The US trade deficit with the outside world plunged in January to a record-breaking $43.1 billion (€35.39bn; £24.02bn), with overseas imports rising to their second-highest level ever.

The data, released by the US Commerce Department, indicates an increase of 0.9% on the previous 'record' -- $42.7bn in December 2003.. The news was hailed with questionable optimism by USA Today as "a sign of a stronger US economy"!

Less Panglossian observers see it as a sign that the nation is living on a line of dangerously stretched credit.

Imports of goods and services in January amounted to $132 billion while exports totaled $89bn, down 1.2% on December. This trading snapshot comes in the wake of rising tensions with other nations -- especially the People's Republic of China (January imbalance: $11.5bn) -- over global trade and the migration of US jobs to other countries.

But to onlookers outside the necromantic circles of the IMF, the World Bank and other fiscal policymakers, the problem seems less rooted in the developing world than in Wall Street and the boardrooms of multinational corporations -- where the overriding strategy is to slash labor and manufacturing costs to the benefit of bottom lines and stock prices.

President Bush earlier this week hyped world trade as crucial to economic growth and reiterated a warning against "economic isolationists" who question free-trade deals.

The presidential finger was firmly pointed at Democratic candidate John Kerry. The senator from Massachusetts has said that if elected he would place all trade deals under a 120-day review, advocating labor and environmental standards in new agreements.

He would also require companies to give notice before moving jobs to other countries.

Data sourced from: USA Today; additional content by WARC staff