Australia trade surplus swells in February, floods a temporary setback

Pedestrians walk past the Reserve Bank of Australia building in central Sydney, Australia, on Feb 10, 2017.
Pedestrians walk past the Reserve Bank of Australia building in central Sydney, Australia, on Feb 10, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia's trade surplus ballooned in February as exports of gold and minerals rebounded while imports took an unusually sharp fall, nudging the country nearer to its first current account surplus since the mid-1970s.

The massive turnaround in trade is boosting profits and tax receipts and has been welcomed by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) as a support for spending and investment.

The central bank holds its April policy meeting later on Tuesday (April 4) and is considered certain to keep rates at 1.5 per cent, in part due to concerns further stimulus would only serve to inflate house price bubbles in Sydney and Melbourne.

Tuesday's data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed a trade surplus of A$3.57 billion (S$3.79 billion) in February, more than double the previous month and far above forecasts of A$1.8 billion.

With two months gone for the first quarter, the trade surplus is running at A$5 billion and another sizable outcome in March might just get the whole current account into the black.

The current account shortfall was already the smallest in 15 years in the fourth quarter at A$3.9 billion.

Much of the trade improvement in February came from a 5.3 per cent drop in imports, an unusually steep decline that included a 10 per cent fall in consumer goods.

Exports climbed 1.5 per cent, with gold, iron ore and coal all making gains.

Beijing's efforts to slash inefficient steel making has been helping underpin demand for higher quality iron ore, Australia's single biggest earner. Exports to the Asian giant stood at A$7.8 billion in February, up 56 percent on the same month last year.

Prices for iron ore have been easing in the past couple of weeks, but remain far above this time in 2016.

The RBA's index of commodity prices, which mirrors the country's resource mix, has held firm after shooting higher in the second half of last year. In local dollar terms, the index was up by just over 43 per cent in March from a year earlier.

Bad weather was a drag on exports through the first quarter and its impact will extend for a while yet.

This month Cyclone Debbie brought massive flooding to an area of northern Queensland that accounts for well over half of Australia's coking coal exports.

While the mines themselves do not seem to be damaged much, the rail lines that take coal to the ports have been. Some could be down for anywhere up to five weeks, which will likely curb export volumes in the second quarter.

On a brighter note, the supply disruption has lifted coking coal prices by around 15 per cent at a time when contracts for the quarter are being hammered out and will provide some offset.