The U.S. trade deficit expanded in November to its widest point in seven months, driven by a surge in imports that outpaced only modest growth in exports.

The Commerce Department said Friday that the trade gap widened 15.8 per cent to $48.7 billion US in November from October.

Imports grew 3.8 per cent to $231.3 billion, led by gains in shipments of cell phones, including Apple's new iPhone.

Exports increased only one per cent to $182.6 billion. And exports to Europe fell 1.3 per cent, further evidence of the prolonged debt crisis that has gripped the region.

A wider trade deficit acts as a drag on U.S. growth. It typically means the U.S. is earning less on overseas sales while spending more on foreign products.

Faster growth in exports helped the U.S. economy grow from July through September at an annual rate of 3.1 per cent. Most economists say growth has slowed in the October-December quarter to an annual rate of less than two per cent, in part because of weaker exports.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, predicts trade trimmed growth by about 0.5 percentage point in the final three months of the year.

Oil imports fall

He expects fourth-quarter growth to be no more than a rate of 1.5 per cent. Through the first 11 months of 2012, the trade deficit is running at an annual rate of $546.6 billion. That's roughly 2.4 per cent lower than the 2011 deficit.

Imports of consumer goods grew to $45.3 billion in November, a monthly record. Much of the growth was from cell phones and other household electronics products.

Oil imports dropped 2.5 per cent, reflecting a fall in prices and lower volume. Imports of foreign-made autos and auto parts rose a sizable $1.5 billion to $25.6 billion November, likely reflecting catch-up shipments following port disruptions in October caused by Superstorm Sandy.

The U.S. trade deficit with China, the largest with any country, totaled $29 billion in November. That's down slightly from the monthly record of $29.5 billion in October.

But the trade gap with China is still on track to set a new annual record in 2012. Trade was a modest positive for overall economic growth in 2012 and many economists believe that trend will continue in 2013.

However, that forecast is based on a view that the European debt crisis stabilizes and growth in Asia begins to rebound.

In its latest outlook, a forecasting panel for the National Association for Business Economics predicted that the U.S. trade deficit for 2013 will total $533 billion, a slight improvement from the $540 billion deficit they expect when the trade numbers are totaled up for all of 2012.

That expectation for a slight improvement is based on a view that export growth will outpace imports in 2013.