Mixed messages concerning China’s trade figures

Questions about China’s export and import figures are hardly new. However, the most recent trade figures published by the Chinese customs authority for February have shown both imports and exports growing rapidly with imports increasing by 14.1% on a year-on-year basis, whilst exports grew 10% as measured in year-on-year terms.

This has prompted analysts to draw attention to anomalies such as the 93% increase in exports to Hong Kong as well as a divergence in the rate of growth of Hong Kong and mainland China’s import/export trade. However, it would still appear from these numbers that traffic in and out of China is reasonable, even if there is some evidence of a slowing in trade performance.

If so inclined, an alternative to relying on customs generated data is to look at physical movements of trade such container shipping trade. These do show a different picture.

The February figures from Container Trade Statistics (CTS) show that, if anything, container trades are heading downwards. Overall, Asian exports – including on intra-Asian trades – fell by 26.4% as compared to January and by 8% as compared to February last year. In addition, import activity for Asia fell by 10% compared to January 2012, whilst on a year-on-year it was down by 12%. The export traffic indicates a twelve month low.

There is considerable volatility in the monthly numbers with Chinese New Year intruding as ever and falling in different months for 2012 and 2013. However, taking into account January and February together, volumes for Asian imports are down 7.5% and exports 0.5% year-on-year.

Of course, it is vital to remember that although China is by far the largest contributor to container movements in the region, the dynamics of Japanese and other major Asian economies do have a substantial impact on these numbers.

The overall context of the CTS numbers for Asia mirror falling volumes for global containerised traffic with export traffic in February seeing a 5.19% fall year-on-year, to a twelve month low of 9m TEU. The US saw flat import volumes but slightly higher exports.

The impression from the CTS container numbers is a more subdued world and level of Asian trade than the Chinese numbers suggest. As ever with such statistics, there is always the danger of not comparing like-with-like. Therefore, although the mood in the container shipping market may not be optimistic, perhaps the Chinese trade numbers might caution against too much pessimism.