WASHINGTON - U.S. exports rebounded strongly in September and helped narrow the monthly trade deficit to nearly a two-year low -- an encouraging sign for the economy in the face of slowing global growth.
American exports have been one of the stars of the economic recovery but fell in the summer months amid recessions in the eurozone and weaker growth in the Chinese economy. September, however, marked a sharp turnaround: Exports of goods and services surged 3.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted $187 billion, a new record, the Commerce Department said Thursday.
The increase, combined with a smaller 1.5 percent gain in imports, resulted in a drop in the trade deficit from $43.8 billion in August to $41.5 billion. That is the lowest since December 2010.
The jump in September exports -- across a broad range of goods but particularly soybeans and petroleum products -- suggests U.S. economic performance was stronger in the third quarter than the initial government estimate of 2 percent growth in gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output.
On Thursday, Macroeconomic Advisers and UBS Investment Research both revised their tally of inflation-adjusted GDP growth in the third quarter to a more solid 2.9 percent annual rate. That number would be more consistent with the acceleration in hiring in that quarter to an average job growth of 174,000 a month.
"The strong rebound in exports is an unambiguous positive for near-term growth and also reason for optimism about future prospects," said James Marple, a senior economist at TD Bank.
Other economists were more cautious. Even though economic conditions overseas have improved a touch, said Capital Economics' Paul Dales, "a continuation of the weak global backdrop will mean that exports will grow at a slower rate than imports."
What's more, other experts noted that for all the cheery numbers in the September report, the U.S. trade deficit was on track to break $500 billion again this year. That's largely because of imported oil and a big deficit with China, although some of those imports are goods, such as the Apple iPhones, that are assembled in the Asian country but in which most of the value is retained in the U.S. and other countries.