WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. trade gap narrowed unexpectedly in February as crude oil imports fell to their lowest level since March 1996 and overall exports increased slightly, a Commerce Department report on Friday showed.
The deficit narrowed to $43.0 billion, from an unrevised $44.5 billion in January. The consensus estimate of Wall Street analysts surveyed before the report was for the trade gap to widen slightly to $44.6 billion.
The lower-than-expected deficit could prompt analysts to raise their estimates of first-quarter U.S. economic growth.
The United States imported 205 million barrels of crude in February, down sharply from 261 million the previous month. The 17-year low came as monthly crude oil import prices rose nearly $2 a barrel from January to $95.96.
Higher imports of autos, consumer goods, capital goods and food offset the reduced imports of oil and other industrial supplies and material, leaving overall imports unchanged from January at $228.9 billion.
U.S. imports from China fell in February to their lowest level in nearly a year. The bilateral U.S. trade gap with China narrowed to $23.4 billion, also the lowest since March 2012.
Overall U.S. exports grew 0.8 percent in February to $186.0 billion, just shy of the record level.
Increased exports of industrial supplies and materials, other goods and autos were partly offset by lower exports of capital goods, consumer goods and food.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer)