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Trade gap in U.S. shrinks to 4-year low

The trade deficit in the United States shrank more than forecast in November, as oil imports dropped to the lowest level in three years and exports climbed to a record.

The gap narrowed 12.9 percent to $34.3 billion, smaller than projected by any economist surveyed by Bloomberg and the least since October 2009, figures from the Commerce Department showed Tuesday in Washington.

The gain in sales to overseas customers was led by aircraft and chemicals.

Improving economies in Europe and Asia are benefiting companies like Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA), leading to a pickup in manufacturing that is boosting U.S. economic growth.

The fuel-driven drop in imports overshadowed record purchases of foreign autos, parts and capital goods that indicate spending by American consumers and businesses is strengthening.

“This is definitely an oil story,” Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist at RBC Capital Markets LLC in New York, said before the report. At the same time, growing economies abroad are “a positive from the export perspective of the United States.”

The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of 68 economists projected the deficit would come in at $40 billion.

Estimates ranged from $38 billion to $42.8 billion. The Commerce Department revised the October gap down to $39.3 billion from an initially reported $40.6 billion.

Exports increased 0.9 percent to $194.9 billion, reflecting a $390 million gain in civilian aircraft and a $264 million advance in chemical sales.

Imports fall

Imports dropped 1.4 percent to $229.1 billion in November. Purchases of crude oil plunged to $28.5 billion, the lowest since November 2010, reflecting both lower prices and volume.

The gains in American demand for capital goods were paced by computers and accessories.

The petroleum deficit shrank to $15.2 billion in November, the lowest since May 2009.

“We’ll see imports increase, in particularly non-energy imports, as we see expanding consumer spending in the U.S.,” Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group Inc. (NYSE: PNC) in Pittsburgh, said before the report.

After eliminating the influence of prices, which are the figures used to calculate gross domestic product, the trade deficit narrowed to $44.6 billion in November, a five-month low.

The fourth-quarter average so far is smaller than in the previous three months, indicating trade will boost gross domestic product.

Economic growth

The U.S. economy expanded more than previously reported in the third quarter, with GDP rising at a 4.1 percent annualized rate, Commerce Department figures showed Dec. 20.

An initial reading showed a 2.8 percent rate of expansion in the three months ended September and a second release estimated a 3.6 percent pace.

Estimates for the fourth quarter have improved as data showed consumer spending was picking up and manufacturing was strengthening. GDP grew at a 2.6 percent annualized rate between October and December, according to the most recent tracking estimate by economists at Macroeconomic Advisers in St. Louis, up from a projected 1.5 percent as recently as December 10.

A pickup at U.S. factories is helping to support the expansion, now in its fifth year. Manufacturing grew in December at the second-fastest pace in more than two years.

The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index eased to 57 from the prior month’s 57.3, which was the highest since April 2011, the Tempe, Ariz.-based group said last week.

Manufacturing gains

Orders reported by purchasing managers were the strongest since April 2010 and an employment gauge reached its highest level since June 2011 in the ISM data.

Dennis Muilenburg, president and chief operating officer of Chicago-based Boeing, is among executives who are optimistic about business abroad.

The planemaker collects about 30 percent of its revenue outside the U.S., which Muilenburg predicts will be a stable share “for the long term.”

“It’s not just a wave of exports, it’s something we can sustain for the long run,” Muilenburg said at a Dec. 4 conference. “Even in a tough budget environment, we’re only seeing increases here in terms of security needs.”

Manufacturing across the globe showed signs of uneven growth in December, according to other reports.

In the euro area, an index of factory activity climbed to 52.7 from a November reading of 51.6, Markit Economics said.

Manufacturing in Germany increased, while a gauge of factories in France dropped to a seven-month low.

An index of U.K. manufacturing cooled as export demand weakened, and readings in China slipped.

The trade gap with China, the world’s second-biggest economy, narrowed to $26.9 billion from $28.9 billion in October, Tuesday’s report showed. Exports to China were the highest on record.

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