NZ Posts Surprise March Trade Deficit, Kiwi Down

New Zealand posted a surprise trade deficit in March, driven by lower dairy exports and higher oil imports, suggesting slower economic growth in the first quarter and sending the currency lower.

The trade balance fell to a deficit of NZ$50 million ($39 million) last month from a downwardly revised surplus of NZ$249 million in February, data showed on Tuesday, confounding analysts who had expected a surplus of NZ$395 million.

ANZ-National Bank economist Philip Borkin said the data pointed to soft first quarter gross domestic product growth.

"Exports look reasonably soft and with imports still holding up, it suggests that net exports may detract slightly from growth and Q1 GDP is looking quite soft at this stage," he said.

The New Zealand dollar fell more than a quarter of a cent to a low of $0.7824 following the data, before recovering slightly. Debt was unmoved.

Annual economic growth picked up to 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter, driven by higher business investment and oil exports, but it is expected to slow significantly in 2008 as high interest rates hit consumer spending.

A Reuters poll conducted in March showed analysts predicted growth to slow to 1.7 percent this year.

Statistics New Zealand said exports fell 7.2 percent last month after surging 20.2 percent in March, mainly because of lower sales of milk powder, butter and cheese products.

ANZ's Borkin said the lower dairy exports reflected a fall in production because of drought and world prices starting to ease from record levels.

Imports were up 1 percent from the previous month, lifted also by higher machinery and equipment.

The annual trade deficit rose to NZ$4.53 billion from NZ$4.42 billion in February.