WASHINGTON — The overall United States trade deficit continued to widen in the first nine months of 2019, data released Tuesday morning show, defying a Trump administration plan to try to shrink the figure by renegotiating trade agreements.
The trade deficit for both goods and services grew to $481.3 billion in the first three quarters of the year, up 5.4 percent from the same period last year, according to data released by the Commerce Department. Total American exports fell by $7 billion from the previous year, while imports grew by $17.8 billion.
The trade deficit in goods for the first nine months also widened slightly from the previous year, as exports of American products fell by more than imports.
Economists have argued against the Trump administration’s focus on the trade deficit, saying the figure is a poor metric for measuring American well-being or the health of the economy. They say the trade deficit continues to rise largely because the United States is growing faster than other countries around the world, which boosts American purchases of foreign products and weighs on its sales abroad.
But President Trump has pointed to the trade deficit — an excess of American imports over exports — as a sign of a hollowed-out manufacturing sector, and promised to shrink the figure by reworking the terms of trade between the United States and other countries.
The data released Tuesday suggest that the global trade wars Mr. Trump has launched have not had the desired effect.
The tariffs Mr. Trump has placed on more than $360 billion of Chinese goods, and the retaliatory tariffs China has placed on the United States, have clamped down on trade between the countries. But the United States has shifted to importing more goods from other countries instead.
The United States trade deficit in goods with China shrank in the first nine months of the year to $263.2 billion, down from $301.7 billion in the previous year.
But trade deficits with other countries widened in the same time period, as American companies imported more goods from Mexico, Vietnam and other countries. The trade deficit in goods with Mexico grew to $76.1 billion in the first nine months of 2019, up from $59.1 billion last year. The trade deficit in goods with a group of countries along the Pacific Rim, excluding China, rose to $84.7 billion in the first three quarters of 2019, from $66 billion in the same period last year.
The figures also provided the first look at how new tariffs the Trump administration put into place on more than $100 billion of Chinese goods on Sept. 1 have affected trade. Compared with the previous month, both imports and exports of goods to China ticked down in September as the new levies went into effect.
“In a very narrow sense, higher tariffs on China are working: They clearly have reduced trade and thus the trade deficit with China,” Brad Setser, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter.
In September, the overall trade deficit in goods and services fell slightly from the previous month to $52.5 billion, continuing several months of decline as imports fell by more than exports.
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