The U.S. trade deficit rose in March at the fastest rate in 10 months. A rise in consumer goods lifted imports to a record level, outpacing a solid gain in U.S. exports.
The Commerce Department said Thursday that the trade gap widened to $51.8 billion in March, up from $45.4 billion in February. Imports rose 5.2 percent to a record $238.6 billion, reflecting more foreign oil, autos, cellphones and clothes.
Exports increased nearly 3 percent to $186.8 billion. Sales to Europe reached an all-time high despite the region's debt crisis.
Economists caution that export growth, a bright spot for the U.S. economy, could slow in coming months if more European countries fall into recession.
The 14 percent rise in the U.S. trade deficit from February to March was the sharpest one-month increase since a 16 percent jump last May. For the year, the trade deficit is running at an annual rate of nearly $600 billion. That's about 7 percent more than last year's gap.
A rising trade deficit slows a nation's growth. It means the country is spending more on foreign-made products than it is taking in from sales of U.S.-made goods.
A wider deficit in March could lead the government to lower its estimate for growth in the January-March quarter. Last month, the government estimated that the economy grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent rate in the first three months of the year, down from 3 percent growth in the previous quarter.