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Trade deficit narrows less than forecast in February


Shipping containers stacked next to the cargo ship Westerhaven at the Port of Miami are one indicator of U.S. imports and exports.

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. trade deficit narrowed less than forecast in February, indicating soaring commodity prices hurt the world's largest economy at the start of the year.

The gap shrank 2.6 percent to $45.8 billion from a larger than previously estimated $47 billion in January, according to the U.S. Commerce Department Tuesday. Another report showed the cost of imported goods jumped in March by the most in almost two years.

Economists at Morgan Stanley and Barclays Capital Inc. were among those cutting estimates for first-quarter growth after the data showed exports dropped along with imports, failing to make up for a slowing in consumer spending. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan may further reduce trade in coming months after parts shortages caused some factories to close.

"Everything was weaker across the board," Ted Wieseman, an economist at Morgan Stanley in New York, said, referring to the trade data. "Import prices are reflecting surging energy prices," he said, they "are going through the roof and that has been weighing on consumer spending."

Prices of imported goods rose in March at the fastest pace since June, 2009, led by a gain in crude oil and the biggest jump in food costs since 1994, according to the Labor Department. The 2.7 percent increase in the import-price index followed a 1.4 percent rise in February. Costs excluding fuel rose 0.6 percent.

Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Janet Yellen is among policy makers saying the increase in food and fuel costs will have only a temporary impact on inflation and consumer spending.

Exports decreased 1.4 percent to $165.1 billion after climbing 2.6 percent in January to a record $167.5 billion. Lower demand for autos and parts and for capital goods contributed to the drop.

Imports fell 1.7 percent to $210.9 billion after climbing 5.4 percent in January, the biggest gain since 1993. Decreasing demand for autos and petroleum products led the decline.

The trade gap with China slumped to $18.8 billion from $23.3 billion in January.

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