Singapore's exports declined unexpectedly last month after four months of strong growth.
Most economists attributed the drop largely to the Chinese New Year festivities, which began from mid-February.
But they remain confident of overall trade prospects, even as they foresee momentum in the coming months slowing from last year's breakneck pace.
Official figures released yesterday show non-oil domestic exports (Nodx) contracted by 5.9 per cent last month from the same month a year earlier - the first decline since last September.
Beside being sharply below economists' expectations of 4.8 per cent growth, it was also significantly weaker than January's 12.9 per cent increase.
DBS senior economist Irvin Seah said this "choppy" performance is a common phenomenon in the first three months of every year owing to the timing of Chinese New Year.
"This is particularly exacerbated by plants in China, which typically ramp up their production ahead of Chinese New Year before shutting down production during the festive period," he added.
China is a big market for Singapore manufacturers, and its response to the festive period explains the 12.9 per cent spike in January, followed by a 5.9 per cent dive last month, he noted.
"Plainly, if one averages the numbers for both months, we still have a decent 3.5 per cent expansion."
Last month's fall was the result of a decline in electronics and non-electronics shipments. Electronics shipments, a key driver of economic growth last year, fell 12.3 per cent after a 3.9 per cent slide in January.
Indeed, the momentum has probably peaked and last year's strong upswing is starting to wane, said Maybank Kim Eng economists Chua Hak Bin and Lee Ju Ye.
For a clearer picture on how well the electronics sector is doing, Dr Chua and Ms Lee suggested waiting for manufacturing data that will be out on March 26.
CHINESE NEW YEAR EFFECT
Plainly, if one averages the numbers for both months, we still have a decent 3.5 per cent expansion.
DBS SENIOR ECONOMIST IRVIN SEAH, on the impact of the festivities, as China is a big market for Singapore manufacturers.
Economists such as Mr Seah expect Singapore's exports to expand at a more moderate pace this year, after growth hit a seven-year high of 9.2 per cent last year.
This is because the economy is entering a more mature phase of the recovery cycle, which means it will be tougher to replicate the double-digit Nodx growth numbers seen in some months last year.
But others are less optimistic.
Mr Prakash Sakpal, an economist at Dutch lender ING, said the sharp slowdown in trade numbers in the first two months of the year is not a promising sign that exports will continue to fuel growth. "Weak Nodx points to weak manufacturing in the current quarter", he noted, and this could weigh on economic growth.