By Tom DiChristopher

The U.S. trade deficit grew more than economists expected in December, as economic growth contributed to the highest import bill since July 2008.

A Bloomberg survey of 75 economists had estimated the trade deficit would increase to $48.1 billion from $47.1 billion last month.

The trade deficit hit $48.8 billion, according to a Commerce Department report issued Friday. The December numbers pushed the annual trade deficit for 2011 up to $558 billion, the highest since 2008.

The gap widened as imports outpaced exports, reflecting increased consumer sentiment buoyed by a recovering economy and decreasing unemployment.

This year’s trade deficit increased 11.6 percent over the 2010 gap of $500 billion. For 2011, the trade deficit for goods widened to $737.1 billion, an increase of $91.2 billion from the previous year.

The trade surplus in services did not register a significant change.

Exports continued to recover in December, surpassing 2008 levels for the first time after dipping in 2009. But the slowdown in Europe has exacerbated the United States’ trade deficit, said economists.

The trade gap with China also weighed on U.S. balance sheet. While the monthly deficit narrowed this month, the annual deficit grew to a record $295 billion.

Import of capital goods hit a record at $44.7 billion in December, suggesting companies are investing in production.

The trade deficit narrowed for the last two years, but this was largely due to decrease in global economic activity, said Claude Barfield, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“Imports and exports are up, not just in the United States, but around the world,” said Barfield. “World trade figures are going to continue to come back this year.”

Whether or not increased global trade would lead to greater employment in the United States was still uncertain.

Barfield said productivity gains were largely responsible for the boost in American manufacturing in 2011. If firms begin to feel more optimistic and cannot get more productivity out of their existing machines and workforce, they’ll have to add jobs to grow, he said.

Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said that while exports are growing overall, the deteriorating deficit in high-tech goods is cause for concern.

“What that shows is that the high-tech goods that we’re staking our economic future on, our competitive edge in those industries is dulling,” Hersh said.

At the same time that the United States is losing competitiveness in high-tech industries, Hersh added, oil imports continue to drive up the trade deficit. The trade gap in petroleum products grew 23 percent to $326 billion in 2011.