The American deficit in the current account, traditionally considered the best measure of the international health of the dollar, decreased to $3 billion in the first quarter of this year from $6.6 billion in the final three months of 1982, the Department of Commerce reported yesterday.
But for the year 1982 as a whole, the current account deficit soared to $11.2 billion, a reversal of a surplus of $4.6 billion (revised) in 1981.
The current account, the broadest tally of U.S. international transactions, covers not only the plus-or-minus balances on trade in goods and services, but private remittances and other net unilateral transfers of funds abroad (except for military grants).
The main reason for the shift of the current account from surplus to deficit last year was a deterioration in the U.S. trade deficit, which zoomed to $36.4 billion last year from $28.7 billion in 1981.
Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige and other Reagan administration officials have estimated that the trade deficit might soar to $60 billion or more in 1983, overwhelming the traditional American surplus on the trade in services.
A trade deficit of that magnitude would almost certainly drag the current account deficit to a minus number this year far exceeding the old $14.8 billion record deficit set in 1978. That year's, following one almost as big in 1977, helped trigger a plunging dollar and record gold prices.
But officials are less worried than they used to be about the impact of a huge current account deficit on the U.S. dollar. With economic recovery moving along here at a faster pace than in Europe, and with the United States now considered a "refuge" for financial investment, the dollar has shown little shakiness, even as the U.S. current and trade accounts deteriorated last year.
On the other hand, the recent annual report of the Bank for International Settlements at Basel warned that the growing American trade deficit was at least in part a sign of "loss of international competitiveness." It also noted that while the U.S. trade balance with OPEC last year had improved by about $18 billion--as oil imports declined--there had been a deterioration of $11 billion with other Third World countries, and a $14 billion drop in trade balances with other rich countries.
The Commerce report yesterday also showed that the merchandise trade deficit had decreased to $8.7 billion in the first quarter from $11.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 1982, because of increased exports of wheat and aircraft, and reduced imports of petroleum.
"Both the higher exports and lower imports reflected factors that are likely to be reversed," the department said.
Although merchandise imports of $58.3 billion overwhelmed the merchandise export total of $49.6 billion, the United States continued to run a hefty $7.3 billion surplus on services, reflecting earnings and interest on investment abroad. For 1982 as a whole, the services surplus was $33.2 billion, compared with $39.6 billion in 1981.
The third element in the current account (apart from merchandise trade and services) is unilateral transfers, which showed a net outflow of $1.5 billion in the first quarter.U.S. CURRENT ACCOUNT
A recapitulation of the current account for the first quarter:
Trade Deficit: - $8.739 billion.
Services Surplus: + $7.256 billion.
Balance on Trade and Services: - $1.482 billion.
Deficit on Unilateral Transfers: - $1,563 billion.
Total Balance on Current Account: - $3.045 billion.