The U.S. trade deficit shot up an astonishing 75 percent in July, to $9.3 billion, as Americans bought more foreign products and as overseas sales by U.S. companies declined, the government reported yesterday.

The monthly record of the country's foreign trade often is volatile, but the July increase was especially worrisome because the $4 billion jump from June's deficit does not include the skyrocketing oil prices that followed Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

The Bush administration had looked toward surging U.S. exports, which had been the only bright spot all year in an otherwise faltering economy, to cushion the impact of a possible recession.

Even without the huge increase in oil prices, July petroleum imports totaled $4 billion, a $300 million increase over the June numbers as Americans increased their overseas purchases by 22 million barrels during the month. The average price then was $14.50 a barrel, not even half the current price for crude.

Most economists believed that the decrease in the growth of imports in the first half of the year was a sign of a declining U.S. economy. But the 4.5 percent increase in purchases of foreign products in July, to $41.4 billion, the fourth-highest level on record, confounded that theory.

Allen Sinai, chief economist of the Boston Co., speculated that American consumers are going to continue to buy overseas products despite the slowdown in the economy.

Of the economy generally, Sinai said, "It looks very recessionary, and the worst of the oil imports is yet to come."

"I don't know how anyone can explain that increase in imports," said William T. Archey, international vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "It's heavy on capital goods, and capital goods {the machinery used in factories to produce consumer goods} are one of the first sectors that should feel a decline because of the slowdown in the U.S. economy.

"I'm hard pressed to explain it."

At the same time, exports, which have been surging, fell 6.4 percent, to $32 billion.

"Given the declining activity in the American economy, a better export performance is to be expected as domestic producers turn their attention to faster growing foreign markets," said American University international economist Stephen D. Cohen.

The lagging export performance was spread across the American economy, paced by a $700 million decline in overseas sales of capital goods. Included in that figure was a drop of $500 million in sales of aircraft overseas.

Archey noted that exports to Canada, the United States's biggest market, decreased $1.2 billion -- which he blamed on the slowdown in that country's economy.

Exports to the 12-nation European Community dropped by $1.1 billion, and Archey said that could signify that the massive investment by U.S. companies in Western Europe had reached a plateau. He said that $150 billion in U.S. investments in Europe "draws a lot of exports from the United States."

For the third straight month, the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, the highest with any country, remained around the $3 billion mark. That is a sharp decrease from past monthly levels, which ran at $4 billion or more since 1986.

The U.S. trade picture with the newly industrialized nations of Asia -- Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan -- also worsened, with the deficit almost doubling to $2.5 billion.