China Export, Import Growth Rebounds to Multiyear Highs in January
Increases in China’s exports and imports both hit multiyear highs in January on improving global economic momentum and soaring commodity prices, official data showed Friday. But the outlook remains murky due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” stance and risks affecting domestic demand.
Exports climbed 7.9% in dollar terms year-on-year to $182.8 billion last month, the strongest growth since March 2016, according to the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China (GACC).
It was ahead of the median forecast of a 3.2% increase in a Bloomberg News survey of economists, and some analysts said it was the first gain in 10 months after the government revised down overseas shipment figures for certain months last year.
Imports surged 16.7% from a year ago to $131.4 billion in January, the fastest increase since April 2013, the GACC said, also beating the projected 10.0% gain in the Bloomberg poll.
Trade surplus declined to $51.3 billion from $63.3 billion in January, official figures showed.
Trade statistics at the start of each year are regularly distorted by the Spring Festival, which began on Jan. 27 this year. The holiday often leads to fewer working days and manufacturers rushing to buy inputs or sell finished products.
Nonetheless, the rising trend in exports was not surprising as global trade has been “recovering mildly” since the second half of last year, Rong Jing, a Beijing-based analyst with BNP Paribas, told Caixin.
“The U.S. economy is holding up well as reflected by its solid growth, job creation and inflation figures, and expansion in Europe and emerging markets is also better than expected,” she said.
But downside risks for exports endure, given that it is unclear yet whether Trump will take a trade-policy stance toward China as hawkish as the one he trumpeted during the U.S. presidential campaign, when he vowed to slap a 45% tariff on all Chinese goods and to name the country a “currency manipulator,” analysts said.
Trump has nominated several vocal China critics to senior positions in his administration, including Robert Lighthizer as U.S. trade representative and Peter Navarro as head of a new White House office overseeing trade and industrial policy.
“With the climate for China’s exports to the U.S. undeniably getting harsher this year under the Trump administration and risks of more broad damage to global trade, we remain cautious on the export outlook later in the year,” said Louis Kuijs, an economist with research firm Oxford Economics in Hong Kong, in a note.
Shipments to the U.S. account for more than 18% of China’s total exports, GACC data shows.
Imports were largely boosted by higher prices of commodities, which make up about a third of the goods China purchases, although the government’s policies to stimulate domestic demand have also shown some effects, analysts said.
For example, the value of oil imports went up about 55% in January, compared with an 18% increase in volume, while purchases of iron ore saw 11.9% volume growth but a rise in value of over 80%, said Brian Jackson, an analyst with IHS Markit.
“Volumes are rising, but the value growth is mostly due to pricing,” he said.
Kuijs warned that import growth in the coming months may come under pressure due to “the ongoing housing-market correction and lower credit growth.”
The floor space sold in major Chinese cities declined by 36.7% in January from the previous month, according to leading real estate research organization China Index Academy, with banks raising real interest rates on mortgages in response to Beijing’s calls to fend off financial risks.
The central bank has also repeatedly asked commercial lenders to curb new loans, as policymakers seek to cool a lending frenzy and reduce financial leverage.
The People’s Bank of China has surprised the market by raising interest rates on its open market operations and other liquidity-adjusting tools — perceived by some analyst as a shift to a tightening bias.
Trade prospects could also be affected by China’s efforts to bolster the yuan’s value and stem capital flight, which have led the country’s foreign exchange reserves, the world’s largest, to fall below $3 trillion for the first time in nearly six years to $2.9982 trillion at the end of January.
“It will be a tougher task for Beijing to manage the yuan. Capital controls will not be able to keep up without becoming invasive to trade activities and damaging economic growth,” said Societe Generale economist Claire Huang.
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