By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trade deficit fell to a more than three-year low in November as imports declined further, weighed down by the Trump administration's trade war with China, and exports rebounded, suggesting solid economic growth in the fourth quarter.
The strength in the economy at the tail end of 2019 was underscored by other data on Tuesday showing activity in the vast services sector picking up in December. Though growth in the fourth quarter will likely be flattered by the plunge in imports, it will probably remain supportive of the Federal Reserve's description of the economy as being in a "good place."
The U.S. central bank last month signaled interest rates could remain unchanged at least through this year, after lowering borrowing costs three times in 2019. The economy is holding up despite a deepening downturn in manufacturing. Fears of a recession that dominated last summer have sharply receded.
"The economy may be pulling out of a rough patch," said Maria Cosma, an economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The Commerce Department said the trade deficit decreased 8.2% to $43.1 billion in November, the smallest since October 2016. The trade gap narrowed 0.7% through November and is on track to record its first annual decline since 2013. Though the shrinking trade bill should be a boost to gross domestic product in the fourth quarter, falling consumer and capital goods imports also suggest a cooling in domestic demand.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the trade shortfall tightening to $43.8 billion in November. The goods trade deficit with China, the focus of the White House's "America First" agenda tumbled 15.7% to $26.4 billion, with imports dropping 9.2% and exports jumping 13.7%. The goods trade deficit with the European Union fell 20.2% to $13.1 billion.
The United States and China are embroiled in a bruising trade war, and the White House has also tussled with other trading partners, including the European Union, Brazil and Argentina, accusing them of devaluing their currencies at the expense of U.S. manufacturers.
Though Washington and Beijing in December hammered out a "Phase 1" trade deal, considerable confusion remains about the details of the agreement. President Donald Trump said last Tuesday that the partial deal would be signed on Jan. 15 at the White House.
The 18-month-long U.S.-China trade war has undermined business investment, which together with slowing growth overseas have led to a recession in manufacturing. Economists expect manufacturing to continue to struggle without a complete rolling back of tariffs. Manufacturing's troubles do not appear to have significantly spilled over to the services industries.
In a separate report on Tuesday, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its non-manufacturing activity index rose to a reading of 55.0 last month from 53.9 in November. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the services sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
But services industries reported a moderation in growth in new orders and hiring. The report came on the heels of a survey from the ISM last week showing its measure of national factory activity dropping in December to its lowest level since June 2009, and contracting for a fifth straight month.
The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury yields were steady, while stocks on Wall Street fell.
When adjusted for inflation, the goods trade deficit decreased $3.7 billion to $75.3 billion in November, the smallest since March 2017. The so-called real trade deficit so far in the fourth quarter is below the average for the July-September period.
Economists expect trade will add at least 1.5 percentage points to GDP growth in the fourth quarter after being a drag for two straight quarters. The boost from trade is, however, expected to be partially offset by a moderation in the pace of inventory accumulation.
The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP increasing at a 2.3% annualized rate in the fourth quarter. The economy grew at a 2.1% pace in the third quarter.
In November, goods imports dropped 1.4% to $201.1 billion, declining for a third straight month. Consumer goods imports fell $1.0 billion, pulled down by declines in cellphones and other household items, and artwork and other collectibles.
Economists believe consumer goods imports were depressed by a 15% tariff on $110 billion worth of Chinese goods that came into effect on Sept. 1. They also say anticipation that the "Phase 1" trade agreement would roll back the tariffs could have encouraged companies to hold off on imports. A rebound in imports is expected.
"If, as we expect, the recent decline in imports is due to importers pulling forward demand to get ahead of consumer-focused tariffs, it may be set to reverse and be a drag on GDP in coming quarters," said Tim Quinlan, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The drop in consumer goods imports points to a slower pace of consumer spending in the October-December quarter after two straight quarters of brisk growth. Capital goods imports dropped $1.2 billion in November, reflecting decreases in civilian aircraft and computers, and suggesting continued weakness in business investment.
Crude oil imports tumbled to 166.4 million barrels, the lowest since February 1992, from 188.3 million barrels in October. That contributed to a record petroleum surplus.
Goods exports rose 0.7% to $137.2 billion in November. They were boosted by a $0.6 billion increase in shipments of capital goods. Consumer goods exports advanced $0.5 billion.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)