SA posts R1.7bn trade surplus in February

South Africa posted its third trade surplus in four months in February as a weaker rand stoked exports and curtailed imports.

The trade balance switched to a surplus of R1.72-billion compared with a deficit of R17.1-billion in January, the Pretoria-based South African Revenue Service (Sars) said on Monday.

The median estimate of 10 economists surveyed by Bloomberg was for a deficit of R3.5-billion. The rand plunged by 19% against the dollar last year and a further 5.7% in January, boosting the competitiveness of the nation's exports and raising import costs. The rand has rebounded by 4.9% against the US currency since the beginning of last month.

"We are noticing early signs that the economy is rebalancing, albeit slowly, from consumption to production," Gina Schoeman, an economist at Citigroup in Johannesburg, wrote in an email to clients before the data was released.

An improvement in the trade data would help narrow the nation's current account deficit. South Africa relies mainly on foreign investment in stocks and bonds to help finance its current account shortfall, which the national treasury expects to narrow to 5.9% this year from 6.1% in 2013.

Imports were down by 13% to R82.2-billion last month as purchases of mineral products including oil fell by 17%, said Sars. Machinery and electronics imports fell by 27% and chemical product shipments decreased by 14%.

Exports rose by 7.9% to R83.9-billion as shipments of base metals increased by 8%, exports of vehicles and transport equipment surged by 49% and shipments of machinery and electronics were up by 21%.

Platinum mines had sufficient stockpiles to continue exporting last month, despite a strike by thousands of workers. But continued labour action in March threatens to weigh on future trade data, Schoeman said.

The monthly trade figures are often volatile, reflecting the timing of shipments of commodities such as oil and diamonds. – Bloomberg

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