Biggest fall in Singapore exports in over two years

Analysts say the high base of year-on-year comparison, given the high export numbers in December 2017, had a part to play.
Analysts say the high base of year-on-year comparison, given the high export numbers in December 2017, had a part to play.PHOTO: ST FILE

8.5% decline last month on back of drop in electronic, non-electronic shipments

Singapore's exports fell 8.5 per cent last month from a year ago - its largest slide in over two years - dragged down by a drop in electronic and non-electronic shipments.

The steep end-of-year decline for non-oil domestic exports (Nodx) followed a 2.8 per cent fall in November, and was in stark contrast to the 2 per cent growth forecast for December by a Bloomberg poll of economists.

This was its worst performance since October 2016, when it dropped 12 per cent year on year.

Analysts say the high base of year-on-year comparison, given the high export numbers in December 2017, had a part to play.

The broad trend for exports appears to be moving downwards, although it is unclear how deep the slide may be, economists added.

DBS senior economist Irvin Seah said: "What is most disconcerting is the 5.7 per cent month-on-month decline (in Nodx).

"We already had two months of month-on-month dips and if such a trend continues, this points to a dimmer outlook for overall manufacturing as well as the Singapore economy, heading into 2019."

On a month-on-month seasonally adjusted basis, Nodx dropped 5.7 per cent, following November's 4.3 per cent decline.

But Mr Seah highlighted that the "downside risk from trade tensions between the United States and China was deepest" in November and December, when falls in exports were seen. "Many importers may have held back their orders while waiting for more clarity on the trade war," he said.

The disparity between predictions and official figures may be down to "mixed signals" from companies that analysts spoke to.

"Some say they are benefiting (from the trade tensions), but others say they see an impact on their orders. The numbers need to be watched very closely," he said.

Singapore's electronic exports, which finally saw growth of 4.3 per cent in November, contracted by 11.2 per cent last month.

 
 

The biggest contributors to this slide were falls in shipments of personal computers, disk media products, and diodes and transistors.

Non-electronic Nodx was down 7.4 per cent, accelerating from the 5.4 per cent drop in the month before. Falls in shipments of specialised machinery, pharmaceuticals and primary chemicals contributed to the faster pace of decline.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the level of Nodx reached $14 billion in December, lower than $14.9 billion the month before.

ING chief economist Robert Carnell said: "All of the components are heavily down. Pharmaceuticals are particularly weak...

"It has moved from the thing that was holding everything up to being one of the other factors dragging Nodx down."

But he said it is hard to pin the trends on the trade war, noting that exports to Singapore's biggest markets in Asia were down, except those to China.

Exports to most of the top 10 markets declined, except those to the United States and China, led by falls in shipments to Europe, South Korea and Malaysia.

On electronics, he added: "A global lack of demand for new smartphone devices has weighed on the semiconductor and electronics sector."

UOB economist Barnabas Gan noted that exports of pharmaceuticals "unexpectedly fell... bucking its eight consecutive months of expansion and marking its lowest growth print since February 2018".

Seasonally adjusted non-oil retained imports of intermediate goods rose from $6.4 billion to $6.5 billion. Total trade grew 1.6 per cent with a 6.1 per cent rise in total imports. Total exports fell 2.5 per cent.

Oil domestic exports dropped 11.1 per cent in December compared with last year - after an 18.9 per cent expansion in the previous month - mainly due to lower sales to Malaysia, China and Indonesia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2019, with the headline 'Biggest fall in S'pore exports in over two years'. Print Edition | Subscribe