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Largest trade deficit increase in 10 years

Imported cars sit  in a storage lot in New Jersey. In September the U.S. trade deficit jumped 18.2 percent.  (Associated Press)
Imported cars sit in a storage lot in New Jersey. In September the U.S. trade deficit jumped 18.2 percent. (Associated Press)

Weaker dollar may not start to close gap until 2011

WASHINGTON – A weaker dollar may boost the nation’s economy by increasing exports and narrowing the trade gap – but that won’t happen anytime soon.

Instead, the nation’s trade deficit rose in September by the largest percentage in a decade as U.S. exports grew for the fifth straight month, but imports rose faster, a government report showed Friday. That trend is likely to continue until the middle of next year, economists said.

Rising oil prices and higher purchases of foreign goods by U.S. companies drove imports higher. So did more purchases of foreign parts by U.S. manufacturers, which are ramping up production in the fledgling economic recovery.

Higher exports, spurred by a lower dollar, probably won’t reduce the trade gap and boost the U.S. economy until 2011, economists said.

“You tend to see imports surge when production begins to grow,” said Julia Coronado, senior U.S. economist at BNP Paribas. That’s overriding the benefit of the weaker dollar on exports, she said.

Imports in September rose 5.8 percent from August, led by a 20 percent jump in oil shipments. That’s the biggest rise in imports in 16 years. Exports, meanwhile, increased about 3 percent, reflecting stronger sales of American autos, aircraft and industrial machinery.

Overall, the monthly trade deficit jumped 18.2 percent to $36.5 billion, the Commerce Department said, the largest monthly percentage increase since February 1999.

The weaker U.S. dollar will likely have a greater impact on U.S. exports by late next year, economists said. When the dollar declines compared with other currencies, it makes U.S. exports cheaper and imports more expensive, narrowing the trade deficit.

“Longer term, there’s no question the weak dollar is a big plus for U.S. export growth,” Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said.

But the dollar hasn’t yet fallen that much, Gault noted. It is down about 12 percent against a basket of major currencies since last spring, but is at roughly the same level it was in the summer of 2008, he said. The financial crisis that fall drove many international investors to the safety of U.S. Treasury bonds, driving up the dollar’s value.

The impact of a cheaper dollar can also take as long as a year to kick in, said Paul Dales, U.S. economist at Capital Economics. That’s because foreign exporters to the U.S. don’t immediately adjust their prices to take into account changes in exchange rates.