America's power play

Oil fuels US trade deficit's decline, takes heat off the dollar

The Atlantic Queen tanker sits at an oil dock at the Port of Corpus Christi in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Surging oil and gas production is almost single-handedly resolving a longstanding policy conundrum: the U.S. absorbs more in goods and services than it sends abroad.

In addition to the halo effect it has on manufacturing, the shale boom's other characteristic is how it helps pare the U.S. trade imbalance. Last week, Commerce Department data showed the June trade deficit narrowed sharply to $41.5 billion, as petroleum imports tumbled to their lowest since 2009.

The imbalance is a significant drag on economic growth and for years has hovered at levels economists consider untenable. While the U.S. has yet to reach full energy independence, the country's diminishing reliance on foreign oil—and the fact that it's shipping more of its own fuel supplies abroad—is a major driver behind why the trade gap is shrinking.

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"This really is a big, big deal," said Kyle Isakower, vice president for regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the oil industry. In an interview, Isakower estimated that the deficit would be at least 72 percent higher were it not for the boom.

June trade deficit $41.5 billion

Exporting oil and gas—an increasingly hot and controversial topic in energy markets—has become a proxy for U.S. energy independence. The role of U.S. oil "can't be overstated in terms of the trade deficit, and how much more we can do if we opened up the U.S. for exporting crude as well as just products," he added.

The vast trade deficit has come a long way in the last few years. The U.S. spent more than $7 trillion on imported goods and services between 2000 and 2012—with nearly $3 trillion of that spent on oil and petroleum alone, according to a study by Robert Lawrence, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Citing the nearly 9 million barrels per day being pumped by the world's largest energy consumer, Lawrence wrote that, at a minimum, oil will curb the overall trade deficit going forward. "Remarkably, the possibility of the United States actually eliminating net oil imports can no longer be dismissed," he said.

"Given the significant role oil has historically played in U.S. trade deficits, many observers are predicting that a strong move toward oil self-sufficiency will lead to large declines in the overall U.S. trade deficit," Lawrence added.

The emergence of the U.S. as a global energy powerhouse is having a secondary effect on the U.S. dollar, which recently hit multi-month highs against major currencies. As oil production steadily whittles down the trade gap, it has simultaneously taken pressure off the dollar.

For years, analysts have warned the imbalance, if it got large enough, could trigger a sharp selloff in the greenback and lead to a loss of investor confidence. According to that school of thought, the currency should fall in value in order to spur demand for U.S. exports, thus narrowing the trade gap.

Yet since the oil boom has taken flight, economists are raising that argument with less frequency—with the dollar increasingly shaking off the trade deficit albatross.

The trade gap "was a ready-made argument for dollar bears," said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman. "Now sentiment has shifted, and you focus on the divergence of monetary policy and growth differentials," he added.

—By CNBC's Javier E. David