Tag Archives: State Information Center

China’s February Export Slump: New Year Distortion Or Full-Year Herald?

LUNAR NEW YEAR always makes forecasting China’s February export numbers something of a lottery. Yet few if any foresaw the 18.1% decline just announced.

Throw in slowing credit growth, the National People’s Congress meeting going as expected — i.e. offering no new answers of how both a 7.5% growth target for the year and reforms to rebalance the economy will be achieved — political tension over Ukraine and the mystery disappearance of the Beijing bound Malaysia Airlines’ passenger jet and it is scant surprise investors, already jittery about growth prospects, have taken umbrage. Shares hit a five year low in Shanghai and the yuan weakened against the dollar, with the ripples being felt in Hong Kong and in U.S markets beyond.

Most forecasters had expected an increase in exports for February, if a modest one. The most recent official purchasing managers index had pointed to weakness in new export orders, thought to be a consequence of the untypically harsh winter in the U.S., China’s second largest export market after the E.U. In addition, exporters tend to front-load their deliveries ahead of the New Year’s holiday when factories are closed for a week or so.

Nonetheless, across January and February taken together exports were down 1.6% while imports rose 10%. That has taken a chunk out of China’s trade surplus. February’s was the largest monthly trade deficit in two years. Across the two months, the surplus was $8.9 billion, down 79.1% on the same period a year earlier.

The question, of course, is whether this is all just a holiday induced blip in long-term deceleration of the growth rate or harbinger of a harder than previously expected braking of the economy. The March trade figures will be looked at closely for clues to the answer.  However, exporters will have to go at it if they are to make good the forecast of the State Information Center, a government think tank affiliated to the top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission. It is forecasting an 8.1% growth in exports in the first quarter, and about 7.5% GDP growth. Investors would be delighted, and surprised.

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China Inflation Watch

Contributors to China's Consumer Price Index, 2007-2012. Source: IMF

This Bystander is less sanguine then some about the January inflation number. Much of the jump in the consumer price index (CPI) to 4.5% year-on-year from December’s 4.1%, reversing five months of decline, can be explained by seasonal factors, notably an early Lunar New Year. But there are some points of concern in the core numbers that bear keeping an eye on.

Non-food price inflation was up 1.8% Y-o-Y, higher than expected. We’ll have to wait for February’s numbers to better judge how much the rise in food prices, up 10.5% Y-o-Y, is attributable to the new year and how much to the return of a firming of global agricultural commodity prices. Shrinking acreage and rising demand for food is making China a larger and larger food importer. One month’s figures, especially from an abnormal month like January, don’t deflect us from our view that the trend is a decline in inflation, but we shall keep a weather eye on the rate of that decline to see if it moderates. The chart above, from the IMF, shows both the trend and the importance of food prices to the overall number.

The latest first-quarter growth forecast from an official source is 8.5%, announced today by the State Information Center, a government think tank. That is down from the 8.9% the center estimates for the fourth quarter and 9.2% for full-2011. Yet it is still a sufficiently brisk pace of growth, especially when taken with the January CPI numbers, for economic planners not to have to rush to further monetary easing.

These are uncertain times for the economy, with the IMF advising Beijing to stand ready with a ‘significant fiscal package’ in the event growth in the eurozone suddenly collapsed. Such spending would likely be just as inflationary as the stimulus that followed the 2008 global financial crisis.

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