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Trade Deficit Up; Jobless Claims Less Than Expected

The US trade deficit widened unexpectedly in February as imports of consumer and other goods set a record and grew faster than exports, which hit a record for the 12th consecutive month, a government report showed on Thursday.

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CNBC.com

The monthly deficit widened 5.7 percent to $62.3 billion, from an upwardly revised estimate of $59.0 billion for January.

Wall Street analysts had expected the gap to narrow to $57.5 billion.

Meanwhile, a Labor Department report showed the number of US workers applying for unemployment benefits tumbled by a greater-than-expected 53,000 last week.

However, the four-week moving average of new claims, a more reliable guide to underlying labor market trends because it smooths out weekly data fluctuation, rose to 378,250, the highest since October 2005.

"The four-week moving average has been in an uptrend for a while, consistent with an economy losing steam," said Michael Darda, chief economist with MKM Partners LLC in Greenwich, Conn.

Treasury debt prices held onto gains after the data, while the dollar remained lower. Stock indexes pared losses slightly on the drop in weekly jobless claims.

Despite slow economic growth that has spawned fears of a recession, imports of goods and services rose 3.1 percent to $213.7 billion, the Commerce Department report showed.

Records were also set in individual import categories for consumer goods, capital goods, industrial supplies and materials and food, feed and beverages.

"What you're getting is a slowdown in the economy, imports are picking up, sitting in inventories," said Joseph LaVorgna,senior economist with Deutsche Bank in New York.

"I don't know whether (US economic growth will) be positive for the first quarter, but certainly the economy's weak. That's what the claims numbers are telling you," he added.

Meanwhile, US petroleum imports declined in February to $37.7 billion after 11 consecutive monthly increases.

That happened as average crude oil import prices rose to a record $84.76 per barrel, helping to reduce imports to 9.9 million barrels per day -- below the 2007 average of 10.1 million.

Exports rose 2.0 percent in February to a record $151.4 billion, aided by the weak dollar and faster growth in the rest of the world than in the United States, the report showed.

Exports grew strongest, 13.5 percent, to Germany and the rest of the European Union, but also increased nearly 10 percent to Japan.

U.S. exports to China fell slightly, but not as much as the 7.8 percent drop in U.S. imports from that country.

The trade gap with China was the lowest since March 2007.