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China's exports rise solidly, but slower imports temper outlook

Published 2024/06/07, 07:42
Updated 2024/06/07, 11:16
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Lines of trucks are seen at a container terminal of Ningbo Zhoushan port in Zhejiang province, China, August 15, 2021. Picture taken August 15, 2021. cnsphoto via REUTERS/file photo
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By Joe Cash

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's exports grew more quickly and for a second month in May, suggesting factory owners are managing to find buyers overseas and providing some relief to the economy as it battles to mount a durable recovery.

The jury is still out, however, on whether the export sales are sustainable while a protracted property crisis has led to persistent weakness in domestic demand - a factor highlighted again in last month's imports figures.

"Headline export numbers are surprisingly good, and that confirms the underlying trend, volumes are running very high," said Frederic Neumann, chief Asia economist at HSBC.

“China is currently so competitive, that even trade restrictions wouldn’t really slow the export juggernaut that’s underway.”

However, "if U.S. demand buckles, then the global trade cycle is quickly going to fizzle," Neumann said, adding that a sustainable longer term growth strategy for China requires its domestic engine to fire up.

Outbound shipments from the world's second-largest economy grew 7.6% year-on-year in value in May, customs data showed on Friday.

But imports increased at a slower 1.8% pace, from a 8.4% jump in the previous month, highlighting the fragility of domestic consumption.

The export figure beat a forecast 6.0% increase in a Reuters poll of economists and a 1.5% rise seen in April, though growth was likely also aided by a lower base of comparison, after rising interest rates and inflation in the U.S. and Europe squeezed external demand in the previous year.

Over recent months, a flurry of data has shown different parts of the $18.6 trillion economy recovering at varying speeds, heightening uncertainty about the outlook.

While first quarter growth blew past forecasts and strong March export and output data suggested improving global demand might aid officials' efforts to get the economy back on an even keel, more recent indicators reflecting soft domestic consumption have eroded much of that earlier optimism.

DEPRESSED DOMESTIC DEMAND

Indeed, separate data for May on commodities imports also released on Friday highlighted a mixed picture of demand conditions at home, with purchases of crude oil and soybeans down year-on-year, while copper and iron ore saw a solid uptick.

A protracted property sector crisis remains the biggest drag on China's economy, with low investor and consumer confidence hurting domestic consumption and undermining business activity.

However, Friday's trade data should give authorities some breathing space as they continue their efforts to foster a broad-based economic recovery.

Analysts expect China to roll-out more policy support measures in the short term, while a government pledge to boost fiscal stimulus is seen helping shore up domestic demand.

The International Monetary Fund last month upgraded its China growth forecast for 2024 in line with Beijing's growth target of "around" 5%, but warned of risks to the economy from the property sector troubles.

China's stocks slipped as the better export numbers were eclipsed by a report that U.S. lawmakers pushed to ban Chinese battery firms with ties to Ford (NYSE:F) and Volkswagen (ETR:VOWG_p) from exporting to the U.S.

HI-TECH BOOST

Friday's shipments data possibly also suggests a global cyclical upturn in the electronics sector is helping China's sales of components and finished manufactured goods.

Integrated circuits exports from the Asian giant increased 28.4% year-on-year in value in May, according to Reuters calculations, in line with robust chip shipments from neighbouring South Korea last month, a leading indicator of China's trade performance in technology sectors.

Beijing has come under growing criticism from the West that Chinese industrial overcapacity in technologically advanced and green sectors is flooding markets in the European Union and the United States, an assertion China has refuted and it has accused Washington and the EU of engaging in trade protectionism.

China's trade surplus grew to $82.62 billion last month, compared with a forecast of $73 billion and $72.35 in April, which the U.S. has repeatedly highlighted in the past as evidence of one-side trade favouring the Chinese economy.

Last month, the Biden administration unveiled steep tariff increases on $18 billion of exports, including a quadrupling of tariffs on Chinese new energy vehicles.

The China trade data shows vehicles exports, including chassis, increased 16.6% year-on-year by value last month.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Lines of trucks are seen at a container terminal of Ningbo Zhoushan port in Zhejiang province, China, August 15, 2021. Picture taken August 15, 2021. cnsphoto via REUTERS/file photo

"We expect exports to stay strong in the coming months, supported by a weaker real effective exchange rate. Foreign tariffs are unlikely to immediately threaten exports," said Zichun Huang, China economist at Capital Economics.

"If anything, they may boost exports at the margins as firms speed up shipments to front-run the duties."

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