U.S. Trade Deficit Widens

U.S. exports hit an all-time high in March — but imports grew even faster. So the nation's trade deficit widened to $48 billion. The Obama administration has been working to boost exports as a way to grow the economy without relying on American consumers, who are already stretched thin.

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U.S. exports hit an all-time high in March. But imports grew even faster and the nation's trade deficit widened to $48 billion.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports that the government has been working to boost exports. It's an effort to grow the economy without having to rely on American consumers, who are already stretched thin.

SCOTT HORSLEY: You can put most of the blame for March's bigger trade deficit on oil. With volumes up and the price of crude topping $100 a barrel, the total bill for imported oil soared by $6 billion. Beyond that headline number, though, there is some encouraging news in today's trade report from the Commerce Department. American exports jumped nearly $8 billion in March.

U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk says that's part of a steady trend.

Ambassador RON KIRK (U.S. Trade Representative): If you look at this over a seven, eight-month period, clearly exports and our working toward the president's agenda of doubling our exports, which we're well on path to meet, are helping to fuel our economic growth.

HORSLEY: There are a couple of explanations for U.S. companies racking up record sales in foreign countries. Economist Gregory Daco is with the forecasting firm IHS Global Insight.

Mr. GREGORY DACO (Economist, IHS Global Insight): One of the elements is the very weak dollar, which is making U.S. goods cheaper. At the same time, emerging markets growth is very strong and as a result, demand for U.S. goods is higher.

HORSLEY: The surge in sales is widespread, from farms to factories. The Caterpillar company relies on foreign markets for about 70 percent of its sales. CEO Doug Oberhelman told CNBC today, it's a good time to be in his business.

Mr. DOUG OBERHELMAN (CEO, Caterpillar Incorporated): People want things. They want roads, they want bridges, they want electricity, they want all kinds of things that we have here in the most developed country in the world. And suddenly it's starting to happen.

HORSLEY: As part of his push to boost exports, President Obama has reopened free trade agreements originally negotiated by the Bush administration with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The White House says those newly revised agreements are now ready for congressional approval, though trade skeptic Lori Wallach of the group Public Citizen says they could face an uphill battle.

Ms. LORI WALLACH (Director of Global Trade Watch, Public Citizen): It's extremely mysterious why the Obama administration would put forward Bush's old trade agreements when the polling shows the majority of the public is against more of the same NAFTA-style trade agreements.

HORSLEY: Trade Representative Kirk understands those doubts, but insists the new agreements have been improved. The White House is hoping for congressional passage later this year.

Amb. KIRK: We can make a very honest and compelling case that these agreements present that level playing field. They create opportunities for our businesses, large and small. We really can realize some of the job growth that Americans are looking for.

HORSLEY: That's no guarantee the trade deficit will shrink. As the U.S. economy recovers, American consumers are likely to keep buying more imports.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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