WASHINGTON--The U.S. trade deficit swelled unexpectedly in July, the government reported yesterday, prompting analysts to predict that the international sector will continue to restrain growth in the third quarter.
The U.S. trade deficit, counting both goods and services, surged to $11 billion in July from $9 billion in June, the Commerce Department reported. Analysts on average had expected a total of about $9.5 billion.
The shortfall, which department officials said was the largest in two and a half years, sent the dollar lower on foreign exchange markets on renewed fears of a trade war between the United States and Japan. Bond prices in turn reacted and moved lower.
The United States has set a Sept. 30 deadline for reaching an agreement with Japan on access to telecommunications and other markets. Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown said yesterday he remained hopeful that an agreement will be reached.
"This number jolted me a little," said Robert Dederick, chief economist of Northern Trust Co. in Chicago.
With the U.S. economy growing faster than other industrialized nations', the U.S. trade deficit has grown during the last two years. But economists said before yesterday's report there were hopes that the trade gap would stabilize and stop acting as a drag on growth.
"The safest thing to say now is there will be little change in net exports," Dedcrick said.
Net exports, the change in exports minus the change in imports from one quarter to the next, subtracted about $9 billion from gross domestic product in the second quarter, according to the government's most recent estimates. Dederick and David Munro, chief U.S. economist of High Frequency Economics in New York City. speculated that net exports would probably have about the same effect on growth in the third quarter. On the other hand. Ian Borsook, senior economist for Merrill Lynch & Co.. said one month does not make a quarter and there is still an outside chance that an improving trade sector will augment growth this quarter. He predicted the deficit will decline in the coming months.
The trade gap widened in July because U.S. exports fell 3.2% to $56.5 billion while imports edged up a slight 0.1% to $67.5 billion. The deficit in goods surged 12% to $15.7 billion, while the U.S. trade surplus in services dwindled 5.5% to $4.7 billion.
Several special factors contributed to the widening of the trade gap. U.S. civilian aircraft exports, a volatile category, plunged $1 billion to $800 million, the lowest level in more than four years. Also, U.S. oil imports rose about $200 million resulting from higher oil prices, despite a decline in the volume of imports.
U.S. exports of telecommunications equipment and soybeans also fell, but economists said the declines would probably be short-lived because demand abroad
is generally rising.
The U.S. trade deficit with Japan climbed again in July, rising 2.7% to $5.7 billion, the highest level since March.
Dan Seto, an economist with Nikko Securities Co. International, said it would be several months at best before the U.S. trade gap starts to narrow. "Trade data lags other economic signals by quite a bit," he said, noting that the U.S. economy is still strong, with a hearty appetite for foreign goods.
Dederick concurred and predicted that the U.S. trade deficit next year would probably be higher than this year.
After the first seven months of the year, the total trade gap stood at $52.2 billion, up 52% from the same period a year ago. The deficit is running at a $145.8 billion annual rate, the government estimated, which would be the highest
since a $152 billion shortfall in 1987.