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NZ posts smaller-than-expected trade surplus in February, annual deficit at 5-year high

New Zealand recorded a smaller-than-expected trade surplus in February, led by declining dairy exports, while the annual deficit widened to the largest in more than five years.

Statistics New Zealand said the trade surplus was $50 million in February, lower than the $392 million expected in a Reuters poll of economists. January's surplus was revised down to $33 million, from $56 million.

The annual trade deficit was $2.18 billion, the biggest gap since August 2009, and larger than the $1.82 billion deficit forecast in the Reuters poll.

New Zealand exports in February fell from last year's record for the month, down 13 percent to $3.9 billion, led by a 41 percent decline in milk powder, butter and cheese due to lower prices and a 10 percent fall in quantities. More than three quarters of the drop in value was due to falling exports to China.

"Annual dairy export values are still coming down from the highest annual level, which was in mid-2014, but quantities exported have remained fairly stable," international statistics manager Jason Attewell said.

Exports to China, New Zealand's largest trading partner, dropped 36 percent to $740 million in February, due to a decline in whole milk powder. Wool exports to China rose.

Meanwhile exports to Australia fell 8.1 percent to $661 million, due to crude oil. Exports to the US increased 26 percent to $486 million, led by frozen beef.

Meat exports, New Zealand's second-largest commodity, increased 12 percent to $723 million, led by frozen beef shipments to the US.

Wood exports declined 5.4 percent to $317 million.

Total imports in February rose 3.7 percent to $3.9 billion, led by consumption goods such as clothing which increased 14 percent.

Imports of machinery and plant equipment in the capital goods category rose 13 percent, led by mobile phones.