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Trade Deficit Worsened in March; Jobless Claims Fall

Three government reports out Thursday give a mixed picture on the health of the U.S. economy.

The U.S. trade deficit widened more than expected in March to $63.9 billion, as higher oil prices helped push total imports to the second highest on record.

A separate report showed oil import prices continued to rise in April, suggesting little relief for the trade deficit in the months ahead.

The trade gap swelled 10.4% from a downwardly revised tally for February, the Commerce Department said, surprising Wall Street economists who had expected a more modest expansion.

The midpoint estimate of analysts surveyed before the report pegged the March trade gap at $60 billion.

The large March trade gap could prompt analysts to trim their estimates of U.S. economic growth.

Lower Growth Seen

"It indicates a downward revision in growth based on the early estimate for the first quarter," said Keith Hembre, chief economist with FAF Advisors.

High Frequency Economics now expects first quarter economic growth to be revised downward to about 0.5% from the 1.3% that the government initially estimated last month, said their chief U.S. economist Ian Shepherdson.

But Mark Vitner, economist with Wachovia Securities in Charlotte North Carolina, said the revision in the February trade deficit to $57.9 billion from $58.4 billion "takes a little bit of the sting out of the larger number in March."

"It certainly looks like GDP will be revised down but it may not be revised down as much as people think," Vitner said.

A separate Labor Department report showed U.S. import prices rose 1.3% in April, driven by steeper petroleum costs. Prices for imported petroleum climbed 6.5% in April after an 8.1% rise in March.

The Labor Department also reported the number of U.S. workers filing new claims for jobless benefits in the week ended May 5 fell unexpectedly by 9,000 to the lowest level since mid-January.

U.S. Treasury debt prices were steady to slightly higher, while the currency market shrugged off Thursday's data.

Dollar Oversold

"We are not seeing much of a reaction in the dollar because the currency is already oversold. The market is looking for numbers that are really out of the box to push the dollar even lower at this point," said Brian Taylor, a senior currency trader at M&T Bank in Buffalo, New York.

Overall U.S. imports increased 4.5 percent in March to $190.1 billion, led by a gain of more than 11 percent in imports of industrial supplies and materials to $49 billion.

The volume of March crude oil imports rose to their highest level since August 2006, while the average price for imported oil rose to $53.00 per barrel from $50.71 in February.

Record imports of consumer goods and food, feed and beverages also helped push the overall tally higher.

However, U.S. exports had another strong showing, rising 1.8% in March to $126.2 billion, second only to the record set in January.

U.S. exports to Canada, the European Union -- and individually to Germany -- and China set records, while shipments to Japan were the highest since March 2001.

The United States also exported record amounts of advanced technology products such as computer, telecommunications, aerospace and electronic equipment.

The closely watched U.S. trade deficit with China shrank 6.4% to $17.2 billion, as imports from that country were the lowest since May 2006.

Despite widening dramatically in March, the trade gap for the first quarter of the year totaled $180.7 billion, smaller than $191.6 billion in the same period last year when the annual deficit hit a record $765.3 billion.