WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trade deficit shrank 4 percent in December, as the global financial crisis cut U.S. imports and exports for the fifth consecutive month, a U.S. Commerce Department report showed on Wednesday.
The $39.9 billion trade gap was the smallest since February 2003, but bigger than a consensus estimate of $36.0 billion from Wall Street analysts. The December shortfall followed a much bigger contraction in the trade gap in November.
U.S. imports of goods and services fell 5.5 percent in December, following an 11.9 percent drop in November, as businesses and consumers cut back on spending in the face of mounting economic woes.
Imports of autos and auto parts were the lowest since May 1999. Another big drop in the average price of imported oil to $49.93 per barrel, the lowest since December 2005, helped push the overall import tally lower.
U.S. exports of goods and services fell nearly 6 percent for a second month in a row, as the financial crisis took a bite out of foreign demand. Overall U.S. goods exports were the lowest since October 2006, and auto and auto parts exports were the lowest since November 2004.
However, both U.S. exports and imports set a record for all of 2008 and the overall trade gap declined for the second year in a row to $677.1 billion.
The bilateral U.S. trade deficit with China in 2008 hit a record $266.3 billion as imports from that country rose to a record $337.8 billion. At the same time, U.S. exports to China last year were a record $71.5 billion.
The average price for imported oil in 2008 was a record $95.23 per barrel, pushing imports from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to a record $242.6 billion.
Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Andrea Ricci