Updated March 27 at 12:27am

Trade deficit in U.S. plunges on record petroleum exports


WASHINGTON - The trade deficit in the U.S. narrowed more than forecast in December, led by record exports of petroleum that gave the world’s largest economy a boost at the end of 2012.

The gap shrank 20.7 percent to $38.5 billion, lower than any estimate in a Bloomberg survey of 73 economists and the least since January 2010, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. The jump in fuel sales to overseas buyers, combined with purchases of the fewest barrels of imported crude in almost 16 years, led to the smallest petroleum deficit since August 2009.

The figures probably mean the economy managed to eke out a gain in the fourth quarter of last year, revised data may show later this month, even as military spending dropped by the most since the Vietnam War era. Record exports to South and Central America and to Newly Industrialized Countries including South Korea and Singapore indicate American companies such as Caterpillar Inc. will benefit from improving global growth.

“The improvement in exports is encouraging,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York, who projected the gap would drop to $43.3 billion, the third- lowest in the Bloomberg survey. “With Europe looking less weak and Asia getting better, the outlook for U.S. exports has got to be pretty positive.”

Stock-index futures remained little changed after the figures as investors watched corporate earnings. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing in March rose less than 0.1 percent to 1,506.3 at 8:44 a.m. in New York.

Survey results

The median forecast in the Bloomberg survey of economists called for the deficit to shrink to $46 billion. Estimates ranged from gaps of $42.3 billion to $48 billion. The Commerce Department revised the November shortfall to $48.6 from an initially reported $48.7 billion.

For all of 2012, exports climbed 4.4 percent to a record $2.2 trillion. Imports advanced 2.7 percent to $2.74 trillion. That pushed the trade gap last year down to $540.4 billion from $559.9 billion in 2011.

In December, exports increased 2.1 percent to $186.4 billion, the second-highest on record after September’s $187.1 billion.

Imports dropped 2.7 percent to $224.9 billion in December. The decrease reflected a plunge in purchases of barrels of crude oil, which dropped to the lowest level since February 1997.

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