UPDATE 2-Argentina trade surplus widens 27 pct in 2012

Wed Jan 23, 2013 3:22pm EST

* December surplus grew 61 percent yr/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 after imports fell due to tough government curbs and an economic slowdown, government data showed on Wednesday.

Growth in Latin America's third largest economy cooled abruptly in 2012 after a nearly nine-year boom. The country's key soy 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, hurt by a sharp drop in automotive sales to top market Brazil.

Imports dropped 7 percent, hurt by a 13 percent decline in capital goods and a 9 percent decrease in imported consumer goods, the INDEC statistics institute said. Costly fuel imports eased 2 percent in 2012 versus a year earlier.

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 represented a 61 percent increase from the $329 million surplus seen 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.

In 2011, the trade surplus totaled $10.01 billion.

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