WASHINGTON — Despite some glimmers of good economic news, apparel and textile imports to the U.S. continued to falter in March, although the pace of declines moderated.

This story first appeared in the May 13, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel said Tuesday textile and apparel imports into the U.S. fell 5.8 percent to 3.46 billion square meter equivalents in March compared with a year earlier. Apparel imports declined 5.3 percent to 1.53 billion SME, and textile shipments dropped 6.2 percent to 1.93 billion SME.

It marked the 11th consecutive monthly decline in year-to-year import comparisons. The volume of imports was the lowest for the month of March since 2003, the Commerce Department office noted.

“It’s consistent with a lot of the other data you’re seeing that suggests that we’re still in a recession, but the degree of the recession is lessening,” said Richard Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research Corp.

The nation’s trade gap widened in March to $27.6 billion from $26.1 billion in February, the first increase in the trade deficit since July.

“The March 2009 trade data reiterates the current challenges in our global economy, specifically the decline in world trade,” said U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. “In order to ensure a speedy revival of the U.S. and global economies, it is imperative that we work with our trading partners to further open markets.”

Textile and apparel shipments from China increased 5.6 percent to 1.23 billion SME in March in 12-month comparisons. In the first quarter, shipments from China declined 8.8 percent to 4.04 billion SME compared with the same period in 2008.

Showing ongoing growth, imports from Vietnam increased 28.6 percent in March to 146 million SME and shipments from Bangladesh gained 7.6 percent to 158 million SME. On the downside, the volume of goods from Pakistan dropped 11 percent to 219 million SME, Mexico’s imports fell 17.9 percent to 177 million SME, Indonesia’s shipments declined 14.2 percent to 137 million SME and imports from Honduras slid 18.8 percent to 87 million SME.

The top five apparel shippers to the U.S. were China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Honduras and Indonesia. China was also the top textile importer, followed by Pakistan, India, South Korea and Mexico.

On the heels of the Treasury Department’s decisions not to declare China a currency manipulator, a bipartisan group in Congress said they will reintroduce legislation today that would make currency “misalignment” actionable under antidumping and countervailing duty laws. U.S. trade remedy laws do not apply to undervalued currencies. Critics of China’s currency policies claim the country undervalues its currency by as much as 40 percent, which makes its exports cheaper and puts U.S. producers at a competitive disadvantage.

Considered more punitive than similar measures introduced last year, the bill could face an uphill battle, given the Obama administration’s apparent hesitancy to take a hard line on China.