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Easing calls follow Chinese data
Read: 1932 Publish: 2012/5/22 15:15:14

Weak trade figures from China heightened fears of a slowdown in the global economy, though those concerns were offset by a bounce in US trade volumes that suggested modest growth in the world’s largest economy.

Chinese exports grew just 4.9 per cent from a year earlier in April, compared with 8.9 per cent growth in March, leading economists to call for more monetary easing.

Imports rose 0.3 per cent year on year, compared with March’s 5.3 per cent increase, according to official figures released yesterday.

Both exports and imports had been expected to grow much more strongly, with some economists predicting rates of between 8 per cent and 11 per cent.

Chinese exports are seen as an indicator of global demand for goods but they also suggest a slowdown in investment and consumption within China itself. Imports for domestic consumption were up just 2.1 per cent in April.

“The weak trade data probably caught the Beijing authorities by surprise,” Zhang Zhiwei, economist at Nomura said, noting that Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, said late last month that export and import growth had picked up.

The data “reinforce our view that policy makers’ priorities should lie in promoting growth”, he added.

Meanwhile, the US trade gap widened more than expected to $51.8bn in March as record imports outpaced exports, creating a risk of cuts to official estimates of first-quarter growth, but offering reassuring evidence of continued demand.

The wider trade gap could mean first-quarter growth was lower than the current estimate of 2.2 per cent. An update will be published at the end of this month.

Economists cheered the overall rise in trade volumes.

“The widespread rebound in imports and exports in March was very encouraging following the declines in trade volumes during February,” said Alistair Bentley, an economist at TD Bank.

“Moving forward, relative strength in the US dollar and renewed economic challenges in the eurozone both suggest that trade will be a modest drag to US economic growth for the rest of the year.”

US imports jumped 5.2 per cent to $238.6bn, the largest gain since January 2011. The higher cost of fuel contributed to the rise – crude purchases from abroad rose to $29.2bn as both prices and volumes increased – but a larger factor was rising demand for non-petroleum products, such as pharmaceuticals, televisions, mobile phones and clothing, as well capital goods, autos, and food and drink.

Exports also set a record, adding 2.9 per cent to $186.8bn, as US companies sold more industrial supplies and capital goods, including fuel oil, aircraft engines, chemicals and drilling equipment.

The broader global picture is that weakness in the eurozone is depressing overall trade volumes and weighing on the growth of export dependent countries.

Export orders at last week’s Canton Fair in southern China, the world’s biggest trade event, shrank 2.2 per cent compared with 12 months earlier, the first decline since the global financial crisis.

April exports from Taiwan and South Korea, two other big Asian exporters, fell 6.4 per cent and 4.7 per cent respectively.

Noeleen Heyzer, head of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, said yesterday that declining exports could slow regional growth this year by up to 1.3 percentage points compared with last year.

A eurozone debt default could also cut Asia-Pacific exports by $390bn in 2012-13, Ms Heyzer warned.

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