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Trade Gap Hits All-Time High

America's deficit in the broadest measure of trade surged to an all-time high of $338.9 billion last year, more than $100 billion higher than the deficit for 1998.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that the deficit in the current account, which measures not only trade in goods and services but also investment flows and foreign-aid payments, was up 53.7 percent from the previous record, a $220.6 billion imbalance in 1998.

The current-account trade deficit set records in all four quarters, closing out with a record $99.8 billion imbalance in the fourth quarter. That was 11.1 percent above the $89.1 billion deficit in the third quarter of last year.

The huge, $118.4 billion deterioration in the current-account deficit demonstrated dramatically that the one blot on an otherwise remarkable U.S. economic performance is in trade.

The rising trade deficits have increased pressures on the Clinton administration to erect protectionist trade barriers to protect American workers.

The deficit figures are also certain to be cited by foes of Mr. Clinton's policies in the upcoming battle in Congress to grant China permanent normal trade relations with the United States.

President Clinton has argued that American consumers will loose if U.S. markets are closed to foreign goods and that the way to proceed is to continue pressing to remove unfair foreign barriers to the export of American products.

The current account is considered the best measurement of a country's international economic standing because it measures not just the goods and services reflected in the government's monthly trade reports but also investment flows between countries and unilateral transfers, a category that reflects U.S. foreign -id payments.

For 1999, all categories showed deterioration. America's deficit in goods widened by $100.2 billion to $347.1 billion. America enjoys surpluses in the services category, which measures such things as airline travel, but for 1999 that surplus shrank to $79.6 billion, compared to $82.7 billion in 1998.

The deficit in investment earnings widened to $24.8 billion in 1999, more than double the $12.2 billion deficit in 1998.

The United States is now the largest debtor nation, meaning that foreigners own more in U.S. holdings than Americans earn overseas. That imbalance means that foreign investment earnings each year also surpass the earnings of U.S. corporations and individuals on their overseas holdings.

The category of unilateral transfers, which includes foreign aid, climbed to a deficit of $46.6 billion, up from $44.1 billion in 1998.