Singapore non-oil exports defy coronavirus disruption to surge 17.6% in March

The surge in exports was led by a 20.5 per cent surge in the shipment of non-electronics products. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's non-oil domestic exports (Nodx) did the unexpected in March by jumping 17.6 per cent, albeit from a low year-ago base.

Economists polled by Reuters were expecting exports to drop 8.9 per cent, with more and more countries enforcing a lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak and restrictions to business activity.

March's gain follows a revised 3.1 per cent increase in February, which also benefited from a low-base effect.

The surge in March exports was led by a 20.5 per cent rise in the shipment of non-electronics products. This came from non-monetary gold which swelled 242.5 per cent, specialised machinery (up 54.2 per cent) and pharmaceuticals (up 48.6 per cent).

Demand for physical gold has soared as a safe haven asset amid the volatile swings in financial markets. Non-monetary gold exports accounted for about 70 per cent of the growth in March Nodx.

DBS Bank's senior economist Mr Irvin Seah appreciated gold's contribution to overall export earnings but noted that the commodity has little impact on economic growth.

Exports of electronic products also grew, by 5.8 per cent, following the 2.5 per cent increase in the previous month, according to Enterprise Singapore data released on Friday (April 17).

"That is a more positive surprise and should raise hopes for the country's manufacturing sector," Mr Seah said. It is quite possible that the surge in the number of people working from home could have boosted demand from some consumer electronics, he added.

Singapore electronic exports largely consist of parts and intermediate components used in final electronic products.

Hence, contributing the most to the growth in electronic exports in March were disk media products, integrated circuits (ICs) and parts of ICs that increased by 50.6 per cent, 6.7 per cent and 60.1 per cent respectively.

The upturn in IC shipments came after 12 consecutive months of decline amid the global electronics downcycle.

On a month-on-month seasonally adjusted basis, Nodx rose by 12.8 per cent last month, reversing February's 4.7 per cent decline. This gain was helped by an increase in both electronic and non-electronic domestic exports.

However, most analysts are not optimistic about the outlook for exports, given the precipitous decline in global demand, with the world economy heading for its worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Ms Selena Ling, OCBC Bank's head of research and strategy, said: "Nodx is likely to underperform in April and possibly in the coming months as well. With the one-month circuit breaker, and coupled with the rising probability of an extension, there may still be downsides to come."

Oxford Economics' analyst Sung Eun Jung expects a sharp deterioration in Singapore's trade performance in the second quarter of the year, dragged down by weak global demand.

"Given the developing global recession, we forecast Singapore's exports and imports to contract further before rebounding in the second half of the year," Ms Sung said.

Enterprise Singapore data showed that exports to most of Singapore's top markets increased in March, except for Malaysia, Indonesia and China. The top export markets were Thailand, the United States and Japan.

Thailand and the US were also the biggest importers of gold from Singapore.

Singapore's oil domestic exports in March contracted by 37 per cent year on year, following a 28.6 drop in February. Oil prices have plunged to a 17-year low with demand crashing as countries lock down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Total exports declined by 0.6 per cent year on year in March, after the 2.4 per cent increase in February. Total imports were up 0.3 per cent, following a 9.4 per cent rise a month earlier.

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