Trade deficit much higher than tipped

Weaker-than-expected exports, including lower shipments of aluminium and falling exports of dairy and meat, pushed New Zealand's October trade deficit much higher than forecast.

The October deficit was $718 million, compared with expectations of a deficit of about $450 million.

New Zealand Aluminium Smelters, which operates the Tiwai Pt aluminium plant at Bluff, last month halted $70 million of planned capital spending, citing "extremely challenging" market conditions that have eroded margins.

The change affected $15 million planned for the remainder of 2012 and 2013 and follows a review of all capital and maintenance spending at the site, the company said in a statement.

NZAS is in talks with Meridian Energy over electricity prices for the aluminium smelter as the operation that takes about 15% of New Zealand's electricity seeks to trim one of its biggest expenses.

The company announced it was making a total of 100 workers redundant this year.

Rio Tinto owns 79.36% of NZAS and Sumitomo Chemical owns the remaining shares.

ASB economist Jane Turner said the 14% fall in seasonally adjusted exports was led by a 50% fall in aluminium exports, which appeared to be disrupted by the timing of shipments. However, the October fall followed a 9% decline in the previous month.

"Beyond the shipment disruption there may have been some production cutbacks responding to lower international prices."

Dairy exports fell 15% in October because of lower volumes.

Dairy export volumes had fallen sharply in the past three months, Ms Turner said.

A 12% contraction in meat export volumes also contributed to weaker October exports, although the dip followed strong growth in meat exports since May.

Encouragingly, there were signs meat export prices might have started to lift in the past two months after falling through the middle of the year, she said.

The ASB commodity price index showed meat prices had stabilised but had yet to show any meaningful pick-up in response to higher feed prices resulting from the United States drought, Ms Turner said.

BNZ economist Doug Steel said October import values were up 1.7% on a year ago.

The increase was driven by capital and consumption goods, with intermediate goods lower than a year ago.

There were no import volume estimates in the monthly trade data. While slower annual economic growth in the second half of the year was the general message, there was enough in the import figures to suggest underlying growth had not stalled altogether, he said.

The BNZ maintained its 0.2% and 0.6% forecasts for third and fourth-quarter GDP growth respectively.

Likewise, the bank maintained its view the current account deficit would widen to 5.5% of GDP in calendar 2012, from the 4.9% it reached in the year to June 2012, Mr Steel said.

"We see further deterioration ahead, with the current account deficit expected to pierce through 6% during 2013.

"We continue to wonder how wide the external deficits have to get before the market takes note, likewise the rating agencies. The stark contrast between the 11% decline in export values over the past year and the 33% lift in house sales provides a vivid illustration of the current imbalances."

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