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Trade deficit expands by 8.5%

WASHINGTON — The US trade deficit widened in April, as demand for foreign cars, cellphones, and other imported goods outpaced growth in US exports.

The Commerce Department said Tuesday that the trade gap rose 8.5 percent in April from March to $40.3 billion.

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Exports increased 1.2 percent to $187.4 billion, the second-highest level on record. Companies sold more telecommunications equipment, industrial machinery, and airplane parts, while US-made autos and auto parts also rose to an all-time high of $12.8 billion.

But imports grew by an even faster 2.4 percent to $227.7 billion. Sales of foreign cars increased to $25.5 billion. Americans also bought more consumer goods, led by big gain in foreign-made cellphones.

A wider trade gap can restrain growth because it means US consumers and businesses are spending more on foreign goods than US companies are taking in from overseas sales.

But Joel Naroff, chief economists at Naroff Economic Advisors, said the wider deficit does show growth in the United States remains stronger than most others nations. And that growth has helped fuel more spending by consumers on imported goods.

‘‘The US economy may not be robust, but with growth continuing, the demand for foreign goods is picking up,’’ Naroff.

Most economists said trade is likely to be neutral in the April-June quarter after subtracting slightly from growth in the January-March quarter. They expect economic growth has slowed to an annual rate of around 2 percent, down from a 2.4 percent rate in the first quarter.

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