The U.S. merchandise trade deficit swelled by 21 percent to $10.5 billion in February as Americans increased their appetite for foreign goods, the government said Friday.

The Commerce Department said the sharp deterioration in the trade picture reflected a 5.3 percent increase in imports, which swamped a slight 0.6 percent rise in export sales. The report was in line with economists' expectations.The February deficit, combined with a revised shortfall of $8.68 billion for January, would translate into an annual imbalance of $115 billion compared with a deficit for all of 1988 of $119.76 billion.

Last year's figure represented a 21.3 percent improvement over 1987's record high of $152.1 billion, but analysts generally expect the positive trend to fizzle this year.

Rising prices for imported oil and a strengthening of the value of the dollar, which makes U.S. goods more expensive overseas, are contributing to the stall.

*****

(Chart)

Trade deficit by country

The U.S. merchandise trade deficit, in millions of dollars, from December through February with selected countries and groups:

Country February January December

Canada 824.3 1,805.3 985.2

W. Europe 624.4 +46.5 1,205.2

Japan 4,650.0 3,533.4 5,072.3

Mexico 89.4 134.4 +8.0

Hong Kong 201.5 431.4 378.0

Taiwan 988.8 1,125.8 1,164.8

South Korea 489.6 680.5 762.6

OPEC nations 843.6 1,069.4 620.2