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In this Dec. 8, 2011 photo, a container ship is docked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif.

Paul Sakuma/Paul Sakuma/AP

The U.S. trade deficit narrowed unexpectedly in February as exports hit a record high, imports from China and other key suppliers declined and oil import volume fell to the lowest in 15 years, a government report showed on Thursday.

The monthly trade gap shrank 12.4 per cent to $46.0-billion, the biggest month-to-month decline since May, 2009, the Commerce Department report said. Analysts surveyed before the report had expected the deficit to narrow only slightly from January's revised estimate of $52.5-billion.

U.S. exports edged slightly higher to a record $181.2-billion, led by record exports of services and capital goods, such as civilian aircraft and industrial machines.

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Exports to Canada, the biggest U.S. trade partner, grew 7.2 per cent and also rose to the 27-nation European Union, China, Brazil and newly industrialized countries. Exports to Britain hit a record $5.3-billion.

Imports dropped 2.7 per cent to $227.2-billion, the biggest monthly drop in three years.

Imports from Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries tumbled 23.3 per cent, as U.S. oil imports dropped to 226 million barrels in February, the lowest level since February 1997.

The average price for imported oil fell slightly to $103.63 per barrel, but still was well above the February 2011 average price of $87.17.

Imports from China slipped 18.2 per cent and also fell from other major suppliers, such as Canada and the European Union.

The closely watched U.S. trade deficit with China shrank 25.6 per cent to $19.4-billion, the lowest in nearly a year.

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