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International Merchandise Trade, Australia: Concepts, Sources and Methods
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1.1 The ABS has produced statistics about Australia's trade with the rest of the world since early in the twentieth century. In more recent years the use of common classifications and concepts has promoted international comparability. Advances in technology have also enabled and enhanced the accessibility of the statistics with considerable information now available from the ABS website.

1.2 Australia's international merchandise trade statistics are compiled in broad agreement with the United Nations (UN) standard which provides the international framework under which the statistics are compiled. The statistics are mainly sourced from information provided by the Department of Home Affairs (formerly the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) when goods are exported from or imported into Australia.

1.3 Australia's international merchandise trade statistics are used extensively by governments, businesses, organisations, researchers and other individuals in Australia and overseas. The way the statistics are used varies from monitoring the value and quantity of particular products exported from or imported into Australia, to the development of national and international trade policy. The statistics are a key input to Australia's balance of payments, national accounts and producer price indexes.

1.4 Users of Australia's international merchandise trade statistics should read this publication to gain a deeper understanding of the: 

  • conceptual framework under which the statistics are compiled
  • data sources and methods used to compile the statistics
  • data quality and any limitations on the use or analysis of these statistics
  • main statistical outputs and their relationship to other economic statistics produced by the ABS and other statistical organisations.

History of international merchandise trade statistics

1.5 The ABS first published international merchandise trade statistics in 1907 with the publication: Trade and Customs and Excise Revenue of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1906 (cat. no. 5409.0). The annual publication contains 449 pages, covering detailed information for the year 1906, and comparative tables for the years 1902-1905. These statistics were originally compiled from information provided by the Department of Trade and Customs and are now provided by the Department of Home Affairs. Values in pounds, quantity, duty rates and duty paid by commodities traded between Australia and its trading partners were included in the publication. Surpluses and deficits were also calculated.

1.6 In August 1917, monthly statistics about Australia's imports and exports were first published. Over the years the statistics were gradually refined with improvements to composition, timeliness and accessibility.

1.7 An important date in the history of Australia's merchandise trade statistics is 1 January 1988, which marks the introduction of the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) for classifying import and export commodities. Most of Australia's trading partners introduced the HS at the same time, which was a vital step towards enabling consistent international comparisons of merchandise trade statistics. To ensure its continued relevance the HS is updated every five years. Time series users of detailed commodity data should note that there were changes to the HS 6-digit classification in January 1992, July 1996, January 2002, January 2007, January 2012 and January 2017.

1.8 From April 1992, exports are recorded on a month of departure basis. To enable a consistent time series this change is backdated to January 1988 with some backcasting to July 1981 for broader aggregates. Prior to this, exports were recorded in the month the declarations were processed by then Australian Customs Service (now Department of Home Affairs).

1.9 In December 2005, the Australian Government announced that all statistics on the ABS website could be accessed free of charge as an ABS Centenary tribute to the people of Australia. This includes all post-1998 publications (including copies of some annual historical publications) and spreadsheets. Access to free statistics for international merchandise trade is via International Merchandise Imports, Australia (cat. no. 5439.0) and International Trade in Goods (cat. no. 5368.0).

1.10 For more information about the early history of international merchandise trade statistics see the Feature article: 100 Years of International Trade Statistics published in the October 2007 issue of International Trade in Goods and Services, Australia (cat. no. 5368.0).

1.11 For more information about changes which affect time series see Appendix 2 under the Data Downloads section of this publication.


1.12 The ABS considers the primary purpose of international merchandise trade statistics is to provide a high quality essential input to Australia’s balance of payments, and other macroeconomic statistics. The ABS also recognises the ongoing demand for international merchandise trade statistics from a wide variety of organisations. These include: government departments (for developing and monitoring of economic, trade or infrastructure policies); research conducted by the public, private and academic sector; and international organisations, such as the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for the creation of global datasets.

International standards

1.13 The conceptual framework followed for Australia's international merchandise trade statistics is largely consistent with the international standards set out in the UN publication International Merchandise Trade Statistics: Concepts and Definitions Series M, No. 52, Rev. 3 (IMTS 2010). International merchandise trade statistics are an important part of the body of macroeconomic statistics produced by the ABS. The compilation of international merchandise trade statistics is therefore also influenced by the requirements of the international standards adopted for these statistics i.e. System of National Accounts, 2008 (2008 SNA) and Balance of Payments and International Investment Position Manual sixth edition (BPM6).

