This week the Department of Commerce reported what at first glance may look like a dramatic improvement in one of the nation's most closely watched economic indicators.

As a result, the Bush administration started hailing this development as an encouraging sign of progress in whittling down the huge deficit in the balance of trade between the United States and other countries.But don't start cheering yet.

At best, the figures reflect an improvement over only one month - and that doesn't make a trend.

Besides, the figures look better than they really are simply because they also reflect a brand-new change in the way the United States keeps track of the business it does with its trading partners.

All that is a shame because a genuine improvement in the trade deficit would take pressure off the Federal Reserve to keep the lid on the American economy with higher interest rates.

In essence, here is what has happened. This week the Commerce Department reported that the U.S. merchandise trade deficit - the new term for what used to be called the international balance of trade deficit - declined 13.7 percent in January to $9.5 billion, the smallest gap since September.

But one reason the January figures look good by comparison to December's is that Japan flooded the United States with cars in December to avoid higher tariffs being imposed on certain models starting this year.

Another reason is that 1989 also marked the start of a new U.S. accounting system. The new system counts only the customs value of imports, no longer adding in costs of insurance and shipping as was done the previous nine years.

Is the new accounting method only a trick designed to make the new Bush administration look good by hiding the truth? Though plenty of critics jumped to precisely that conclusion, they acted too fast. The fact is that the new method of keeping track of imports and exports merely brings U.S. practices in line with those of its major trading partners. What's more, though the announcement received little attention, the new accounting method was outlined months ago.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is that despite the apparent improvement in the new trade figures, the United States still needs to do a more vigorous job of competing abroad.