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Italy posts largest trade surplus in almost two years as imports drop

(Reuters) -Italy posted a trade surplus with the rest of the world of 7.5 billion euros ($8.3 billion) in March, the largest in almost two years, as gas imports from Russia continued to decrease while exports of non-energy products rose, data showed.

Trade data has a significant seasonal component and there has not been a larger Italian surplus in the month of March since the introduction of the euro in 1999, figures by Europe's statistics agency Eurostat showed.

"Yearly growth in exports slowed down ... and, for the first time in over two years we saw a contraction, and a marked one, in imports," national statistics bureau ISTAT said in a note on Wednesday.

It said around a third of the year-on-year decline in imports was due to the fall of natural gas purchases from Russia.

The March reading, compared with a deficit of 757 million euros in the same month of 2022, was the largest surplus for any month since July 2021, ISTAT said.

"The surplus is mainly due to a decrease in import volumes of energy goods, as well as intermediate goods," said Intesa Sanpaolo senior economist Paolo Mameli.

Companies replace energy-intensive parts of their production chain with the purchase of intermediate goods during energy crises and with energy prices now easing, the purchase of these goods fell accordingly, he said.

Imports in March fell by 9.8% compared to the same month last year, with a yearly drop of 92% and 34% from Russia and China respectively.

"It is very positive news that the negative impact of the energy crisis on our trade balance is showing signs of a slowdown in the first three months," Loredana Federico, chief Italian economist at UniCredit, said.

Exports slowed down but still rose 4.7% yearly in March, mainly due to buoyant sales of non-energy products to countries outside the European Union.

In particular, the data showed strong exports of machinery and vehicles to Germany and the United States.

Sales to China soared unexpectedly in the first quarter, hitting a record high in February thanks to a surge in demand for a liver drug that might also help prevent COVID-19, officials said last week.

With European Union countries, Italy registered a March trade deficit of 916 million euros, compared with a deficit of 36 million euros in March 2022.

($1 = 0.9084 euros)

(Reporting by Luca Fratangelo, Carlo Giovanni Boffa, Alessandro Parodi, Chiara Bontacchio; additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli; editing by Gavin Jones/Keith Weir)