January 14, 2019 12:35 am

December trade report shows China’s exports drop, raising risks for global economy

WATCH: U.S-China trade talks wrap up in Beijing

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China’s exports unexpectedly fell the most in two years in December and imports also contracted, pointing to further weakness in the world’s second-largest economy in 2019 and deteriorating global demand.

READ MORE: Cost of trade war in billions for both U.S. and China in 2018


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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 U.S. President Donald Trump to turn up the heat on Beijing in their cantankerous trade dispute.

Softening demand in China is already being felt around the world, with slowing sales of goods ranging from iPhones to automobiles prompting profit warnings from the likes of Apple and Jaguar Land Rover.

The dismal December trade readings suggest China’s economy may have lost more momentum late in the year than earlier thought, despite a slew of growth boosting measures in recent months ranging from higher infrastructure spending to tax cuts.

WATCH: Trade clashes cost U.S. and China billions in 2018

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.

Exports in December 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.

“Export growth dropped more than anticipated as global growth softened and the drag from U.S. tariffs intensified. Import growth also fell sharply in the face of cooling domestic demand. We expect both to remain weak in the coming quarters,” Capital Economics said in a note.

READ MORE: Donald Trump says ‘big progress’ being made on trade deal with China

“Meanwhile, with policy easing unlikely to put a floor beneath domestic economic activity until the second half of this year, import growth is likely to remain subdued.”

HIGHER TRADE SURPLUS WITH U.S.

China’s politically-sensitive surplus with the U.S. rose 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.

That compared with about $275.81 billion in 2017.

WATCH:  U.S. and China agree to temporary trade war truce at G20 summit

China’s large trade surplus with the United States has long been a sore point with Washington, which has demaded Beijing should take steps to 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 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 U.S. duties went into effect.

READ MORE: Here’s why the U.S. is slapping China with tariffs and who stands to lose

China’s total global exports rose 9.9 per cent in 2018, its strongest trade performance in seven years, while imports increased 15.8 per cent last year.

But December’s gloomy data seemed to suggest the U.S. front-loading effect has tapered off, and after several months of falling factory orders, a further weakening in China’s exports is widely expected in coming months.

Many U.S. warehouses are already packed to the rafters with Chinese goods that American retailers rushed in ahead of higher tariffs.

WATCH: President Trump levels new multi-billion dollar tariff on China

China exports to the U.S. declined 3.5 per cent in December while its imports from the U.S. were down 35.8 per cent for the month.

WEAK IMPORTS HIGHLIGHT WEAK DEMAND OUTLOOK

The higher tariffs China levied on U.S. supplies also hit the country’s overall import growth. For all of 2018, soybean, the second largest imports from the U.S., fell for the first time since 2011.

READ MORE: Donald Trump says ‘big progress’ being made on trade deal with China

Even if Washington and Beijing reach a trade deal in their current round of talks, it would be no panacea for China’s slowing economy, analysts say.

Sources told Reuters last week that Beijing is planning to lower its economic growth target to 6-6.5 percent this year after an expected 6.6 per cent in 2018, the slowest pace in 28 years.

© 2019 Reuters

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