China’s exports tumbled 25.4 percent year-over-year in February and imports fell 13.8 percent as the country’s trade slowdown accelerated, catching some analysts by surprise.
“China trade data is indeed quite surprising,” said Lian Hoon Lim, managing director at AlixPartners. “January and February are usually quiet months. If Chinese New Year is on the February side, companies try to move their production back into January because some of the workers that go away on holiday don’t come back,” he told JOC.com.
“Immediately after Chinese New Year there is traditionally a dip, but this seems bigger than normal. It is a signal that there is steadily slowing growth in China. There will be ups and downs along the way.”
China wants its growth to come in at the targeted range of 6.5 percent to 7 percent, but slowing trade will be doing it no favors. The latest trade data comes soon after a monthly purchasing managers index survey by Caixin that showed a continuing decline in factory output.
He Fan, chief economist at Caixin Insight Group, said China’s general manufacturing PMI for February was 48, down 0.4 points from January.
“The index readings for all key categories including output, new orders and employment signalled that conditions worsened, in line with signs that the economy’s road to stability remains bumpy. The government needs to press ahead with reforms, while adopting moderate stimulus policies and strengthening support of the economy in other ways to prevent it from falling off a cliff,” he said in a statement.
China’s main export partners are the U.S. (17 percent), the European Union (16 percent), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (10 percent), and Japan (7 percent). Gloomy currency trends in Japan and other Asian countries, as well as a falling Euro, mean these countries have less purchasing power abroad, which leads to a drop in exports.
The falling exports coincide with a steady shift in manufacturing of the type of goods that favor containerization out of China, a shift that will be exacerbated by impending free trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“The TPP deal impacts the cut and sold goods like apparel, shoes and backpacks and it is encouraging manufacturers to shift away from China to places like Vietnam,” Lim said, adding that he did not believe this would affect net cargo volumes. The TPP is projected to add 11 percent to Vietnam’s GDP and 28 percent to its exports by 2025.
While the TPP is still going through its lengthy ratification process, the trade pact, China’s production shift southwards, and its weakening currency are all serving to influence buying patterns, according to the AlixPartners analyst.
“You have a down trend in China and the migrating factories, slowing growth and the (national currency) renminbi depreciating, which is causing buyers to pause and think about shifting more production out of China. There is quite a bit of confusion at the moment,” Lim said.