WASHINGTON — As the overall U.S. trade deficit hit a new record in January, apparel and textile imports rose 7.6 percent to 4.2 billion square meter equivalents valued at $7.3 billion. China again led the pack, despite new restraints.

Amid the politically charged environment surrounding trade, the overall deficit for goods and services widened to $68.5 billion, $3.4 billion more than in December, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

“When you look at trade deficits in the context of growing foreign ownership of our national debt, you see that we’re increasingly beholden to the very countries whose markets we’d like to open to American goods,” Rep. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) said in a statement. “Unless we reverse this dangerous trend, we’ll soon find ourselves without negotiating leverage to promote our trade agenda.”

Not everyone sees such ominous signs in the imbalance.

Richard Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research, said the deficit in January was exacerbated by higher fuel prices and isn’t indicative of the state of the economy.

“The U.S. economy is expanding,” Yamarone said. “We’re on target to exceed 5 percent [gross domestic product growth] in the first quarter.”

Yamarone said the growth was supported by new jobs, relatively mild inflation outside the energy sector, low interest rates and strong housing starts, even though housing sales are softening.

Less expensive imports also help consumers by keeping prices down, he said.

Those imports are increasingly coming from China, which boosted its shipments of apparel and textiles to the U.S. by 20.1 percent in January, to 1.4 billion SME, worth $1.8 billion. That was the first month imports from the country were restrained by a deal that imposed quotas on 34 kinds of apparel and textiles, including cotton trousers, bras, swimwear and knit fabric.

However, the deal, which was sought by domestic textile businesses, protects a narrow band of sensitive categories, so growth from China continued. January shipments of goods covered under the pact totaled 180.4 million SME, worth $395.2 million, according to Ross Arnold, international trade specialist at the Commerce Department’s Office of Tex­tiles and Apparel. That means goods covered under the deal represented 13 percent of Chinese apparel and textile imports by volume, or 21.8 percent of the trade in dollar terms.

This story first appeared in the March 10, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Stephen Lamar, senior vice president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, said the restraints are helping other Asian countries.

“Business is not coming back to the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

Among the other countries that boosted their apparel and textile imports to the U.S. in January were Pakistan, with growth of 36.4 percent, to 302 million SME, valued at $262 million, and India, with a 34.2 percent rise, to 223 million SME, worth $486 million.

On the losing end were Mexico, which had a decrease in apparel and textile imports of 10.1 percent, to 260 million SME, worth $463 million, and Canada, with an 11 percent drop, to 240 million SME, valued at $232 million.

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