Americans' stronger appetites for imported goods, especially cars and computers, lifted the broadest measure of the U.S. trade deficit in the second quarter to its highest point since late 2008.
The current account trade deficit grew to $123.3 billion in the April-to-June period, a 12.9 percent increase from the first quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. It marked the fourth straight quarter that the deficit has increased. That could be viewed as a healing sign for the U.S. economy as Americans slowly regain their appetite to spend.
"We generally view this widening as a necessary consequence of the economic recovery since it largely reflects the resumption of trade flows resulting from increased demand both at home and abroad," said Nicholas Tenev, economist at Barclays Capital.
The current account is the broadest measure of trade because it tracks the flow of goods and services as well as investments between the United States and other countries.
Exports did rise in the second quarter, but imports rose faster, contributing to the wider trade gap.
Exports of U.S.-made goods to other countries totaled $316.1 billion, a 3.4 percent rise from the first three months of the year. Industrial supplies and materials — including petroleum products and metals — factored into the gain.
Imports grew to $485.7 billion in the quarter, up 6.3 percent from the prior period. That reflected stronger demand for cars, computer as well as pickups in other manufactured consumer goods.
To help boost the economy and job creation, the Obama administration wants to double sales of U.S. exports in five years. It's an ambitious goal, especially given trade tensions between the United States and China, which offers a huge market to U.S. companies to sell their goods.
But the United States routinely run massive trade deficits with China.
"America is going to bat as a stronger partner and a better advocate for our businesses abroad," Obama said Thursday at a meeting with his Export Council. "We're increasing trade missions. We're removing barriers to help busineses gain a foothold in new markets. We're increasing export financing for small- and medium-sized businesses."
With the midterm congressional elections just two months away and Americans concerned about the economy, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Thursday ratcheted up the pressure on Beijing. He called on the country to take more aggressive steps to let its currency rise in value, a move that would aid sales of U.S. exports abroad.
Meanwhile, Japan, which has been struggling with a weak economy, has taken steps to lower the value of its currency, which should make its goods cheaper for foreign buyers.
The second quarter's current account trade figure was in line with economists' forecasts.
Thursday's report also showed that foreigners still have strong demand for U.S. Treasury securities, considered a safe haven for investors. Purchases of U.S. Treasury securities from overseas buyers came to $99 billion in the second quarter, following $103.1 billion in the first three months of the year.
For all of 2009, the current account deficit shrunk to $378.4 billion, a 43.4 percent decline from the 2008 deficit. The sharp drop reflected the impact of the severe recession in the United States, which sapped Americans' demand for imported goods. But with the U.S. economy now growing again for roughly a year, economists believe the trade deficit will increase this year.