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U.S. trade gap widens to 3-month high

By Annalyn Censky, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The U.S. trade gap widened to a three-month high in December, driven largely by rising commodities prices.

The trade balance, which measures the difference between the nation's imports and exports, grew to a $40.6 billion deficit in December, up from $38.3 billion in November, the Commerce Department said Friday.

That number was roughly in line with analysts' estimates, and represents the highest level since September 2010.

Exports totaled $163 billion in December, a rise of $2.8 billion from the month before, and imports totaled $203.5 billion, or $5.1 billion more than in November.

Rising oil prices took their toll on imports, particularly on industrial supplies and materials, said Jennifer Lee, an economist with BMO Capital Markets.

Imports in that category rose a whopping 10.4% largely due to rising energy prices and soaring prices for raw materials, she said.

For the year overall, the U.S. trade deficit fell much deeper into the red, to a whopping $497.8 billion, up from the $375 billion trade deficit in 2009.

But exports grew at a faster rate than imports, and that's at least an encouraging sign, Lee said.

"That's good news for U.S. manufacturers who are in the business of making and shipping goods overseas," she said. "And it helps the president's goal of doubling exports."

A year ago, President Obama announced his goal to double U.S. exports by 2015, spurring job growth in the American manufacturing sector.

Industry experts say that may be a lofty goal, especially given what they say is still an uneven playing field with the world's second largest economy, China.

"We do expect to see strong growth in exports in 2011," said Dan Meckstroth, chief economist for the Manufacturing Alliance. "But doubling exports is still a stretch goal. If the Chinese would allow their currency to appreciate 30% to 50%, it could be a more viable target."

Since the recession, trade imbalances have driven the rift between the two countries wider, as the U.S. still struggles with a trade deficit, and China builds a massive trade surplus.

The gap between the two countries widened to $20.7 billion in December - America's largest trade gap with a single country by far.  To top of page

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