NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Rising oil prices lifted the U.S. trade gap to a record $61.0 billion in February, the government reported Tuesday, as the difference between the nation's imports and exports came in well above Wall Street expectations.
Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast the Commerce Department report would show the gap would rise to $59 billion from the revised $58.5 billion figure in January. Instead the gap shot past the previous record trade gap of $59.4 billion reached in November 2004.
Several economists said they see no signs that the trade gap will fall in the near term. Critics of the trade imbalance charge that the increased imports can cost U.S. jobs and put downward pressure on wages.
"Large trade deficits divert consumer purchases at Wal-Mart from domestic factories to offshore producers in China and elsewhere," said University of Maryland professor Peter Morici, who predicted that the trade gap will be topping $65 billion in the coming months. "Wages adjusted for inflation will continue to fall as long as American workers must compete with subsidized Chinese imports."
But other economists argue that imports help U.S. businesses be efficient and more competitive in world markets and save consumers money in the form of lower pricing, helping the economy overall.
There is more agreement among economists that rising trade gaps can put downward pressure on the value of the dollar. Some worry that the combination of a large trade gap and large federal budget deficit could eventually cause a sharp drop in the value of the dollar, resulting in large increases in U.S. prices and interest rates.
But in currency markets Tuesday the dollar shrugged off the worse than expected trade number.
Ashraf Laidi, chief currency analyst for MG Financial Group, said the currency traders were more focused on the minutes of the March meeting of the Federal Reserve, due to be released at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, with the expectation that the Fed will signal it could become more aggressive raising interest rates at upcoming meetings.
"This does not mean that currency markets have completely eliminated all concerns about the trade deficit when assessing the dollar," said Laidi in a note to clients. Instead, he said the traders will support the dollar as long as they believe the Fed will offer higher interest rates than found from central banks in Europe, Japan or Canada.
Jay Bryson, global economist with Wachovia Securities, said the fact that the dollar did not fall Tuesday on news of the larger than expected trade deficit is one sign that the country can continue to live with a trade gap above $60 billion a month for the immediate future.
He said it would take some kind of shock to the economy, such as another terrorist attack, to scare away the foreign investment that has supported the dollar.
"Assuming the spark does not happen, it can go on much longer," said Bryson. "Nobody wants it to stop. We don't want to contemplate sharply higher rates and prices. The Japanese and Chinese don't want to contemplate it either."
Oil, auto, clothing imports up
The nation's exports topped the $100 billion level for the third straight month but showed virtually no change from the January total. Meanwhile the value of imports increased, driven by higher crude oil prices.
The trade gap with China, which has been the focus of much attention, declined slightly to $13.9 billion from $15.3 billion in January. However, it still was far larger than the gap with any other country. It was more than twice the trade gap with all OPEC countries, with which the U.S. had a $6.3 billion gap in February.
Rising energy prices were a major reason for the jump in oil imports. The volume of oil actually decreased in the period, but the average amount paid per barrel of crude oil imports rose 4 percent from January levels to $36.85.
"Oil is an important culprit. But it is much more than that," said Robert Brusca of FAO Economics. "Non-oil imports rose by 0.6 percent."
Among the other import categories showing an increase are vehicles and vehicle parts. The gap in that category rose by $1 billion to $11.3 billion in the month. Imports of autos and parts from Japan were up $511 million to $4.1 billion, while German imports gained $133 million to $2.1 billion. But imports from Korea actually fell. Also, much of the rest of the increase came from U.S. auto makers bringing in vehicles built in Canada and Mexico.
Consumer goods also posted a $675 million increase in imports, with cotton clothing imports increasing by $281 million. Quotas on cotton clothing were removed as of Jan. 1.
Brusca said the stabilization of the dollar -- following the declines seen in 2004 -- is bad news for the trade picture, because the weaker dollar had made U.S. exports more competitive in global markets, lifting imports. But a weakness in European economies also has hurt the U.S. trade outlook. Meanwhile, the fact that U.S. consumers have not slowed their spending has fed the growth of imports.
"Weaker growth overseas appears to be one of the problems dogging the US trade deficit as US growth is sustained," he said.