Despite the credit crisis that began in mid-2007, the U.S. economy has mostly been able to totter along due to export demand. But weakening global economies are taking a toll on spending worldwide, and helped push down both exports and imports in September.

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Despite the credit crisis that began in mid-2007, the U.S. economy has mostly been able to totter along due to export demand. But weakening global economies are taking a toll on spending worldwide, and helped push down both exports and imports in September.

“Over the next year, we expect both export and import volumes to decline,” says IHS Global Insight’s Nigel Gault. “Trade can no longer prop up the U.S. economy.”

Since July, the dollar has strengthened against the euro, British pound and other currencies, making U.S.-made goods more expensive in many regions. This, along with slower spending worldwide, is hurting export demand.

Barclays Capital Economist Dean Maki thinks the slowdown in exports could become more pronounced in the fourth quarter, and says trade could eventually move from a driver of U.S. economic growth to a neutral factor.

The trade deficit shrank to $56.5 billion in September from $59.1 billion in August, the smallest gap in almost a year. While the 6 percent fall in exports was partly due to a strike at Boeing and production disruptions related to the recent hurricanes, declines were spread across industries.

Just as exports increase gross domestic product, or the output of all the nation’s goods and services, imports detract from it.

Lower imports boost economic growth, providing an important offset to the decline in exports. The 5.6 percent decline in September imports was partly due to plunging oil prices.

But imports of other items also fell as U.S. consumers cut spending. Deutsche Bank Securities Chief U.S. Economist Joseph LaVorgna says this could provide some support for the economy during the next few quarters.