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Trade gap widens on imports while jobless claims up

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The trade deficit widened much more than expected in January as surging imports of oil, capital goods and cars overpowered record exports in a signal of strengthening demand.

A second report on Thursday showed a rise in new claims for jobless benefits, but not enough to suggest the labor market's recovery was running off the rails.

The trade deficit widened to $46.3 billion from $40.3 billion, the Commerce Department said. The 15.1 percent jump was much bigger than analysts expected and reflected the largest month-to-month gain in imports since March 1993.

While the strong import growth is a sign of improved domestic demand, it suggested U.S. production in the first quarter could be a bit softer than economists had expected.

"To the extent that this surge reflects the strength of domestic demand, particularly restocking, it isn't necessarily a disaster," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist with Capital Economics in Toronto.

"Nevertheless, it is a concern, particularly when we know that the latest surge in the cost of imported oil will drive the deficit above $50 billion over the next few months," Ashworth said.

Imports totaled $214.1 billion in January, as oil prices rose to their highest level since October 2008, and imports of capital goods and foods, feeds and beverages set records.

U.S. stocks fell, while Treasury debt prices rose slightly. The dollar pared gains versus the euro and the yen.

U.S. auto imports were the highest since February 2008 in a sign of strengthening demand for big-ticket items.

U.S. exports grew 2.7 percent to a record $167.7 billion, finally exceeding the previous record set in July 2008 just before the global financial crisis caused trade to plummet.

President Barack Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports to more than $3 trillion by the end of 2014 to put the United States on a path to more sustainable economic growth less dependent on national consumption.

"We've now seen private-sector job growth for 12 straight months, and increasing U.S. exports plays a key role in that. We are committed to putting the necessary tools in the hands of America's businesses to help them out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world and get the U.S. economy firing on all cylinders again," U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said.

CHINA GAP WIDENS

The closely watched trade gap with China also widened in January to $23.3 billion, fueling cries for Washington to get tough with Beijing.

"The administration should designate China as a currency manipulator next month, and Congress should pass bipartisan legislation to allow American industry and workers to seek relief from the impact of China's currency manipulation," said Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of labor, steel and textile groups.

Separately, China said its trade surplus with the United States shrank to $8 billion in February, compared with $13.6 billion in January.

The jobless claims data, coming on the heels of news last week that employers added 192,000 jobs in February -- the most in nine months -- is unlikely to change perceptions of an acceleration in the pace of job creation and the broader economic recovery.

The four-week moving average of unemployment claims -- a better measure of underlying trends - rose 3,000 to 392,250 last week. Claims held beneath the 400,000 threshold for a third straight week, and it was the second consecutive week for the four-week average.

That level is generally regarded as signaling steady jobs growth.

"Jobless claims are beginning to trend lower, and that's what really is important here. For a long time we were asking if the economy was doing better, why aren't companies hiring, and now that component seems to be falling into place," said Michael Materasso, portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Doug Palmer; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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