China exports, imports in shock drop
The Qingdao port in Shandong province. Dismal December trade readings suggest China's economy may have cooled faster than expected, despite a slew of growth-boosting measures.
Beijing - Softening demand in world's second-biggest economy being felt around the world
Published: Mon 14 Jan 2019, 7:00 PM
Last updated: Mon 14 Jan 2019, 9:02 PM
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 on Monday 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.
Softening demand in China is being felt around the world, with slowing sales of goods from iPhones to automobiles, prompting warnings from the likes of Apple and from Jaguar Land Rover, which last week announced sweeping job cuts.
The dismal December trade readings suggest China's economy may have cooled faster than expected late in the year, despite a slew of growth-boosting measures in recent months ranging from higher infrastructure spending to tax cuts.
Some analysts had 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 per cent from a year earlier, with demand in most of its major markets weakening. Imports also saw a shock drop, falling 7.6 per cent in their biggest decline since July 2016. Analysts had expected export growth to slow to 3 per cent with imports up 5 per cent.
"[Monday's] 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."
Net exports had already been a drag on China's economic growth in the first three quarters of last year, after giving it a boost in 2017. China's politically-sensitive surplus with the US widened by 17.2 per cent 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 US 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 certain 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 per cent in December while its imports from the US were down 35.8 per cent for the month.
China's total global exports rose 9.9 per cent in 2018, its strongest performance in seven years, while imports increased 15.8 per cent.
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, in 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.