UPDATE 1-Argentina February trade surplus shrinks 61 pct on year

Thu Mar 21, 2013 3:47pm EDT

* Exports down 6 pct while imports surge 10 pct

* Weak 2011-12 grains harvest hurting exports

BUENOS AIRES, March 21 (Reuters) - Argentina's February trade surplus shrank 61 percent from a year earlier to $521 million as imports surged, led by fuel purchases from abroad, the INDEC statistics institute said on Thursday.

Last month's figure was just above the $500 million median estimate given by seven analysts in a Reuters poll. Their forecasts ranged widely from $402 million to $1.39 billion.

Exports fell 6 percent in February versus the same month last year, while imports rose 10 percent on the back of a 33 percent jump in fuel purchases and a 19 percent increase in imported parts and accessories for capital goods.

Growth in Argentina, Latin America's No. 3 economy, slowed sharply last year due to sluggish global demand, high inflation, a poor grains harvest and the impact of government import and currency controls on business confidence and investment.

A drought slashed soybean and corn output in the 2011-12 crop year, reducing shipments abroad from Argentina, a key global grains supplier.

January's trade surplus shrank 49 percent year-on-year to $280 million as imports grew for the first time since sweeping government controls were put in place in February 2012.

The curbs were meant to bolster the trade surplus, a key source of foreign currency in a country that uses international reserves to pay debt. Argentina has been virtually locked out of global credit markets since its massive debt default in 2002.

The country's trade surplus totaled $1.34 billion in February 2012.

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