Recount puts dent in trade figures

Suddenly Australia's trade balance has turned nasty - not because of anything we've done, but because of what we're now counting.

Suddenly Australia's trade balance has turned nasty - not because of anything we've done, but because of what we're now counting.

Until this week the official count for the past financial year showed four of the 12 months in surplus. A massive series of revisions means none are now in surplus and the total deficit is approaching $18 billion rather than the previously thought $11 billion.

It's both a warning not to take too seriously talk of a deficit or a surplus (something some of our politicians are cottoning on to when discussing the budget) and also an insight into how thoroughly the Bureau of Statistics is attempting to do its job.

The fine print in Wednesday's trade figures explains that until now the bureau had only taken account of imports worth more than $1000. That's the threshold above which it's compulsory to complete a Customs declaration. It's also the threshold above which parcels delivered by the post are subject to goods and services tax.

Work done by the Productivity Commission on the value and volume of under-the-radar imports has enabled it to include a guesstimate of monthly totals for the first time. And it's done it right back to 1998. Those early revisions don't amount to much. Amazon and eBay were in their infancy. But since 2010 the total has been climbing rapidly, from around $4 billion per year to close to $8 billion.

Retailers are certain to jump on the figure and say it shows how much they are being undermined by untaxed and unchecked parcels from overseas. The Bureau believes around 90 per cent of the newly-included low value imports are consumption items.

But $8 billion still isn't much out of total retail sales of $260 billion. And many of the items would still be imported even if the parcels were opened and taxed.

More disturbingly for tax collectors, the ABS hints that many of these physical imports are about to vanish. The next frontier will be "intangible" imports - books, music, software, online subscriptions, gambling - all delivered without a parcel crossing the oceans.

It'll be hard for the ABS. It'll be hard for the Tax Office too.

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