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Trade gap narrows as Japan imports tumble

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trade deficit narrowed unexpectedly in April, as U.S. exports rose to a new record and imports from Japan tumbled more than 25 percent in the aftermath of its earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, a U.S. government report showed on Thursday.

The monthly trade gap totaled $43.7 billion, down 6.7 percent from a revised estimate of $46.8 billion in March which was originally reported as $48.2 billion, the Commerce Department said. Wall Street analysts surveyed before the report had expected the April trade gap to widen to $48.8 billion.

The $3 billion drop in imports from Japan from March to April was the largest on record. U.S. auto and auto parts imports from Japan and other suppliers fell $2.8 billion, partly reflecting supply chain disruptions in the aftermath of the triple disaster.

The narrower-than-expected deficit should be positive for second-quarter U.S. economic growth and follows a spate of other recent data that have raised concern about the strength of the U.S. economic recovery. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Tuesday acknowledged the economy had slowed but offered no hint the central bank was considering any more stimulus to boost growth.

The trade gap narrowed despite the biggest month-to-month jump in prices for imported oil in nearly three years. The average price rose to $103.18 per barrel, the highest since September 2008.

However, the volume of crude oil imports fell, pushing the overall U.S. oil import bill lower in April. That, combined with the lower imports from Japan, helped trim total U.S. imports 0.4 percent to $219.2 billion, even as imports of foods, feeds and beverages set a record, the report showed.

U.S. exports, buoyed by a weakening of the U.S. dollar, rose 1.3 percent to a record $175.6 billion, led by record shipments of industrial supplies and materials and capital goods and smaller gains for food, feeds and beverages, consumer goods and autos and auto parts.

The closely watched U.S. trade deficit with China jumped nearly 20 percent in April to $21.6 billion. It continues at a pace to exceed last year's record of about $273 billion.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Andrea Ricci)