China exports and imports fall far worse than expected in January

A woman runs with a bag outside a shop in Beijing, on Jan 13, 2016.
A woman runs with a bag outside a shop in Beijing, on Jan 13, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's exports fell 11.2 percent in January from a year earlier and imports tumbled 18.8 percent, both far worse than expected, putting pressure on policymakers to take further action to put a floor under the slowing economy.

The fall in January exports marked the seventh straight month of decline, while the decline in imports was the 15th month.

China posted a better-than-expected trade surplus of US$63.3 billion in January, data released by the General Administration of Customs showed on Monday, versus US$60.09 billion in December.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected exports to fall 1.9 per cent, after slipping 1.4 per cent in December, while imports had been expected to drop only 0.8 per cent, following a 7.6 per cent slide in December. The poll forecast a trade surplus of US$58.85 billion.

"It was a steeper than expected fall in trade numbers," said Chester Liaw, an economist at Forecast Pte Ltd in Singapore. "The state run Economic Times said that China will not set a numerical growth target for annual trade growth in 2016, which is already proving to be a wise choice, as exports will likely become worse before recovering."

A source at the Commerce Ministry also said the government will not set an annual target for foreign trade this year.

For 2015, China's total trade tumbled 8 per cent from 2014, well below the government's target of 6 per cent growth and the worst performance since the global financial crisis.

Trends in January and February can also be distorted by the long Lunar New Year holidays, with business slowing down weeks ahead of time and many firms scaling back operations or closing.

China's manufacturing activity contracted at its fastest pace in almost three-and-a-half years in January, an official survey showed, suggesting the economy is off to a weak start in 2016 and adding to the case for near-term stimulus.

A Reuters analysis of 1,200 Chinese firms listed on the stock market showed many businesses are finding more cash tied up in unsold stock and unpaid invoices as struggling customers take longer to pay. Some businessmen wonder if weaker factories will reopen after the holidays, raising the spectre of a jump in unemployment.

China's commerce ministry has warned that the country's external trade is facing relatively severe pressure in 2016, and few analysts expect a sudden improvement in global demand.

China is expected to target economic growth in a range of 6.5 per cent to 7 per cent this year, sources have said, setting a range for the first time because policymakers are uncertain on the economy's prospects.

The world's second-largest economy grew an annual 6.9 per cent in 2015, the poorest showing in a quarter of a century.

China has allowed the yuan currency to weaken nearly 6 per cent against the US dollar since last August, but there has been scant evidence that it has helped exports.

Premier Li Keqiang has pledged to keep the yuan basically stable against a basket of currencies and said Beijing will not promote exports through currency depreciation, although some policy advisers have been calling for sharper yuan falls.