19 Sep 2012

Current account deficit widens

6:45 pm on 19 September 2012

The current account deficit has widened because foreign-owned banks have been making higher profits, official figures show.

The figures from Statistics New Zealand on Wednesday show the seasonally-adjusted deficit stood at $2.9 billion in the three months to June.

The current account deficit has been widening due to the economic recovery, pushing up demand for imports while foreign owned firms have enjoyed stronger profits.

Exports declined, led by lower dairy products, but reduced crude oil supplies meant imports fell by more, resulting in a stronger goods surplus.

In contrast, the income deficit widened. Statistics New Zealand says the major Australian-owned banks paid dividends to its shareholders in the June quarter, instead of reinvesting the profits in New Zealand as it did in the previous quarter.

UBS senior economist Robin Clements says the deficit reflects in part the subdued economic recovery.

"Some of it is a pick-up in imports and we've seen it in other data (for example) in plant machinery, so it's a positive sign that firms are prepared to invest in their capacity and production. But at the same time, the well-flagged drop in dairy prices has been weighing on export side as well.

"So it's a combination of those areas, plus some other silver lining aspects - being greater payments to foreign owned New Zealand companies that are doing better and making more profits."

On an annual basis, the deficit widened to $10.1 billion, or 4.9%, of gross domestic product (GDP).

Economists worry that deficit - which means the country needs to borrow overseas to fund the shortfall - is getting close to levels that will prompt greater scrutiny of credit rating agencies.

However, foreigners remain happy to lend, and continue to buy government bonds, despite net foreign liabilities edging up to $149 billion, or 73%, of GDP.

The annual current account deficit was less than expected but ASB economist Jane Turner says the quarterly figure was higher than forecast.

She says foreign owned New Zealand companies saw stronger earnings reflecting the strength of New Zealand's domestic recovery over the past six months, in particular the housing market picking up and resilient strength in retail spending.

Meanwhile, Statistics New Zealand says $5.1 billion of earthquake claims had been settled by the end of June, leaving nearly $13 billion of claims outstanding.