The nation's trade deficit widened sharply in January, reaching $5.44 billion in red ink for the second-highest monthly deficit ever recorded, the Commerce Department reported yesterday.

Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige said "January's large trade deficit is another forceful reminder of the need to improve U.S. export performance and to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil."

"Both increased oil imports and sharply increased imports of automobiles and other manufactured goods contributed to the trade deficit. It was the largest monthly deficit since the all-time record of $5.96 billion last February. The deficit in December was $2.98 billion.

There was also a large drop in aircraft exports, which are normally erractic. This drop probably will prove to be temporary, the Commerce Department said yesterday. In addition, the import figures now include the Virgin Islands and so are larger.

But other changes -- due to higher oil prices and a robust economy drawing in more imports -- are not temporary.

Baldrige said, "An increase in imports had to be expected in an economy exhibiting stronger-than-expected growth." He also referred to the rising value of the dollar as a factor worsening the trade balance.

But economists believe it usually takes longer for a change in the exchange rate to feed through into exports and imports.

In its monthly report of the trade figures, the Commerce Department said the value of American exports declined 2.2 percent from December to $18.8 billion. The value of January imports was up 8 1/2 percent from December to $24.3 billion.

The total volume of oil imported was 222.9 million barrels, a 3.7 percent increase from December.

That oil cost $7.83 billion in January, a 6.6 percent increase over December, at an average price of $32.99 a barrel.

The department reported Thursday that the average price per barrel for all of 1980 was $31.96. It also calculated that for all of last year the United States imported 19.8 percent less oil but paid 29 percent more in total oil bills.

Overall, U.S. agricultural reports increased by $189 million in January but at a rate of 26.7 percent less than the December increase.

Trade in manufactured goods had U.S. imports $1.4 billion higher than exports.

The January increase in imported goods other than oil and agricultural commodities was accounted for by automobiles and a wide assortment of other manufactured goods.

The trade deficit with members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) continued to be a major factor in the overall deficit. The department said the January OPEC trade deficit was $4.23 billion.

The nation's trade balance with Japan showed a $1.66 billion shortfall.

The January figures reflect for the first time imports of oil through Virgin Islands Refineries, most of which is sold in the United States. The same addition applied retroactively to last year's figures increases the total 1980 merchandise trade deficit by $4 billion.

For January, the Virgin Island addition accounts for about a $350 million increase in the value of total exports.