The US trade deficit increased more than expected in December on rising imports and higher oil prices, lifting the 2011 gap figure to the highest level since the financial crisis.

Separately, consumer sentiment slumped in early February as concerns over falling incomes outweighed renewed optimism over jobs.

Commerce department figures released on Friday showed the trade gap grew 2.7 per cent to $48.8bn, the highest level since June, from a revised $47.1bn in November. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had expected the deficit to rise to $48.5bn in the final month of the year.

December’s increase lifted the full-year trade gap 11.6 per cent to $558bn, the highest level in three years, with imports and exports both hitting record levels.

Imports were up 13.8 per cent to $2.7tn, as purchases of foreign cars surged. Oil prices reached record highs last year, also lifting the cost of imported fuel. Meanwhile, exports grew 14.5 per cent to $2.1tn. President Barack Obama has set a goal of doubling exports by 2015.

The trade gap with China, a closely watched and politically sensitive figure, rose to a record $295.5bn in 2011 as record imports outpaced export growth.

The data came before a visit by Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice-president and presumptive next president, to Washington next week, which observers will be closely watching for indications of China’s future relationship with the west.

In December, exports rose for the first time in three months, up 0.7 per cent to $178.8bn, led by industrial supplies and materials, cars and food and beverages. Imports increased at almost twice that rate, rising 1.3 per cent to $227.6bn, as the US bought more capital goods, consumer products, cars and industrial supplies and materials abroad.

The gap with China narrowed slightly over the month, falling to $23.1bn, as imports fell faster than exports. Earlier on Friday, China reported that its exports declined for the first time since 2009 and that imports plunged 15.3 per cent as domestic demand fell.

Exports to the European Union rebounded 3.6 per cent from November’s decline.

Also on Friday, a survey of US consumers showed sentiment fell more than forecast at the beginning of this month. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to 72.5 from 75 in January, which was an 11-month high. The median estimate of economists was 74.8.

The measure of current economic conditions pulled back to 79.6 from 84.2, while expectations for the future declined to 68 from 69.1.

Fewer people reported an improving financial situation, with a quarter of households saying their income had declined.

“The personal financial situation of consumers remained dreary,” said Richard Curtin, survey director.

But he noted that at the same time, “more consumers spontaneously mentioned hearing about increases in employment and job opportunities than ever before recorded in the long history of the surveys”.

The survey followed last week’s government report on payroll growth, which showed a surprisingly strong 243,000 new workers added in January and the unemployment rate dropping to 8.3 per cent.

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