Trade deficit narrows, but less than expected

In a separate report, rising oil and food prices pushed up the cost of imported goods in the United States by 2.7 percent, the fastest clip since June 2009, according to a Labor Department report. Excluding volatile fuel prices, costs were up 0.6 percent.

The United States paid $21.13 billion for crude oil imports, down from $24.51 billion the month before, even as prices rose. The bill was $27.24 billion for all types of energy-related imports, down from $32.16 billion in January.

Oil imports dropped to $33.7 billion in February behind a large drop in crude oil imports, hitting the lowest level since February 1999. That reduction offset the rising cost of a barrel of imported crude oil, which rose $2.83 to $87.17 per barrel, the highest level since October 2008.

The U.S. has cut back on energy imports as the price of oil eclipsed $110 a barrel for the first time since 2008 amid continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Analysts expect oil imports to rise in the months ahead, an issue that could slow economic growth and possibly increase the trade deficit. Trade bolstered gross domestic product (GDP) in the final quarter of 2010, adding 3.3 percentage points to GDP. 

The nation's trade deficit with China dropped 19.0 percent to $18.8 billion from $23.27 billion in January. Imports fell by $4.07 billion, while exports increased by $359 million. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is expected to press China this week to move faster to allow its currency to rise in value.

Late last week, the Treasury Department said it's delaying its decision on whether China is manipulating the currency until after the Group of 20 meeting this week and other high-level talks between the U.S. and China scheduled next month.

Meanwhile, deficits with other major trading partners increased slightly in February. The trade gap with Japan grew to $5.2 billion from $4.9 billion; the deficit with the euro area increased to $6.2 billion from $4.8 billion and the gap with Mexico rose to $5.2 billion from $4.9 billion.

The gap with Canada fell to $2.8 billion from $3.7 billion.