UPDATE 1-Argentina trade surplus widens 27 pct in 2012

Wed Jan 23, 2013 2:45pm EST

* December surplus grew 61 percent y/yr as imports fell

* Gov't imposed tough new import rules in February 2012

* Aimed to safeguard foreign reserves, used to pay debt

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Argentina's trade surplus expanded by 27 percent in 2012 to $12.69 billion, the government said on Wednesday, after imports fell due to tough government curbs and an economic slowdown.

Growth in Latin America's No. 3 economy cooled abruptly in 2012 after a nearly nine-year boom. The country's key grains exports sank after a drought slashed crop production, while sluggish global conditions, high local inflation and policy uncertainty also weighed on investment and output.

Last year, Argentine exports fell 3 percent versus 2011 and imports sank 7 percent, the INDEC statistics institute said. The trade surplus totaled $10.01 billion in 2011.

In February 2012, the government imposed tough new import rules to bolster the trade surplus and safeguard the country's foreign currency reserves. Argentina uses the reserves to pay debt, freeing up other funds for state spending aimed at boosting economic growth.

In December, exports fell 5 percent and imports declined 9 percent year-on-year to put the trade surplus at $529 million . This compared with $329 million in December 2011.

President Cristina Fernandez announced the December and annual trade surpluses earlier this month but her numbers were slightly below what INDEC reported on Wednesday.

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