1.14 The majority of changes to the international standards introduced with IMTS 2010 move the international merchandise trade concept closer to the balance of payments basis. The ABS considers that in order to meet the range of users needs, it is important to maintain the statistical series of merchandise trade on the basis of International Merchandise Trade Statistics: Concepts and Definitions, Revision 2. Changes to align with a balance of payments basis would result in statistics that no longer cater for the needs of many data users. For a fuller explanation of the different bases see the Relationship with Other ABS Macroeconomic Statistics chapter (paragraphs 12.3-12.9) of this publication.

Purpose and structure of this publication

1.15 The main purpose of this publication is to provide users with an in-depth understanding of international merchandise trade statistics as an aid to more effective use and interpretation of the statistics. A detailed understanding of the underlying conceptual framework, and of the sources and methods used to compile the statistics, should enable users to make better judgements about the economic significance, quality and accuracy of the statistics. To achieve this aim, this publication provides an updated account of the concepts, sources and methods used to compile Australia's international merchandise trade statistics.

1.16 While some users may only require a broad understanding of the conceptual framework and how the data are compiled (e.g. school students or journalists), other users - such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - will use the publication to obtain a detailed understanding of the conceptual framework and methods used to compile the statistics (and how these differ from related statistics in the balance of payments).

How to use this publication

1.17 The following paragraphs broadly describe the contents of each chapter. Users can navigate to these chapters by clicking on the relevant links in the navigation list on the left hand side of the Summary tab. Included throughout this publication are links to external websites but as these can quickly get out of date, the link provided is to the nearest main page. Users who have difficulty accessing links should send an email to:

1.18 A number of appendices are also included to provide supplementary information about the classifications or definitions and to summarise detailed information about the statistical framework and statistical outputs. The Appendices may contain tables which can be viewed online or printed.

1.19 Scope, Coverage and Treatments describes the scope and coverage of Australia's international merchandise trade statistics. The treatment of unusual or complex cases is also explained.

1.20 Trade System, Valuation and Time of Recording explains the general and special trade systems, valuation, currency conversion and time of recording of Australia's import and export statistics.

1.21 Data Sources and Compilation Methods describes the data sources and methods used to compile Australia's international merchandise trade statistics, including the statistical details obtained from the Department of Home Affairs for the processing, editing, and aggregation of data.

1.22 Classifications describes the commodity and industry classifications used to collect, compile and disseminate international merchandise trade statistics.

1.23 Country, Overseas Port, State and Australian Port defines country of origin, country of final destination and country of consignment. It also explains the classifications used to collect, compile and disseminate country, state and port statistics.

1.24 Mode of Transport describes the mode of transport information collected by the Department of Home Affairs and defines the classification used in the dissemination of these statistics.

1.25 Quantity Measurement explains how the quantity for a commodity is determined; the relationship between quantity and gross weight; unit values and how these differ from price indexes.

1.26 Data Confidentiality outlines how international merchandise trade statistics are confidentialised prior to their release. It explains the legal basis for confidentiality, the method of confidentiality imposed, the procedures used to manage confidentiality, and the effect of confidentiality on the statistics produced. 

1.27 Data Dissemination describes the dissemination of international merchandise trade statistics. It details the release practices used, the revisions policy, what data are available free on the ABS website and how it can be accessed, and other ways to access the statistics.

1.28 Data Quality examines the quality of Australia's international merchandise trade statistics in terms of the seven quality dimensions defined in the ABS Data Quality Framework: institutional environment, relevance, timeliness, accuracy, coherence, interpretability and accessibility.

1.29 Relationship with other Macroeconomic Statistics explains the relationships between Australia's international merchandise trade statistics and balance of payments, national accounts and other related ABS macroeconomic statistics.

1.30 There are 10 appendices that can be accessed from the Downloads tab. 

  • Appendix 1: Summary table explaining Australia's compliance with IMTS 2010 recommendations
  • Appendix 2: Impact of major changes to concepts, sources, methods or classifications on international merchandise trade time series, January 1988 onwards
  • Appendix 3: Hypothetical LNG project
  • Appendix 4: List of export FOB currency codes
  • Appendix 5: Relationship between the Department of Home Affairs input data items and ABS output data items
  • Appendix 6: AHECC and HTISC historical correspondence spreadsheets
  • Appendix 7: Correspondence between UN location country codes and international merchandise trade country codes
  • Appendix 8: Countries and ports pivot table
  • Appendix 9: List of international merchandise trade publications and tables available free from the ABS website
  • Appendix 10: Definitions and metadata for import clearances duty related fields.

1.31 This publication also includes a Glossary, an Abbreviations list and a list of references (in the Bibliography) used in the preparation of this manual. 

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