WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trade deficit expanded sharply in February to its widest in nearly a year, fueled by demand for imported vehicles and consumer goods, while American exports rose only marginally, the government said Wednesday.
The February trade gap of $31.51 billion was the largest since the April 2001 tally of $31.94 billion.
The Commerce Department also said that when imports of oil and petroleum were factored out, the February gap was the largest on record.
It beat economists' average estimate of $28.8 billion by a wide margin and was $3.27 billion above the January deficit.
Reflecting a rebounding U.S. economy, imports rose to $110.70 billion in February from $106.48 billion in January, the highest since $112.23 billion in August.
Although the increase in imports was more evidence of a U.S. economic recovery, it could push down first-quarter gross domestic product estimates. The first estimate of first-quarter GDP is due out April 26.
Automotive imports rose $1.6 billion in February to the highest level since October 2000. Imports of consumer goods increased $1.1 billion and were the highest since March 2001.
U.S. exports totaled $79.19 billion in February, up about $1 billion from January but still well below the February 2001 peak of $90.24 billion. The slight rise was spread evenly among most major categories, although exports of consumer goods were virtually unchanged.
The U.S. trade gap with China narrowed slightly in February to $6.50 billion and also decreased slightly with the European Union to $4.79 billion. The trade gap with Japan widened to $5.66 billion, an increase of almost $1 billion.