The US trade deficit narrowed in September to $41.5 billion, down from $43.8 billion in August, on a rebound in exports to a record level, government data released Thursday showed.
Exports of goods and services jumped 3.1 percent from August, to $187 billion, eclipsing a 1.4 percent rise in imports to $228.5 billion, according to seasonally adjusted Commerce Department data.
Exports of goods rebounded after two straight months of declines, surging 4.2 percent month-on-month to $134 billion, while services exports rose to $53.0 billion.
The Commerce Department said overall September exports were the highest on record. Imports meanwhile registered their first increase in five months.
The improvement in the trade deficit surprised most analysts, who had forecast it would widen to $45.4 billion.
"September's shrinking trade deficit was a surprise amid weak growth in Europe and lackluster trade reported with our largest export market, Canada," said Michael Wolf at Moody's Analytics.
Natixis analyst Julien Thomas said the rebound in both exports and imports, the latter partly driven by capital goods and industrial supplies, "can be interpreted as a positive signal for the manufacturing sector."
The improvement came in the context of slowing global trade and paltry growth in the US economy, the eurozone's public debt crisis and a slowdown in China, the world's second largest economy.
The US trade gap has steadily narrowed in the past four months. On a three-month moving average, the trade gap stood at $42.6 billion in September, down from $49.7 billion for the three months ended in May.
The nation's politically sensitive gap with China, which contributes to the bulk of the trade deficit, continued to rise in September.
The goods deficit with China edged up 1.3 percent from August to $29.1 billion. In the year to date, the gap widened 6.8 percent compared with the same period in 2011. The overall trade deficit grew 1.5 percent in the same period.
The gap with Canada, the country's largest trade partner fell, 17.5 percent in September from August. With the crisis-mired European Union, the deficit dropped a sharp 26.4 percent.