NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The U.S. trade gap was little changed in November, and is still deep in the red, the government said Thursday.
The trade balance, which measures the difference between the nation's imports and exports, narrowed slightly to a $38.3 billion deficit in November, barely down from $38.4 billion in October, according to the Commerce Department.
The data came as a surprise ahead of a key meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao next week. Economists had expected more dramatic news, with the U.S. deficit expanding to $41 billion, according to Briefing.com.
Since the recession, trade imbalances have driven a rift between the two countries, as China builds a massive trade surplus and the U.S. struggles to boost exports.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is chugging along at a rate of 2.6%, while China is hurling ahead at a rapid pace of 9.6%.
While recent data may suggest both countries are starting to move in the right direction, economists still say the imbalance between the two countries is vast enough to make global trade a tense topic next week.
"Mr. Obama will continue to voice his displeasure at the trade imbalance between the two countries, and President Hu will likely say his trade deficit is narrowing," said Jay Bryson, global economist with Wells Fargo. "I don't think they're going to hug and kiss and say this is all great."
In November, U.S. exports and imports both rose nearly in lockstep. Exports totaled $159.6 billion in November, up $1.2 billion from the month before, and imports totaled $198 billion, up $1.1 billion from October.
The U.S. data comes just three days after a surprise announcement from Chinese officials said China's trade surplus narrowed to $13.1 billion in December, down from $22.9 billion the month before.
The U.S. data lags a month behind China's reports.
While that marks a slight improvement over China's larger surpluses two years ago, Bryson said it's still a staggering high number contrasted with the U.S. data.
"The Chinese are well aware that they've got a long-run imbalance problem there," Bryson said. "What they'll say is, they're slowly taking steps to increase consumer spending, particularly in the rural areas. What Obama will say is, 'do it faster.'"
Bryson said he expects the U.S. trade gap to widen in 2011, as austerity measures in Europe and tightening policies in emerging markets decrease the demand for U.S. goods.
"We would expect this to widen as we go further," he said. "We think we're going to see some slower growth in the rest of the world, even though U.S. demand will remain solid."
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