Indonesia surprises with a sizable November trade surplus

Indonesia reported a surprisingly large trade surplus for November, while inflation was steady last month, which could give the central bank room to keep its benchmark rate unchanged next week.

Data from the statistics bureau showed a trade surplus of $780 million in November, compared with a projected $70 million deficit in a Reuters poll.

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The rupiah strengthened slightly on the news, to 12,200 to the U.S. dollar from 12,205, compared with the previous close of 12,160.

November's exports fell 2.4 percent on an annual basis, but imports dropped 10.55 percent as demand was subdued, apparently in part because the weak rupiah has raised import costs.

Sha Ying | CNBC

The Reuters poll had forecast a 1.9 percent drop in exports and a 7.4 percent decline in imports from a year earlier.

In 2013, the rupiah was emerging Asia's worst-performing currency, weakening 21 percent.

In a bid to reduce Indonesia's large current account deficit and aid the beleaguered rupiah, Bank Indonesia has raised its key reference rate by 175 basis points since June to 7.50 percent.

Its next policy meeting is on Jan. 9.

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"The improvement in trade will give some room for the central bank to pause in the next board meeting," said Aldian Taloputra, economist at Mandiri Sekuritas.

Still, he thinks Bank Indonesia is likely to raise its benchmark 25-50 basis points in 2014 to bring the country's current-account deficit to a "more sustainable level".

Joshua Pardede, economist at Bank Internasional Indonesia, said it's still possible the central bank will increase rates on Jan. 9, given the rupiah's sharp depreciation in 2013.

Consecutive trade surpluses

November's surplus was the largest since March 2012, and it lets Indonesia have consecutive monthly trade surpluses for the first time since August-September 2012. On Thursday, the statistics bureau revised the surplus for October to $30 million from the originally-reported $50 million.

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Indonesia, which for decades had annual trade surpluses, in 2012 and 2013 had trade deficits. These added to the country's current-account deficits and contributed to pressure on the rupiah.

Also hurting the rupiah during 2013 were fears of capital outflows rooted in the U.S. Federal Reserve's stimulus scale back due to its current account deficit.

The current account, the widest measure of the flow of goods, services and money in and out of Indonesia, has remained in deficit for nearly two years.

The government has said that the current-account deficit in 2013's third quarter was 3.8 percent of gross domestic product. That was bigger than an earlier estimate for the period, but smaller than the record high 4.4 percent in April-June.

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On Thursday, the statistics bureau said annual inflation in December was 8.38 percent, marginally above the previous month's 8.37 percent.

In 2012, inflation was only about half of last year's level, at 4.3 percent. But inflation in 2013 stayed below Bank Indonesia's revised target of 9-9.8 percent.

On a monthly basis, the headline inflation rate in December rose 0.55 percent against 0.12 percent the previous month.

Dariusz Kowalczyk, a senior economist and strategist for Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong, said November's decline in imports highlights "a weakening of domestic demand and the continued impact of price hikes". The month's sizable trade balance "should be viewed very positively by markets" and is positive for the rupiah, he said.

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Economists said Indonesia might have another trade surplus in December, helped by high mineral exports. But the outlook for 2014 exports has been dimmed by the parliament's rejection of a government proposal to exempt certain miners from a ban on exports of metal ore that took effect on Jan. 1.