HONG KONG'S trade account with the world is in the red - and it is getting worse. The first quarter trade deficit leaped to nearly $36 billion, a 156 per cent increase over the same period last year. The territory's trade deficit exploded last year, especially in the final months, while its services surplus - the other side of the ledger - appears to have peaked. Figures released by the Government yesterday on March's external trade underline the trend. There is growing evidence that the fall in the value of the US dollar - to which the Hong Kong dollar is pegged - will push the trade gap wider as the cost of imports soar. Economists are divided about the underlying implications of this spiralling deficit. They were also surprised at the accelerating growth when consumer demand has slumped and there has been only a moderate growth in money supply. The pessimists argue that the traditional surplus in services will not be enough to offset the growing deficit and that the territory could be heading for a current-account deficit. The surplus in the trade of goods and services fell to an estimated 3.2 per cent of gross domestic product last year from eight per cent in 1993. This was the territory's worst performance since 1983, the year in which the currency was pegged to the US dollar. This is being caused, they claim, by complex underlying structural problems in the economy that will be exacerbated as the full impact of the weak dollar bites. The current account blow-out will place additional pressure on interest rates and the peg. A more optimistic scenario, championed by the Hongkong Bank, is that the widening visible trade deficit, equivalent to 11 per cent of the value of imports, is due to a series of transitional factors. It claims the sharp widening in the visible trade deficit can be largely attributed to a more rapid rise in the volume of retained imports, a deterioration in the terms of trade and changes in the trading pattern between Hong Kong and China. Apart from the deterioration in the terms of trade, most of the contributory factors are either transitional or will generate export earnings and investment income. The data released by the Government showing strong growth in retained imports provides some evidence for the optimists case. But the jury is still out.