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South Africa Has Unexpected Trade Surplus on Car Exports

South Africa posted a surprise trade surplus in November as car exports continued to rebound after strikes that halted production in August and September and oil imports fell.

The trade balance switched to a surplus of 770 million ($73 million) in November compared with a revised deficit of 11.8 billion rand in October, the Pretoria-based South African Revenue Service said in a e-mailed statement today. The median estimate of eight economists surveyed by Bloomberg was for a deficit of 9.4 billion rand.

Strikes at carmakers, including Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp., and auto-component manufacturers hampered production and exports of cars for six weeks until Oct. 6. The disruptions contributed to the trade deficit almost doubling to 74.7 billion rand in the first 11 months of the year compared with the same period in 2012.

“It seems like the weaker rand and the somewhat stronger world economy is starting to reflect in the trade data,” Johann Els, an economist at Old Mutual Investment Group in Cape Town, said by phone. “The forecasts of a narrower current account deficit over the next two years may just prove accurate.”

The gap on the current account of Africa’s largest economy widened to 6.8 percent of gross domestic product in the third quarter, according to the Reserve Bank. South Africa depends on foreign investment in stocks and bonds to help finance the shortfall on the current account. These inflows have fluctuated this year as investors sold riskier emerging-market assets after the U.S. Federal Reserve indicated it will start tapering its monthly bond buyback program.

Rand Weakness

The fluctuating capital inflows contributed to the rand’s weakness. The currency has lost 19 percent against the dollar this year, the worst performer among 16 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The rand gained 0.7 percent to 10.4621 per dollar as of 3:17 p.m. in Johannesburg.

Exports increased 5.3 percent to 86.6 billion in November, boosted by a 34 percent jump in vehicle exports and growth of 6 percent in the shipment of precious and semi-precious stones and metals, the revenue service said.

Imports decreased by 8.8 percent to 85.8 billion as mineral imports, which include oil, fell by 3.5 billion rand, or 17 percent, and imports of original equipment components fell by 26 percent.

The tax office on Nov. 14 revised trade data to include exports to and imports from neighboring countries Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland, which helped to halve the deficit for the first nine months of the year. Excluding trade with those four countries, South Africa would have posted a trade deficit of 9.2 billion in November, the revenue service said.

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

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