Figures for the U.S. trade deficit in the three months ending in September showed modest improvement, but there is still not a lot to cheer about.

The deficit totaled slightly less than $31 billion, down 8.4 percent from the second quarter. While this is a move in the right direction, it hardly solves the trade deficit.Even at this reduced rate, the U.S. is spending for foreign goods and services $125 billion a year more than it sells abroad.

That figure, along with the crushing federal deficit, is what keeps the American economy in a vise, holding back domestic growth.

The trade figures are encouraging in one respect because it is the second quarter in a row that the deficit was smaller than the previous quarter. In addition, U.S. exports for the quarter reached record highs.

However, economists believe the trade deficit has flattened out at a $10 billion-a-month level and that the dollar would have to decline further for the deficit to shrink much more.

What this means is the U.S. remains far short of breaking even in competition with foreign nations. The new administration will have to be aggressive in persuading countries that sell to the U.S. to open their own markets in return.

The U.S. was once the world's largest creditor country - a position now held by Japan - but has now sunk to being the world's largest debtor nation. Let's hope this nation collectively has finally learned what its citizizens individually have long known - that it's much easier to get into debt than it is to get out.