shipments worth $92.9 billion.

The return to a record deficit at the end of the third quarter also suggested that the economy grew more slowly than previously reported. An annual growth rate of 2.3% is possible, especially when slower inventory growth is factored in, analysts said. The Commerce Department has previously estimated growth at 2.7% in the July-September quarter, compared with 5.6% in the second.

Through September, the trade deficit totaled $270.2 billion, up from $188.7 billion in the first nine months of 1999, according to the Commerce Department. The September deficit put the annual shortfall on track to reach a record $360 billion, compared with the previous high of $265 billion in 1999.

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