Exports were flat for the month while imports grew by 1.0 per cent, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said on Friday.
The result came in far below market expectations of a surplus of up to $800 million, with even the most pessimistic forecasts of a flat balance proving to be out of reach.
The monthly deficit was the second in a row after the ABS also revised down October’s narrow $105 million surplus to a $302 million deficit.
CommSec senior economist Ryan Felsman said the result was unexpected off the back of five straight surpluses through September.
“Back-to-back trade deficits are surprising given decent increases in most of Australia’s commodity and services exports, and rising commodity prices amid a strengthening global economic backdrop,” Mr Felsman said.
Falling prices in key exports contributed to the weak start to the fourth quarter, Westpac economist Simon Murray said, including the November stall in the price of iron ore, which has since rallied.
November imports were up 1.0 per cent, or $467 million, driven by an increase in capital goods, with aviation and telecommunications equipment leading the gains.
A 26 per cent lift in metals exports was also partially offset by a 2 per cent drop off coal, coke and briquettes, as China’s environmental focus weighed on thermal coal volumes.
Mr Murray said the total export earnings did rise during November, but the bill for overall imports more than covered that increase.
“Looking forward, positives remain in the LNG sector as exports lift higher with additional capacity coming on stream and prices firm, while the Asian region continues to be a solid source of demand for services exports,” Mr Murray said.
The Australian dollar slipped to 78.53 US cents after the figures were published at 1130 AEDT, from 78.71 US cents just prior to their release.
At 1412 AEDT, the Aussie was trading at 78.54 US cents.