WASHINGTON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - - The U.S. 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 Commerce Department said on Thursday the trade deficit jumped 17.1 percent 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 $39.8 billion from a previously reported $39.0 billion.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the trade deficit falling to $38.0 billion. When adjusted for inflation, the deficit widened to $54.7 billion from $48.7 billion 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 percent annual rate, with trade estimated to have subtracted 1.02 percentage point from growth.
In December, imports rose 2.2 percent to $241.4 billion, 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 U.S. dollar.
Exports slipped 0.8 percent to $194.9 billion in December. Exports have been hurt by slowing growth in Asia and Europe, a strengthening dollar, as well as a labor dispute at U.S. 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 U.S. trading partners - fell in December. In contrast, exports to Japan, China and the European Union rose in December.
The politically sensitive U.S.-China trade deficit fell 5.5 percent to $28.3 billion.