US TRADE DEFICIT DOWN, FOR NOW \ ANALYSTS EXPECTED MORE IMPACT FROM ASIA CRISIS

US TRADE DEFICIT DOWN, FOR NOW \ ANALYSTS EXPECTED MORE IMPACT FROM ASIA CRISIS

The U.S. trade deficit narrowed in November, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday, surprising analysts who had expected a mushrooming deficit as the Asian financial crisis worsened.

But, analysts warned, the Asian meltdown will soon leave its mark on the U.S. trade balance, inflating it by tens of billions of dollars this year. The merchandise deficit in 1998 is expected to rise to a record level of well over $200 billion.''This is the calm before the storm,'' said Lawrence Chimerine, chief economist for the Economic Strategy Institute. When future trade numbers come in, added Stephan Thurman, an analyst with Standard & Poor's DRI: ''It will be a rude awakening.''

In November, however, the deficit in goods and services trade declined to $8 billion, adjusted for seasonal factors, down $1 billion from October and the smallest monthly total since last March.

The merchandise deficit fell to $15.1 billion, about $1.4 billion lower than in October, while the surplus in services trade receded somewhat to $7 billion.

THE DRIVING FORCE

The November flows brought the U.S. goods and services deficit worldwide in the first 11 months of 1997 to $102 billion, slightly higher than a year earlier but still far below levels in the mid-1980s.

Driving the smaller U.S. trade deficit in November were sharply lower imports of oil, computer accessories, semiconductors and aircraft. Altogether, imports fell $2.1 billion from October to $87.2 billion, their lowest level since June.

U.S. exports fell, too, but only by about $1 billion to $79.2 billion, the second highest monthly export total ever.

Making the November data the more surprising, Commerce said the U.S. trade deficit with Pacific Rim countries, including Japan and China, actually improved in November. But, officials cautioned, those figures may be misleading because they do not take into account inflation or seasonal factors.

Nonetheless, the Asian crisis seemed to be starting to have some effect on trade flows. U.S. exports to both South Korea and Malaysia in November were off sharply from October, while shipments to Thailand were down modestly.

LONG LAGS

Still, said Lee Price, an acting under secretary of Commerce, U.S. exports in November to both Thailand and Malaysia were up sharply from a year earlier.

''Those looking to find significant effects of the recent financial turmoil in East Asia in the trade numbers will be dissapointed in these November data,'' he said.

There are long lags before exchange rate shifts affect trade flows, he noted. The key to U.S. trade prospects in Asia, he added, is what happens in ''the real economies'' of Asia, not simply in their exchange and securities markets. Many Asian economies, he suggested, will average relatively strong growth, despite the recent turmoil.

SPRINGTIME CHANGES

Private economists warned that the Asian crisis will begin having a significant impact on U.S. trade flows, certainly by this spring.

Kurt Karl, a WEFA Group economist, said We still expect a negative hit from Asia,'' especially in U.S. capital goods exports. The surprisingly better U.S. trade balance in November, he said, may reflect the so-called fourth-quarter effect, when U.S. imports usually drop and exports expand.

WEFA, he said, now estimates that the Asian crisis will worsen the U.S. trade deficit by about $20 billion both this year and next. An expected big drop in U.S. capital goods exports should be partly offset by a rise in intermediate goods exports to the region. U.S. consumer goods imports from Asia will grow only moderately, WEFA projects.

DRI and the Economic Strategy Institute, however, foresee a somewhat greater impact on the U.S. trade balance. The Asian crisis, they anticipate, will worsen the U.S. deficit by $40 billion or more this year alone.

Even before the Asian crisis, economists were forecasting a bigger U.S. trade deficit this year, largely because of a strong dollar, which tends to slow exports and accelerate imports. Falling oil prices, however, could help cushion the dollar's negative trade impact, analysts noted.