The U.S. merchandise trade deficit narrowed in November to $9.7 billion as America's foreign oil bill fell 13 percent, the government said Friday.

The Commerce Department said the 11.7 percent drop resulted from declines in both imports and exports, which had record highs in October.Imports fell 5.8 percent, to $43.32 billion, while exports dropped 4.0 percent, to $33.62 billion. The deficit is the difference between the two.

Oil imports declined to $6.3 billion in November from $7.23 billion a month earlier. Volume declined to 7.14 million barrels a day from 8.03 million in October, although prices rose slightly, from $29.04 to $29.44 in November.

Virtually all other import categories declined as well, including foreign-made cars.

Car imports, which had soared 39 percent in October, dropped back 2.1 percent in November to $4.4 billion.

Except for foods, most export categories also posted declines.

Excluding oil products, the deficit totaled $4.3 billion, down from a $5 billion non-oil gap a month earlier.

The overall deficit was slightly higher than the $9.5 billion forecast by many economists.

Strong exports have been one of the few sources of strength recently in the nation's economy, which the Bush administration and most economists agree has lapsed into a recession.

The administration had hoped a weaker dollar would continue to prop up exports since it lowers the cost of U.S. goods overseas and thus makes them more attractive.

At the same time, imports were expected to decline both because the weaker dollar makes goods produced overseas more expensive to Americans and because of the recessionary economy.

The October deficit, originally reported to be the highest in nearly three years, was not as wide as the department first thought. It revised its first estimate down from $11.61 billion to $11 billion in today's report.

Before the Persian Gulf crisis drove up the price of oil, the administration and many economists had been betting the deficit would drop below $100 billion in 1990 for the first time since 1983.

But for the first 11 months of the year, the gap was running at an annual rate of $103.58 billion, the department said. The deficit totaled $109.4 billion in 1989.

The deficit with Japan, while remaining the largest, slowed to $4.0 billion in November from $4.9 billion a month earlier.

But the deficit with Canada, America's largest trading partner, rose to $1.1 billion from $871 million in October. The deficit with China was $829 million and with Taiwan, $1.03 billion.