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The U.S. merchandise trade deficit swelled to $4.78 billion in April, reversing a two-month decline that had dropped it to the lowest level in eight years, the government said Wednesday.

The Commerce Department said the difference between what America exports and what it imports was 17.4 percent above March's $4.07 billion deficit. That had been the smallest imbalance since a $3.96 billion gap in June 1983.But the gap was less than the $7.38 billion in January and $5.50 billion in February.

The deterioration occurred despite record exports totaling $35.56 billion, a 4.5 percent jump over March, as Americans increased their purchases of foreign goods by 5.9 percent.

Imports, reversing a two-month decline, totaled $40.34 billion despite the curbing effect of the recession on Americans' ability to buy goods from overseas.

Still, the continuing strength of U.S. exports would bolster Bush administration hopes that foreign purchases of U.S. goods would help lift the economy out of the recession. It says exports accounted for more than 40 percent of the nation's economic growth in 1990, and that one of every four new jobs was related to exports.

The administration is forecasting a 1991 deficit of $90 billion. That would be down from $101.72 billion in 1990 and would mark the first time since 1983 the gap totaled less than $100 billion.

The deficit peaked at $152.1 billion in 1987 and has improved steadily since then.

For the first four months of 1991, America's merchandise trade deficit has been running at an annual rate of $65.2 billion.