Update: Trade Deficit Surges to $34.26 Billion

Imports climbed more than most economists expected.
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Updated from 9:43 a.m. EST

The

U.S. trade deficit

reached a new record in September as imports surged higher than most economists expected.

The trade deficit, a broad measure of the nation's international trade habits, reached $34.26 billion in September, compared with a revised $29.81 billion in August, the

Commerce Department

reported Tuesday. Previously, the government estimated August's trade gap at $29.44 billion.

The consensus among a group of economists polled by

Reuters

was for the September trade gap to reach $30.85 billion, considerably less than the actual figure.

The number indicates the U.S.' consumption of foreign goods far outpaces the amount of U.S. goods sold abroad.

While the August number was considerably lower than many expected and prompted many economists to revise upward their estimates of third-quarter

gross domestic product

-- a broad measure of economic growth -- Tuesday's number could force many economists to lower their GDP figures.

The government's first estimate of third quarter GDP was growth at a 2.7% annual rate. Based on the trade data, that figure will likely be lowered to a 2% annual rate, said Gerald Cohen, senior economist at

Merrill Lynch

.

In September, imports surged $3.85 billion from August, while exports declined $0.5 billion. The increase in imports was mainly due to a jump in industrial supplies and materials, capital goods and consumer goods. On the export side, the amount of U.S. autos sold abroad declined, as did capital goods, foods, feeds and beverages, the Commerce Department said.

The numbers indicate consumer demand is still strong in the U.S. despite a general slowdown in the economy. "The increase in imports may be an indicator that the U.S. demand for goods and services remains strong," said Scott Anderson of

economist.com

in his analysis of the data. "Economists had been expecting only a slight deterioration in the trade balance as the cooling U.S. economy motivates consumers and producers to spend less."

For September, the U.S.' trade deficit with China -- its largest gap for a single country -- widened to $8.7 billion from $8.6 billion in August. The U.S. deficit with Western Europe continued to narrow, falling to $4.4 billion in September from $5.2 billion in August and $7.2 billion in July. With Japan, the gap also declined, falling to $6.1 billion from $6.8 billion. With Canada, the U.S.' largest trading partner, the deficit rose to $4.7 billion. With Mexico, the second-largest trading partner, the deficit hit $2.66 billion.

"Slower U.S. demand growth should temper import growth from many of these countries in the months ahead," said Cohen, of Merrill Lynch.

The U.S. trade deficit surged after the foreign financial crises of 1997 and 1998 that originated in Southeast Asia. Demand for U.S. exports fell, while, at the same time, the U.S. market was seen as a haven for Asian countries to export themselves out of crisis.

The U.S. has so far not seen the value of the dollar fall with the high trade deficits, as economic theory would predict. The dollar is the reserve currency of choice for many foreign governments, and the U.S. capital markets have attracted legions of foreign investors, keeping demand for dollars strong.