The Commerce Department reported that the trade deficit shot up 21 percent from December's $14.1 billion level and surpassed the old monthly record of $16.7 billion, set last August.
Economists believe that the deficit in 1999 will easily surpass the record $169.3 billion imbalance set last year as the global financial crisis further depresses the ability of American manufacturers and farmers to sell in world markets.
In addition to the loss of markets for U.S. exporters, the plunge in currency values and recessions overseas triggered a flood of products into the United States, which has continued to post strong economic growth despite the global troubles.
For January, U.S. exports dropped 1.4 percent to $76.8 billion, the lowest level since August. The weakness reflected declines in sales of farm products, including corn, cotton and wheat, civilian aircraft and autos.
Imports rose 2 percent to $93.8 billion last month as demand for autos and auto parts, consumer products, and food all rose to all-time highs.
The widening gap in what America is able to sell overseas vs. what it imports has become a major political headache for President Clinton. Critics charge that Mr, Clinton's free trade policies have been a failure that has cost thousands of American jobs.