China’s trade shrinks sharply as feeble demand, domestic COVID-19 woes take toll

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China’s exports and imports shrank at a much steeper-than-expected pace in November, as feeble global and domestic demand, COVID-induced production disruptions and a property slump at home piled pressure on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Exports contracted 8.7 percent in November from a year earlier, a sharper fall from a 0.3 percent loss in October and marked the worst performance since February 2020, official data showed on Wednesday. They were well below analysts’ expectations for a 3.5 percent decline.

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Outbound shipments have lost steam since August as surging inflation, sweeping interest rate increases across many countries and the Ukraine crisis have pushed the global economy into the brink of recession.

Exports are likely to shrink further over coming quarters, Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China Economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients.

“Outbound shipments will receive a limited boost from the easing of (China’s) virus restrictions, which are no longer a major constraint on the ability of manufacturers to meet orders,” he said.

“Of much greater consequence will be the downturn in global demand for Chinese goods due to the reversal in pandemic-era demand and the coming global recession.”

Overall, the bleak data also underlined the impact of fresh COVID-19 restrictions across many Chinese cities including manufacturing hubs Zhengzhou and Guangzhou as infections spiked last month.

Apple supplier Foxconn said that revenue in November dropped 11.4 percent year-on-year, after production problems related to COVID-19 controls at the world’s biggest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou.

Freight rates indexes from Chinese ports to Europe and the US west coast were down by 21.2 percent and 21.0 percent in November from October respectively, according to the Shanghai Shipping Exchange, highlighting the weakening exports trend due to poor external demand conditions.

The widespread COVID-19 curbs hurt importers too. Inbound shipments were down sharply by 10.6 percent from a 0.7 percent drop in October, weaker than a forecast 6.0 percent decline. The downturn was the worst since May 2020, partly also reflecting a high year-earlier base for comparison.

This resulted in a narrower trade surplus of $69.84 billion, compared with a $85.15 billion surplus in October and marked the lowest since April when Shanghai was under lockdown. Analysts had forecast a $78.1 billion surplus.

The government has responded to the weakening economic growth by rolling out a flurry of policy measures over recent months, including cutting the amount of cash that banks must hold as reserves and loosening financing curbs to rescue the property sector.

But analysts remain sceptical the steps could achieve quick results, as Beijing has not announced a full reopening from COVID-19 containment yet.

Almost three years into the pandemic, some local governments in recent days began to relax some lockdowns, quarantine rules and testing requirements that have exacted a heavy economic toll and caused widespread frustration and fatigue.

“The shift away from zero-COVID and step up in support for the property sector will eventually drive a recovery in domestic demand but probably not until the second half of next year,” Evans-Pritchard said.

With the Chinese yuan already down sharply this year, policymakers’ room for manoeuvre is also limited as hefty monetary policy stimulus at home at a time of rapidly rising interest rates globally could trigger large scale capital outflows.

The Ukraine war, which sparked a surge in already high inflation globally, has intensified geopolitical tensions and further undermined the business outlook.

China’s economy grew just 3 percent in the first three quarters of this year, well below the annual target of around 5.5 percent. Full-year growth is widely expected by analysts to be just over 3 percent.

Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management, cautioned about China’s “bumpy reopening” process.

“As global demand weakens in 2023, China will have to rely more on domestic demand,” he said.

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