NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The U.S. trade deficit soared to record levels in September, according to a government report, as higher oil prices, rising gasoline imports and a fall in exports caused the gap to widen far more than forecasts.
While some of the spike in the gap is partly due to short-term factors, the latest reading also shows the continued competition from overseas for U.S. companies. U.S. consumers remain hungry for imported goods even in the face of rising energy prices.
The Commerce Department report put the trade gap at $66.1 billion, up from $59.3 billion in August. The previous record gap was $60.4 billion set in February.
Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast that the gap would rise to $61.3 billion. And the gap was larger than even the highest projections of economists surveyed by Reuters, which had found a range of estimates between $56 billion and $65.5 billion.
U.S. goods exports fell $3.3 billion, or 4.3 percent, from August, while goods imports went in the other direction, rising $3.8 billion, or 2.7 percent. Because imports are now so much larger than exports, exports must grow at a significantly faster pace than imports just to have the trade gap stay steady.
To put the size of the gap in context, as recently as 1992 the trade gap for the entire year was only $39.2 billion, or 41 percent less than the gap in August alone.
Imports of consumer goods posted a net gain of $873 million compared with August, led by gains in consumer electronics, clothing, toys and sporting goods. The trade gap with China rose by $1.6 billion, or 9 percent, to $20.1 billion compared with August.
A number of factors came together to cause the spike in the gap in September, including hurricanes and a major strike, so the gap may retreat in coming reports. Still the gap is likely to stay near these record levels for the coming months.
The average price of crude oil imports shot up nearly nine percent after Hurricane Katrina to a record $57.32. But the value of crude oil imports actually fell two percent compared to August because the volume of crude imports dropped 14.5 percent due to refineries that were shut following that storm and Hurricane Rita later in the month.
But much of the lost crude was replaced by even higher-priced imports of gasoline. Together, fuel and natural gas imports increased by $2.2 billion compared to August. And with gasoline that normally would have been shipped from U.S. refineries to the Caribbean and other Latin American countries halted by the storm, fuel exports fell by $224 million compared to August.
In addition, a four-week strike at Boeing Co. (Research), the nation's largest exporter, caused a $2.4 billion drop in the exports of civilian aircraft, while food and organic chemical exports fell by $780 million compared to August. Many of those exports normally leave through the Port of New Orleans, which was closed following Katrina.
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