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China’s trade deficit hit $31.5bn in February as exports slumped, underscoring concerns about slowing global demand and cooling growth in the world’s second-largest economy.
February exports from China fell 23.6 per cent from the previous month, and rose a slower-than-expected 18.4 per cent from the previous year. The fall in exports, combined with spectacularly strong imports as China bought commodities such as crude oil and iron ore, brought the trade deficit to its highest level in years.
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China’s trade data, released on Saturday by the General Administration of Customs, is a key barometer for global growth and Chinese exports are closely linked to global demand for manufactured goods.
Economists said February’s weak exports, combined with cooling inflationary pressures, would prompt Beijing to hasten the pace of monetary easing to avoid a painful economic contraction.
Data released on Friday suggest that China’s growth is cooling, with fixed asset investment growth below historical average sales and car sales showing a decline from the previous year.
“Exports might not be terrible but they are still not strong,” said Ken Peng, economist at BNP Paribas. “It is still every much necessary that the policymakers in Beijing provide sufficient support for funding for investments in the coming period.”
While a 2008-style stimulus is unlikely, policymakers are expected to continue to cut banks reserve requirement ratios this year and possibly introduce fiscal stimulus.
China’s January and February data are distorted by the Chinese New Year holiday, which falls on different dates each year, causing big swings in economic statistics. Combining the January and February data, which removes some holiday distortions, paints a less grim picture: For the two months together exports rose 6.9 per cent from the previous year, while imports were up 7.7 per cent.
While China has come under criticism from the US for running a trade surplus, its vast purchases of commodities have greatly reduced the annual trade surplus in recent years.
China’s demand for raw materials was strong in February, with imports of crude oil hitting record highs of 5.95m barrels per day and copper imports surging 50 per cent by volume from the previous year. The value of February imports were up 39.6 per cent from the previous year and up 19 per cent from the previous month.