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Trade gap balloons

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trade deficit ballooned in November, as the price of imported oil jumped more than $5 per barrel and as revived consumer and manufacturer demand pushed imports to their highest in nearly a year.

The monthly trade gap grew 9.7 percent to $36.4 billion, from an upwardly revised estimate of $33.2 billion in October, a Commerce Department report showed on Tuesday.

Analysts said the trade data was generally good news for the economy, since it showed demand picking up as the United States emerges from the deepest recession since the 1930s.

"A lot of (the increase) had to do with oil prices," said James O'Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global in New York.

"You are still on track for a big surge in exports in the fourth quarter ... This is still consistent with the global economic recovery," he said.

Macroeconomic Advisers nudged its estimate of U.S. fourth quarter economic growth slightly higher to 5.6 percent but others said the report was neutral or slightly negative.

U.S. imports of goods and services jumped 2.6 percent to $174.6 billion, the highest since December 2008.

The average price for a barrel of imported oil rose to $72.54, the highest since October 2008, but volume was the lowest in more than 10 years.

The overall import jump reflected gains in industrial supplies and materials, consumer goods and capital goods, which more than offset slight declines for food and auto imports.

The trade data had little impact on financial markets. U.S. stocks opened lower, weighed down by disappointing earnings from Alcoa Inc and an earnings warning from Chevron Corp. For more, see.

U.S. exports of goods and services rose by a less-robust 0.9 percent in November to $138.2 billion, the highest in a year. The weak U.S. dollar has given exports a boost, but they are still well below the peak of $164.4 billion set in July 2008 before the global financial sent trade plummeting.

The November tally included a record $7.3 billion to China, beating the record set just one month before.

Soybeans were the major cause of the increase in exports to China in both October and November, as U.S. suppliers stepped in to fill a shortage caused by drought in Argentina.

U.S. semiconductor exports to China were down $1.5 billion in the first 11 months of 2009, as the U.S. trade deficit for advanced technology goods hit a record in November.

Further gains in U.S. exports to China might be difficult because of what most economists agree is a significantly undervalued Chinese currency, which gives Chinese companies a big price advantage over foreign competitors.

U.S. food, feed and beverage exports posted the biggest overall gain in November, followed by autos and capital goods. Exports of consumer goods and industrial materials showed slight declines.

Meanwhile, the annual U.S. trade gap appears likely to fall below $400 billion in 2009 for first time since 2001. Through the end of November, the trade gap totaled $340.6 billion.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Neil Stempleman and James Dalgleish)

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