The Commerce Department said Thursday that the deficit dropped a sharp 28.3 percent to $25.97 billion, the smallest gap since November 1999. It marked the seventh consecutive month the trade deficit has declined as the severe U.S. recession has cut sharply into demand for imported products.
Wall Street economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected the trade deficit to widen to $36.4 billion in February.
The deficit with China fell 31 percent to the lowest level in three years while the trade gap with Japan dropped to the smallest point in 24 years.
For the first two months of this year, the deficit is running at an annual rate of $373 billion, about half of the $681.1 billion imbalance recorded in 2009. Economists are forecasting the trade gap could remain at current low levels for the whole year, given their expectations that the recession, which began in December 2007, will not be over until the last half of this year and that any rebound will be muted, meaning that consumer demand will remain depressed.
For February, imports of goods and services fell by 5.1 percent to $152.7 billion, marking the seventh consecutive month that imports have dropped.
The decline was led by a 16.3 percent decline in imports of crude oil, which fell to $10 billion, the smallest monthly total since April 2004. The average price of a barrel of crude fell to $39.22, down significantly from the all-time highs set last summer.
Imports of a wide variety of consumer goods from autos to toys and games, furniture, clothing and televisions all dropped sharply in February.
Exports of goods and services posted an unexpected rebound in February, rising by 1.6 percent to $126.76 billion, the first increase after six straight monthly declines. Even with the increase, exports are 16.9 percent below where they were a year ago as American manufacturers continue to struggle with slumping demand at home and overseas.
The February rebound was led by stronger sales of farm products such as soybeans, rice and wheat, and increases in shipments of manufactured goods ranging from semiconductors to telecommunications equipment and industrial engines. Even America's hardhit automakers posted a rebound in foreign sales in February. Those gains helped to offset a big drop in shipments of commercial aircraft.
Big exporters such as Boeing Co. and Caterpillar Inc. have been forced to slash jobs because of the weak global economy. More than 75 percent of Boeing's orders last year came from outside North America while 60 percent of Caterpillar's heavy machinery sales are overseas.
Meanwhile,further than analysts expected last week to 654,000, the Labor Department reported Wednesday.
The politically sensitive deficit with China dropped 31 percent to $18.9 billion in February, still the largest trade gap with any country.
America's deficit with Japan fell to $2.2 billion February, the lowest level since December 1984. The deficit with Canada, America's biggest trading partner, dropped to $1.82 billion in February, the lowest level since December 1998.
President Barack Obama and other leaders of the Group of 20 nations, meeting in London last week, agreed to increase the resources of global lending institutions to help bolster the finances of poorer nations so they can continue to import products.
The G-20 nations also pledged again to refrain from erecting protectionist barriers, a promise they hope will prevent the current global downturn from following the path of the Great Depression, when countries worsened the slump by shutting down global trade.
The pledge was a repeat of a similar commitment the G-20 leaders made after their first summit meeting last November. Since that time, 17 of the countries, including the United States, have raised trade barriers.