The US trade deficit increased in March as imports surged to an all-time high, government data showed today.

The Commerce Department said the US trade gap widened to $51.8 billion in March, from a revised $45.4 billion the prior month. The gap was led by a 5% rise in imports.

Most analysts had forecast the trade deficit would rise in March, but estimated a smaller gap of $50.2 billion

The trade volatility in the beginning of the year was mainly due to China's lunar new year celebrations, which dramatically lowered Chinese imports in February. Excluding China, the number one exporter to the US, the trade deficit would have been more stable.

Petrol imports also were volatile in the first quarter: less than $30 billion in February and more than $36 billion in January and March.

US trade in goods and services in March beat all records, the Commerce Department said. Imports hit an all-time high of $238.6 billion, and exports were at $186.8 billion.

The US posted record goods exports to Canada, its largest trade partner, and imported goods from its northern neighbor at the highest level since September 2008. Goods trade with the European Union - in both imports and exports - also set record highs.

But the politically sensitive trade gap with China ballooned to $21.67 billion from $19.36 billion in February. Critics accuse China of keeping its yuan currency undervalued to make its exports cheap, gaining a trade advantage.

US President Barack Obama's administration has pressed the Chinese government to allow the yuan to appreciate. While Beijing has made recent progress in widening its currency trading ban, the administration says more needs to be done to level the playing field in international trade.

The US trade deficit is now hovering around the $45 billion level seen in mid-2011, after falling to $43.1 billion in October. Since then, it has widened substantially under the effect of rising oil prices.

That trend continued in March, with the price of a barrel of imported crude oil at $107.95, compared with $103.63 in February. Still, the US trade gap levels are well below the record $67.4 billion reached in August 2006.

US jobless claims fall for second week in a row

Separate figures today from the US showed that new claims for unemployment benefits fell for the second week running last week. But the fall was not as much as expected as the troubled labour market slowly recovers.

New jobless claims totaled 367,000 in the week ending May 5, down from an upwardly revised 368,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said. Analysts had estimated 365,000 claims were filed.

Jobless claims - an indicator of the pace of layoffs - have been trending lower in recent months as the economy continues modest growth. The four-week moving average of claims fell last week by 5,250, to 379,000.

Last Friday the Labor Department said the unemployment rate fell to 8.1% in April as hundreds of thousands dropped out of the labour force, and only 115,000 jobs were created, the lowest number in six months.