China's exports sink, but factory investment rises

May 12, 2009 4:20:50 AM PDT
China's exports fell more than expected in April, dropping 22.6 percent from a year ago in the sixth straight monthly decline, as the government vowed to redouble efforts to help boost trade. On the positive side, Beijing reported that investment in factories and property development jumped 30.5 percent during the first four months of the year to 3.71 trillion yuan ($543.2 billion), thanks to a slew of bank loans for government stimulus projects.

April's decline in exports, to $91.9 billion, was bigger than March's 17 percent drop and suggests China's trade sector has yet to see much relief from the prolonged drought in demand brought on by the global downturn.

"These figures show we cannot be optimistic about the future trends for exports," the Commerce Ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site that amounted to a lament over the lack of overseas demand for Chinese products.

"We will have to view the problems and risks more seriously, expect that the crisis will persist a bit longer and take more complete measures ... to help stabilize foreign trade," it said.

There were some glimmers of hope even in the trade figures. While exports of heavy machinery and other industrial equipment continue to fall, recent increases from the previous month in exports of clothing, shoes, plastics and other labor-intensive consumer goods suggest some recovery in demand, economists say.

American retailers have begun ordering to restock low inventories, amid signs that consumer spending may be stabilizing, Jing Ulrich, chairwoman for China equities at J.P.Morgan said in a note to clients.

"Nevertheless, operating conditions for Chinese exporters will remain challenging for some time," Ulrich said, noting that orders at the recent spring trade show in southern China's Guangdong fell 17 percent compared with the autumn show.

China's imports also remained anemic, falling 23 percent to $78.8 billion, the Customs Administration reported, putting China's trade surplus for April at $13.1 billion. That compared with an $18.6 billion surplus in March.

The surplus with the United States - or the amount exports exceed imports - edged higher to $10.6 billion in April from $10.2 billion in March, as exports dropped 15.7 percent from a year earlier to $17.2 billion while imports fell 17.4 percent to $6.6 billion.

China's surplus with the EU, its biggest trading partner, fell to $7.4 billion in April from $8 billion in March, while its deficit with Japan was $2.75 billion.

While China is channeling hundreds of billions of dollars into construction of roads, ports and other infrastructure, seeking to boost demand and create jobs, Beijing appears frustrated with the lack of a turnaround for the export sector.

Exports contributed only 0.8 percentage points to China's growth last year, down from 2.6 percentage points in 2007, the Commerce Ministry said. And the drag on consumer spending and investment from the weaker trade sector is causing further harm, it said.

"Weakening overseas demand, now and in the near future is affecting the overall economy," it said, adding that government will do whatever needed to facilitate trade, fight protectionism and encourage a more favorable environment for exports. It gave no details.

Given the protracted weakness in overseas demand for China's exports, massive spending on construction and factory equipment is seen as crucial for a recovery.

"Although much of the new bank lending has not yet turned into faster growth in economic activity, because of the time lag between lending and actual demand, we do expect fixed investment to accelerate in the coming months," Tao Wang, an economist with UBS, said in a report Monday.

"As a result, we expect orders to rise and industrial production to rebound," she said.

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