U.S. exports jump, but trade gap widens

Stacks of empty barrels used to hold fuel in Baghdad

Kai Ryssdal: We had one of those screwy economic indicators this morning. The kind that that seems lousy on the surface, then you dig a little deeper.

The Commerce Department said the trade deficit rose 6 percent in March. Nobody likes a rising trade gap. It means we're sending more money out of the country to buy stuff than the rest of the world is spending to buy our exports. Thing is, U.S. exports are actually rising right now. They're rising a lot. But so are prices for some of the raw materials that help fuel our economy -- yeah, that'd be oil.

Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports.


Mitchell Hartman: I started tracking this story right downstairs at the "Pony Espresso" truck, where I get my mid-day latte.

Hartman: What are you paying for coffee?

Bruce Lindner: $193 now for 20 pounds. At the beginning of the year, it was like $158, something like that.

Not only is imported coffee up. So's fuel, says Bruce Lindner. He's owner, driver, barrista.

Lindner: Extra $10 every day in gas, which I have not passed on to the customer.

Good for my budget, but not for Lindner, or other U.S. businesses.

That's the import side of the equation. On the other side, U.S. exports were up the most in 17 years in March. And it's across the board: autos, chemicals, machinery. And also:

Jon Bailey: For our product, fresh cherries, it is up.

That's Jon Bailey with Orchardview Farms in Oregon, which produces a lot of cherries. And every year, more of them are picked and loaded onto planes.

Bailey: China is our biggest market. Second would be the U.K. or Korea, Australia, Japan -- all those are pretty close. It actually looks very, very good.

Now, flying fresh cherries to all those countries will cost more this year -- think aviation fuel. More than balancing that is the incredibly weak U.S. dollar, which makes cherries -- and tractors, and software -- cheaper for foreign customers.

The danger: if oil prices keep climbing, we'll be sending more money offshore to pay for it, pushing the trade deficit even higher.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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