China’s Dec exports in surprise fall
Trade surplus with US jumps to record high
BEIJING: China’s exports unexpectedly fell the most in two years in December, while imports also contracted, pointing to further weakness in the world’s second-largest economy in 2019 and deteriorating global demand. Adding to policymakers’ worries, data yesterday also showed China posted its biggest trade surplus with the United States on record in 2018, which could prompt President Donald Trump to turn up the heat on Beijing in their bitter trade dispute. The dismal December trade readings suggest China’s economy may have cooled faster than expected late in the year, despite a slew of growthboosting measures in recent months ranging from higher infrastructure spending to tax cuts. Some analysts has already speculated that Beijing may have to speed up and intensify its policy easing and stimulus measures this year after factory activity shrank in December. China’s December exports unexpectedly fell 4.4% from a year earlier, with demand in most of its major markets weakening. Imports also saw a shock drop, falling 7.6% in their biggest decline since July 2016. Analysts had expected export growth to slow to 3% with imports up 5%. “The data reflect an end to export front-loading and the start of payback effects, while the global slowdown could also weigh on China’s exports,” Nomura economists wrote in a note, referring to a surge in shipments to the US over much of last year as companies rushed to beat further tariffs. “The export growth print also suggests that the recent strength of the yuan might be short-lived; Beijing will perhaps be more eager to strike a trade deal with the US; and that policymakers will need to take more aggressive measures to stabilise GDP growth.” China’s politically-sensitive surplus with the US widened by 17.2% to $323.32 billion last year, the highest on record going back to 2006, according to Reuters calculations based on customs data. China’s large trade surplus with the United States has long been a sore point with Washington, which has demanded Beijing take steps to sharply reduce it. Washington imposed import tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods last year and has threatened further action if Beijing does not change its practices on issues ranging from industrial subsidies to intellectual property. China has retaliated with tariffs of its own. However, Beijing’s export data had been surprisingly resilient to tariffs for much of 2018, possibly because companies ramped up shipments before broader and stiffer US duties went into effect. As many market watchers predicted, that boost has faded in the last few months. China exports to the US declined 3.5% in December while its imports from the US were down 35.8% for the month. China’s total global exports rose 9.9% in 2018, its strongest performance in seven years, while imports increased 15.8%. But December’s gloomy data, along with several months of falling factory orders, suggest a further weakening in its exports in the near term. “A trade recession is likely, i n our view,” Raymond Yeung, chief economist at ANZ, said in a note, predicting a period of export contraction similar to 2015-16. “The global electronics cycle remains the key driver of Chinese exports. A potential downturn in the sector poses the real risk to China’s external outlook even if China and the US reach a resolution on their trade dispute.” ING said a fall in electronic shipments could be related to foreign companies avoiding using China-made electronic components, adding that exports and imports of electronic parts and goods will likely shrink this year. The higher tariffs China levied on US supplies also hit overall import growth. For all of 2018, soybeans, the second largest imports from the US, fell for the first time since 2011. Even if Washington and Beijing reach a trade deal in their current round of talks, it would be no panacea for China’s slowing economy, analysts say. “The import slowdown is consistent with other signs that growth in China’s domestic economy continued to weaken,” said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics. “Overall economic growth slowed further in the fourth quarter and remains under pressure from weaker exports, slow credit growth and cooling real estate activity.” Chinese policymakers are widely expected to roll out more support measures in coming months if domestic and external conditions continue to deteriorate. Early this month, the central bank said it would slash banks’ reserve requirements — the fifth such cut in a year — as it tries to encourage more lending and reduce the risk of a sharp slowdown. A few analysts believe interest rate cuts are a possibility, but most expect Beijing will refrain from massive stimulus measures like those deployed in the past, due to worries that it could add to a mountain of debt and weaken the yuan.
MG cars for export wait to be loaded onto a roll-on/roll-off ship at a port in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province on Saturday.