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January trade gap widens as imports hit record high

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trade deficit widened more than expected in January as high oil prices and resurgent demand helped pushed imports to a record high, a Commerce Department report showed on Friday.

The trade gap swelled more than 4 percent to $52.6 billion, the highest since October 2008. The department also raised its estimate of the December trade deficit to $50.4 billion, from its previous figure of $48.8 billion.

Imports rose 2.1 percent to a record $233.4 billion. China accounted for a big share of the gain, with imports from that country rising 4.7 percent to $34.4 billion.

Goods imports reached the highest level since July 2008, just before the financial crisis caused world trade to plummet.

Stronger U.S. demand also pushed imports of services, autos, capital goods and food, feeds and beverages to record highs.

The average price for imported oil fell slightly to $103.81 per barrel, but remained well above the January 2011 level of $84.34.

Meanwhile, U.S. exports put in another good month, growing 1.4 percent in January to $180.8 billion, led by record exports of services.

Exports of autos and capital goods also hit record highs, displaying the increasing competitiveness of American goods in world markets.

The growth was led by exports to Mexico and Japan, with shipments to China and the 27-nation European Union tumbling.

The closely watched U.S. trade deficit with China swelled 12.5 percent to $26.0 billion. Last year, it set an annual record of more than $295 billion.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer, Editing by Andrea Ricci )

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