WASHINGTON - The trade deficit unexpectedly widened in November as American retailers stocked up on imported goods for the holidays and demand for foreign automobiles rebounded following superstorm Sandy.
The gap jumped 15.8 percent to $48.7 billion, exceeding all estimates in a Bloomberg survey of economists and the biggest since April, from $42.1 billion in October, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. Demand for consumer goods made overseas surged to a record.
Falling petroleum prices prevented the import bill from climbing even more in November and, combined with improvement in the labor market, are boosting household purchasing power. Strengthening global growth may also boost exports in coming months, helping American manufacturers such as Alcoa Inc.
“Consumers will slow down but not retreat in terms of spending,” Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, said before the report. “The import number could be a bit stronger in anticipation of people bringing things in that they hope to sell in December” during the holiday-shopping season.
Stock-index futures were little changed as concern China will refrain from monetary easing offset Japan’s $116 billion plan to boost the economy. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index expiring in March rose less than 0.1 percent to 1,467.3 at 8:32 a.m. in New York.
The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of 69 economists projected the deficit would narrow to $41.3 billion. Estimates ranged from gaps of $39.8 billion to $45 billion. October’s deficit was revised from an initially reported $42.2 billion.
Imports increased 3.8 percent to $231.3 billion, the most since April, from $222.9 billion in October. Purchases of foreign-made autos and parts climbed by $1.51 billion and demand for cellular telephones jumped by $1.81 billion, the report showed.
Exports increased 1 percent in November to $182.6 billion, the report showed. The gain was led by sales of automobiles and parts and telecommunications equipment.
After eliminating the influence of prices to produce the numbers used to calculate gross domestic product, the trade deficit widened to $51.9 billion from $46 billion.
The jump may mean that trade subtracted from growth last quarter. Nonetheless, the hit will probably be reduced as some of the imports go into inventory, which boosts GDP. In addition, purchases of foreign-made business equipment point to a pickup in capital investment in the U.S.