Non-oil exports plunge 11.7%; drop largest since 2016

Dismal showing by electronics exports; Enterprise Singapore notes high-base effect

Singapore's non-oil domestic exports (Nodx) slumped 11.7 per cent last month after a short-lived rise of 4.8 per cent in February, on the back of the biggest year-on-year drop in electronics exports since 2013.

Enterprise Singapore noted the "high-base" effect from a year ago as it released the export data yesterday. Still, the March figure was way worse than the 2.2 per cent drop expected by analysts polled by Bloomberg. It was also the biggest year-on-year monthly fall in Nodx since the 12 per cent fall in October 2016.

Before February, exports slid year on year for three straight months. Recently, Singapore's economy also recorded its weakest year-on-year quarterly growth in a decade, as it expanded a mere 1.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

March's dismal Nodx showing was led by the 26.7 per cent year-on-year plunge in electronics exports, following the 8.2 per cent drop in the previous month, with the sector shrinking for about a year.

However, experts suggest this could be indicative of the regional electronics market.

Maybank economist Lee Ju Ye told The Straits Times: "We are seeing more signs of fading for the electronics sector, not just in Singapore but also in electronics powerhouses like South Korea and Taiwan."

She said the electronics down-cycle may be nearing its bottom, with a weak recovery on the cards.

Non-electronics exports declined 7 per cent year on year, a reverse from the 9.4 per cent increase seen in February. This was mainly due to the fall in shipments of pharmaceuticals (-36.5 per cent), specialised machinery (-24.4 per cent) and petrochemicals (-15.1 per cent).

However, DBS senior economist Irvin Seah said the pharmaceutical sector is volatile by nature. The overall plunge could be attributed to the "lingering effect of the trade war" as well as a high base and ongoing slowdown in China.

He also sounded a more optimistic note looking ahead.

"While there could be more downside risk ahead, the ongoing trade negotiation between the US and China is seeing light at the end of the tunnel," he said, adding that labour market conditions in the United States remained firm.

"Stimulus measures from China could also start to spill over to Singapore's export performance in the coming months," he added.

Nonetheless, some other experts warned of slower growth ahead.

"Overall, we remain cautious on the growth outlook," Nomura research analysts Euben Paracuelles and Charnon Boonnuch said in a statement, forecasting GDP growth this year to be at 2.5 per cent, slowing from last year's 3.2 per cent.

Singapore's non-oil exports to most of its top markets shrank last month, except for the United States (+23.1 per cent), Enterprise Singapore said yesterday.

REGIONAL TREND

We are seeing more signs of fading for the electronics sector, not just in Singapore but also in electronics powerhouses like South Korea and Taiwan.

MAYBANK ECONOMIST LEE JU YE

Exports to Japan fell 36.6 per cent, following February's 42.6 per cent contraction. The other markets that saw large drops were Taiwan (-27.4 per cent) and Hong Kong (-22.4 per cent), while shipments to China shrank 8.7 per cent.

Non-oil re-exports grew 5.9 per cent last month, following February's 7.2 per cent increase, as growth in non-electronics re-exports outweighed the decline in electronics.

Total trade decreased over the year by 0.9 per cent last month, with exports declining by 3 per cent, while imports grew 1.5 per cent. On a seasonally adjusted basis, total trade reached $84.2 billion last month, lower than February's $87.1 billion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2019, with the headline 'Non-oil exports plunge 11.7%; drop largest since 2016'. Print Edition | Subscribe