BEIJING — Chinese imports fell for a seventh straight month in May while exports also sank, according to official data Monday, as the world’s second-biggest economy shows protracted weakness despite government-easing measures.
The disappointing figures also come as leaders try to transform the economy to one where growth is driven by consumer spending rather than by government investment and exports.
Imports slumped 17.6% year-on-year to $131.26 billion, the General Administration of Customs said in a statement. The decline was much sharper than the median forecast of a 10% fall in a Bloomberg News poll of economists and followed April’s 16.2% drop.
“The May trade data ... suggest both external and domestic demand remain weak,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, an analyst with research firm Capital Economics, in a note.
Exports dropped for the third consecutive month, falling 2.5% to $190.75 billion, Customs said, although that was better than the median estimate of a 4% fall in the Bloomberg survey.
The sharp decrease in imports meant the trade surplus expanded 65.6% year-on-year to $59.49 billion.
In yuan terms, imports fell 18.1%, exports decreased 2.8% and the trade surplus expanded 65.0%.
The figures provided further evidence that frailty in the Chinese economy, a key driver of world growth, has extended into the current quarter despite intensified government stimulus measures.
Gross domestic product grew 7.4% in 2014, the lowest rate in nearly a quarter of a century, while the new year has shown few signs of a reversal in the slowing trend.
GDP expanded 7.0% in January-March, the worst quarterly result in six years and weaker than the final three months of 2014.
Nation still needs more easing
Beijing has set the target for the economy to grow by “around 7%” this year, lower than its target for 2014, which was about 7.5%.
British bank HSBC’s Purchasing Managers’ Index, which tracks activity in factories and workshops and is seen as an important barometer of economic health, contracted for the third straight month in May and economists expect the shrinkage to extend into mid-year.
The government has warned that manufacturing still faces multiple strains even as China’s official PMI gave a different reading, hitting a six-month high in May.
Chinese leaders have said they are ready to accept slower but more sustainable growth, as they try to transform an investment-driven expansion model to one in which consumers take center-stage.
Still, authorities have stepped up stimulus efforts since late last year to try to ensure the slowdown doesn’t get out of hand.
The central People’s Bank of China has cut interest rates three times since November and twice reduced the amount of cash banks must keep in reserve, along with other measures to inject liquidity into the market.
It has also lowered minimum down payment levels on second houses and shortened the ownership period during which sellers are liable to a 20% capital gains tax on properties other than their main home, in an attempt to support the real estate market.
ANZ economists attributed the slump in imports this year to lower commodity prices and the “exchange rate effect,” suggesting the impact of a stronger Chinese yuan.
“In our view, both consumption and investment are bound to pick up in Q2 and Q3 on fast implementation of fiscal policy and much eased monetary policy,” the economists said in a report. “Thus, we may see a modest pick-up in Chinese imports soon.” They added that the government’s recent cut in tariffs on various consumer products would contribute to the recovery.
Evans-Pritchard also expects headline trade growth to “gradually recover” over the coming quarters on factors including a stronger US economy and the effects of Beijing’s loosening policies.
But some other analysts are calling for more easing measures.
“We believe China’s monetary policy still needs to be accommodative to support domestic demand,” Zhao Yang of Nomura said in a research note, adding that economists there still see the possibility of two additional bank reserve requirement reductions, as well as two more interest rate cuts this year.
By Fran Wang
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015