* Jan trade surplus shrinks to A$1.3 bln, below forecasts
* Gold, coal and iron ore exports all slip from Dec highs
* Imports of consumer goods jump, suggest solid domestic
* Approvals to build new homes up 1.8 pct, ahead of
By Wayne Cole
SYDNEY, March 2 Australia's trade surplus shrank
unexpectedly in January as bad weather hit resource exports and
imports rebounded strongly, though the quarterly current account
might still edge into the black for the first time since the
Thursday's data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics
showed a trade surplus of A$1.3 billion ($994.76 million) in
January, well short of forecasts of A$3.8 billion.
There had been hopes the surplus would surpass December's
historic high of A$3.3 billion as prices for major commodity
exports remained strong in the month.
Dragging most on exports was a sharp pullback in
non-monetary gold, a highly volatile trade that bounces around
wildly from month to month.
Shipments of iron ore and coal also fell sharply partly due
to bad weather and partly to the timing of the Chinese Lunar New
Exports to the Asian giant dropped 24 percent in January
from December to A$7.7 billion, yet that was still up 55 percent
on January last year.
Beijing's efforts to slash inefficient steel making has
been helping underpin prices for iron ore, Australia's single
biggest export earner.
The Reserve Bank of Australia's index of commodity prices,
which mirrors the country's resource mix, rose in both January
and February to leave it up 56 percent on the year.
That suggests Australia might just enjoy its first current
account surplus since 1975, a huge turnaround from 2015 when the
deficit topped 5 percent of gross domestic product.
"We are likely to continue to see decent trade surpluses for
the time being with commodity prices still around 45 percent
above their most recent lows in late 2015," said Kristina
Clifton, an economist at CBA.
"And there is a further lift in export volumes to come when
the LNG plants reach peak output in 2018."
On the other side of the ledger, imports surprised by
rebounding 4 percent in January, mainly on the back of an
unusually large rise in consumer goods.
Household electrical items alone climbed 29 percent in the
month, possibly pointing to a pick up in retail demand.
Figures out on Wednesday showed the country had again dodged
recession as the economy expanded by 1.1 percent last quarter,
recovering strongly from a dip the quarter before.
Indicators suggest that momentum was maintained into the new
year with business surveys in particular showing the best
conditions in a decade.
A separate release out on Thursday showed approvals to build
new homes beat expectations with a rise of 1.8 percent in
January, pointing to a still healthy pipeline of construction
for the year ahead especially in high rise apartments.
($1 = 1.3068 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Richard Pullin and Randy