By John S. McClenahen At least a first glance, the latest U.S. foreign trade figures, released on Jan. 19, raise the prospect of a smaller, though still sizable imbalance between exports and imports. The U.S. trade deficit for all goods and services in November 2000, the most recent month for which data are available, was $33 billion, $600 million less than October's deficit. Among the factors in the improvement: fewer imports of autos, capital goods, and industrial materials. However, notes Stan Shipley, a senior economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York, last November's data reflect orders placed in mid-2000. And the sharp slowdown in overall U.S. demand that began in the final calendar quarter probably won't translate to consistently lower imports and smaller U.S. trade deficits until sometime this spring. A different kind of caution comes from Dave Huether, director of economic analysis at the National Assn. of Manufacturers, Washington. While "a lower trade deficit looks good on paper . . . when it's achieved by general economic weakness, it's proof that appearances can be deceiving." He contends that decreased demand, not greater competitiveness of U.S. goods and services in global markets, is producing the smaller trade deficit. Specifically, "higher energy prices and a strong [U.S.] dollar, which [rose] 8% . . . on a trade-weighted basis during the first 11 months of 2000, have together lowered the demand for U.S. goods and services," he states. And "with higher energy prices curtailing growth both here [in the U.S.] and abroad, it doesn't look likely that we can count on export growth to provide a great deal of relief to the domestic [slow-growth] situation."