The US trade deficit in December widened sharply to its highest level since 2012 as imports rose despite a lower energy bill, which could see the fourth-quarter growth estimate revised down.

The country’s Commerce Department said the trade deficit jumped 17.1% to $46.6 billion, the largest since November 2012. It was the biggest percentage increase since July 2009.

November's shortfall on the trade balance was revised up to $39.8bn from a previously reported $39bn.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the trade deficit falling to $38bn. When adjusted for inflation, the deficit widened to $54.7bn from $48.7bn in November.

December's surprise surge in the trade gap suggested a downward revision to the fourth-quarter gross domestic product estimate. The government reported last week that GDP expanded at a 2.6% annual rate, with trade estimated to have subtracted 1.02 percentage point from growth.

In December, imports rose 2.2% to $241.4bn, with imports of non-petroleum products surging to a record high, a sign of strengthening in the domestic economy. It also reflected the strength of the US dollar.

Exports slipped 0.8% to $194.9bn in December. Exports have been hurt by slowing growth in Asia and Europe, a strengthening dollar, as well as a labour dispute at US West Coast ports, which has been cited by some manufacturers as causing delays in the movement of goods.

Exports to Canada and Mexico - the main US trading partners - fell in December. In contrast, exports to Japan, China and the European Union rose in December.

The politically sensitive US-China trade deficit fell 5.5% to $28.3bn.