The Commerce Department said Tuesday that the February imbalance was up 4.3 percent from a $58.5 billion trade gap in January as a small $50 million rise in U.S. exports of goods and services was swamped by a $2.58 billion increase in imports.
The surging trade deficit is leading to an increase in protectionist pressures as American textile and clothing manufacturers are lobbying the administration to limit imports of Chinese textile and clothing goods to ward off a flood of products now that global quotas have expired.
For February, imports of textiles and clothing from China rose by 9.8 percent even though America's overall trade gap with China actually narrowed to $13.9 billion, down by 9.2 percent from a January deficit of $15.3 billion. The improvement reflected an increase in U.S. exports to China and declines in other import categories outside of textiles.
For the first two months of this year, the trade deficit is running at an annual rate of $717.2 billion, a full $100 billion above the record imbalance of $617.1 billion set for all of 2004.
Trade deficits of this magnitude have raised worries among economists about America's ability to continue to attract the foreign financing needed to cover the shortfall between exports and imports. If foreigners decided to hold fewer dollar-denominated investments such as stocks and bonds, it could trigger steep declines in U.S. stock prices and a sharp increase in interest rates.
Critics point to the soaring deficits as evidence that President Bush's free trade policies are not working and have instead contributed to the loss of 3 million American manufacturing jobs since 2000.
The Bush administration argues that the deficit primarily reflects the fact that the U.S. economy has been growing at a much faster pace than the economies of its major trading partners, pushing up imports while dampening demand for U.S. exports. Treasury Secretary John Snow was expected to use a Saturday meeting of finance officials from the Group of Seven major industrial countries to once again lobby for Europe and Japan to pursue more growth-oriented policies.
The U.S. dollar has been declining for three years, a fact that should help narrow the trade deficit by making imports more expensive to American consumers while making U.S. exports cheaper. However, economists say the dollar needs to fall further to deal with the widening trade deficit, and they are predicting a further increase in the trade gap this year.