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The first trade balance in deficit in almost a year could cause a weakening in first quarter gross domestic product (GDP) data, economists say.
Australia's trade balance turned into a deficit for the first time since February 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) said on Friday.
The balance on goods and services was a deficit of $673 million in January, seasonally adjusted, compared with a downwardly revised surplus of $1.325 billion in December.
Economists' forecasts had centred on a surplus of $1.4 billion in January.
During January, exports were down eight per cent in adjusted terms while imports were down one per cent, the ABS data released on Friday showed.
Macquarie senior economist Brian Redican said the weak exports were indicative of how difficulties in the resources sector could have a wide impact.
"It does raise questions about our over-reliance on the mining sector and high commodity prices," he said.
"So, as we found this time last year, when you do have bad weather, it can have a big impact on these very heavily-concentrated operations.
"It does set the scene for a fairly weak GDP number for Q1 (first quarter)."
Mr Redican said there was some suggestion of volatility related to commodity prices, but the generally weak figures for exports were still a concern.
"Commodity prices have certainly been more sluggish, but nothing to suggest this plummet," he said.
"The decline in non-monetary gold is, obviously, a big part of it for the month, and that is volatile month-on-month.
"You can probably discount about half of the fall in exports there, but there was broad-spread weakness."
HSBC chief economist Paul Bloxham said the shift into deficit was "quite a surprise".
"That's the first deficit in a while and it's a bit of a downside surprise in terms of expectations for January."
Mr Bloxham said the data was a further sign that Australia's economic growth remained weak.
"It certainly fits the overall theme we've had from the data we've received over the last couple of days that the economy is growing at below trend.
"The Reserve Bank had been telling us in their latest statement that the economy was tracking at about trend, but we're getting a number of indicators coming in, including this data, which suggest it is growing at below trend."
JP Morgan economist Ben Jarman said he expected a softening in the trade figures, particularly in mining and resources.
"We got even more than we thought, so iron ore and some parts of coal volumes story lost a lot of ground," he said.
"It's hard to read too much into this because of the time of year. Australia recorded a deficit around the same time last year and, looking at the Asian data, it does get knocked around a fair bit by what happens with the production cycle, particularly in China around the Chinese new year.
"It's hard to know how much of this is a permanent shock."
Mr Jarman said that around half the decline in exports was in non-monetary gold, which fell by $1.070 billion.
"It has very little to do with the cycle economically. It's more about financial transactions being undertaken by large institutions offshore," he said.
"When you take that out, it is not as dramatic. But it is a weak number.
"We need to see a bit of comeback from these soft numbers if we're to say that China is looking okay."
Mr Jarman said the January trade figures wouldn't impact on the Reserve Bank of Australia's (RBA) next interest rate decision.
He said there needed to be a lot of accumulated evidence on a weak China, for example, for the RBA to cut the cash rate because of the trade figures.
"I think there needs to be something changed in the structural story, in terms of Asia growing strongly and in capital expenditure," Mr Jarman said.
Based on information provided by and with the permission of the Western Australian Land Information Authority (2013) trading as Landgate.