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Economic Report: U.S. trade deficit in goods slips for first time in three months after setting record

The numbers: The U.S. trade deficit in goods fell slightly in February to $106.6 billion to mark the first decline in three months, but the gap stayed near an all-time high and is unlikely to fall dramatically in the near future.

An early or advanced look at the trade gap in goods showed that it slipped from a record $107.6 billion in January, the U.S. Census Bureau said.

Last year, the U.S. posted the highest trade deficit ever. The goods deficit topped $1 trillion for the very first time.

Imports have flirted repeatedly with record highs over the past year, largely because the U.S. economy recovered rapidly from the pandemic and Americans could afford to resume their free-spending ways.

Exports have rebounded more slowly as other countries try to catch up, but they are now hitting record highs, too.

An advanced estimate of wholesale inventories, meanwhile, showed a 2.1% increase in February. Retail inventories rose 1.1%, according to an early estimate.

Big picture: Bigger U.S. trade deficits subtract from gross domestic product, the official scorecard for the economy.

Yet the big increases in retail and wholesale inventories add to GDP and signal the economy likely expanded at a solid pace in the first quarter.

These trends are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Companies are trying to boost production to meet high demand for both imports and exports and there’s little sign of a slowdown, even with inflation at a 40-year high.

The biggest wild cards? The fallout from the Ukraine conflict and latest Chinese lockdowns after a COVID outbreak. These events could disrupt trade flows and perhaps cause a temporary dropoff in imports.

Key details: U.S. imports of goods such as oil and consumer electronics edged up 0.3% to $263.7 billion in February. Those increases offset a big decline in imports of autos and food.

The rising price of petroleum has been adding to higher U.S. deficits. Prices have since surged in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the cost of oil topping $100 a barrel.

Exports of American-made goods rose 1.2% to $157.2 billion in February and were just below a record high. Auto exports fell.

The big drop in both auto exports and imports reflect ongoing shortages of computer chips that have constrained the ability of carmakers to produce a normal number of vehicles. Auto buyers have slim pickings and face record prices.

The full trade report for February, which includes services such as tourism and travel, comes out next week.

Looking ahead: “Import volumes ahead could be impacted by China’s Covid-related lockdowns, and to a lesser extent, bottlenecks in European production due to the war in Ukraine,” said economist Avery Shenfeld of CIBC Economics.

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.44% and S&P 500 SPX, +0.51%  were set to open mildly higher in Monday trades. Stocks have rallied over the past week.

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