Global trade will be hit by the US-China dispute. Photo: iStock
China's imports and exports have been hit by the trade war. Photo: iStock

Picking through China’s data dump on Friday unearthed an unexpected economic numbers game.

Statistics released by the General Administration of Customs showed that exports surged 14.2% last month compared to the same period in 2018 while imports slumped by 7.6%, squeezed by cooling consumer demand at home.

“[Import volumes are] likely to remain subdued,” Julian Evans-Pritchard, a senior China economist at Capital Economics, said in a note. “They will probably recover somewhat in the near-term as policy stimulus helps to shore up demand and temporary drags from the electronics sector’s inventory cycle start to fade.”

Yet analysts pointed out that the first quarter is notoriously unreliable because of the Chinese New Year festivities in February.

Manufacturing surveys for March had earlier offered a glimmer of hope, despite slowing global growth and the fallout from the US-China trade war.

“There are uncertainties coming from the weaker momentum of the global economy and trade growth and the complex global environment,” Li Kuiwen, a spokesman, for the General Administration of Customs, told a media briefing.

“Overall China-US economic and trade frictions have had a definite impact on business operations but we believe it’s generally controllable,” he added.

Trade between the world’s two largest economies shrank in the first quarter while imports from the US dropped by double digits in the opening three months of the year compared to the same period in 2018.

China’s March trade surplus with the US, which has become politically sensitive, was US$20.5 billion, while the first quarter number was $62.66 billion.

Earlier this week, events in Washington suggested that the US and China were closing in on a trade deal after a marathon conflict, which at times has resembled an economic Cold War.

Combined with a slowing economy, Beijing has started to relax monetary policy with new bank loans rising faster than expected in March to 1.69 trillion yuan ($251.59 billion).

“Though the data could be distorted by short term lending, the mild increase in medium to long term loans shows that there is no urgency for China to roll out more measures at the current stage,” Tommy Xie, the China economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore, told Reuters.

Still, it might be wise to factor in the unexpected.

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