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US oil imports at lowest level since 1999 as trade gap shrinks

The data lighten the US economic outlook after a negative fourth-quarter report. Forecasters predict modest economic growth in 2013. But the trade gap is still huge.  

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America’s trade deficit shrank in the final month of last year – from $48.6 billion in November to $38.5 billion in December – in part because imports of oil fell to their lowest level since 1999.

That news, released by the Commerce Department Friday, is an encouraging indicator that America is using energy more efficiently, and making more energy at home, reducing the country’s reliance on imported oil.

The positive news in the trade report didn’t stop with energy.

Overall US exports rose, which is encouraging on two fronts. First, it’s a vital source of US jobs. Second, it shows a bit of pep in global demand at a time when some forecasters had been warning of economic weakness outside the United States.

The improvement in America’s foreign trade picture also provides a surprise boost to estimates of the economy’s overall performance. Where the Commerce Department had originally reported a 0.1 percent decline in gross domestic product for the fourth quarter of 2012, it now appears very likely that a revised estimate this month will show some growth in that fourth-quarter GDP figure.

“Trade data for December paint a reassuring and encouraging picture of the US economy at the end of last year,” said economist Chris Williamson of the data supplier Markit, in a written analysis.

That, in turn, gives him a positive take on the global economy as 2013 begins. He says the government data are beginning to confirm what he sees in business surveys: "that global economic growth is reviving at the start of 2013, assisted by rising trade flows.”

The US, Mr. Williamson says, is an important driver of the progress.

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