Dairy product exports took a tumble in the December quarter, with volumes down 15 per cent and values for milk powder, butter and cheese exports falling 12 per cent, in a downturn from a strong September quarter.
Dairy is New Zealand's top export commodity group.
The drop in dairy exports led to an overall 3.3 per cent drop in the value of all export in the December quarter, seasonally adjusted. The fall in the last three months of the year almost reversed the gain of 4.4 per cent in the September quarter, according to Statistics NZ figures just out.
"Seasonally adjusted dairy exports led the fall in exports in the December 2012 quarter," industry and labour statistics manager Louise Holmes-Oliver said.
"Milk powder, butter, and cheese exports fell 12 per cent, with quantities down 15 per cent."
However, that was only a partial reversal of the 36 per cent lift in dairy volumes in the September quarter, boosted by last season's bumper grass-growing season.
The seasonally adjusted value of imported goods dipped 1.5 per cent for the second consecutive quarter.
The seasonally adjusted trade balance for the December 2012 quarter was a deficit of $87 million, equivalent to 0.8 per cent of exports. The deficit was $128 million for the September 2012 quarter.
While monthly trade figures can be volatile, the trade balance for December alone was a surplus of $486 million - equal to 12 per cent of exports, as imports such as crude oil fell much more than exports. It was the largest trade surplus recorded for a December month as a percentage of exports since December 1991.
For the December 2012 month, export values decreased $217 million (5.1 per cent) compared with December 2011, and imports decreased $403 million (10 per cent).
Crude oil imports slumped almost 50 per cent or by $113m for the December month.
For the year ended December 2012, merchandise exports were down $1.7 billion to $46 billion.
Exports to Australia fell $1.0 billion but were almost totally offset by a rise in exports to China of $975 million.
Imports for the December 2012 year rose $339 million to $47 billion.