China’s exports unexpectedly rise, but economists warn of weakness ahead
BEIJING -China’s exports unexpectedly surged in March, with officials flagging rising demand for electric vehicles, but analysts cautioned the improvement partly reflects suppliers catching up with unfulfilled orders after last year’s COVID-19 disruptions.
Exports in March shot up 14.8 percent from a year ago, snapping five straight months of declines, stunning economists who predicted a 7-percent fall in a Reuters poll.
But analysts say the jump was more likely related to exporters rushing to fulfil a backlog of orders that had been disrupted by the pandemic in past months, and warned the global demand outlook remained subdued.
“The wave of COVID outbreaks in December and January likely depleted factories’ inventories. Now that factories are running at full capacity, they caught up the cumulated orders from the past,” said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.”
“The strong export growth is unlikely to sustain given the weak global macro outlook,” he added.
Meanwhile, imports fell less than expected, with economists pointing to an acceleration in the purchase of agricultural products, especially soybeans, as providing some support.
Imports dropped just 1.4 percent, smaller than the 5 percent decline forecast and a 10.2-percent contraction in the previous two months.
Lv Daliang, spokesperson of the General Administration of Customs, attributed the upside surprise to strength in demand for electric vehicles, solar products and lithium batteries.
However, he warned conditions could worsen going forward.
“The external environment is still severe and complicated at present,” Lv told reporters in Beijing on Thursday. “Sluggish external demand and geopolitical factors will bring greater challenges to China’s trade development,” he added.
China’s strong performance contrasts with that of other Asian exporters, such as South Korea and Vietnam, which have both seen exports decline in the first few months of 2023, contributing to doubts that it can be sustained.
“We aren’t convinced that this rebound will be sustained given the still gloomy outlook for foreign demand,” Capital Economics analysts said in a note.
“We expect most developed economies to slip into recession this year and think that the downturn in Chinese exports still has some way to run before it reaches a bottom later this year.”
China’s newly appointed premier Li Qiang told a cabinet meeting last week that officials should “try every method” to grow trade with developed economies and push companies to further explore emerging market economies, such as those of Southeast Asia.
Beijing has set a growth target of around 5 percent for gross domestic product (GDP) this year, after severe pandemic controls last year knocked the economy to one of its slowest rates in decades. GDP rose only 3 percent last year.