China’s Exports Drop Sharply as Global Economy Slows

Date: Tuesday, November 8th, 2022
Source: Wall Street Journal

China’s exports to the rest of the world shrank unexpectedly in October, a sign that global trade is in sharp retreat as consumers and businesses cut back spending in response to central banks’ aggressive moves to tame inflation.

The slide in exports from the world’s factory floor adds to the gloom surrounding the global economy as leaders from the Group of 20 advanced and developing countries prepare to gather in Indonesia next week.

A buoyant U.S. labor market is showing signs of cooling as the Federal Reserve jacks up interest rates to tame high inflation. Many economists expect a recession in the U.S. within the next 12 months.

Europe is bracing for a difficult winter after Russia decided to throttle energy supplies in response to sanctions over the war in Ukraine. The European Central Bank raised interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point for the second time in a row last month, but signaled mounting concerns about economic growth, prompting speculation among investors that it may soon dial back the pace of rate increases.

For China, the world’s second-largest economy, the sharp pullback in demand for its goods abroad removes a key prop for growth at a time when its economy is pressured by the government’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 and a severe real-estate slump.

“It’s almost like it doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” said Steve Cochrane, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore.

Chinese health officials said Saturday that China would stick to its tough Covid-prevention strategy, dashing hopes that had built up in recent days for an easing of strict pandemic measures following a closely watched Communist Party congress last month.

With growth slowing in the U.S., Europe and China, economists are downbeat about the global economy’s prospects this year and next. The International Monetary Fund warned last month that “the worst is yet to come,” saying it expects global gross domestic product to expand 3.2% this year, before slowing to 2.7% in 2023.

The China export slowdown “is a worrying sign for global growth,” said Duncan Wrigley, chief China economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics in London.

Exports from China declined 0.3% last month compared with a year earlier, China’s General Administration of Customs said Monday, the weakest pace of growth since May 2020, when trade was hobbled by countries’ early efforts to contain a worsening global pandemic. That was well below the expectations of economists polled by The Wall Street Journal, who had expected exports to increase 4% year over year.

Monday’s data showed exports to the U.S. fell 13% on the year in October, the third month of decline, while sales to the European Union fell 9%.

The data showed big falls in exports of products including home appliances and medical supplies, and weakening growth in exports of mobile phones and automobiles.

Other bellwether exporters in Asia, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have also reported faltering overseas sales, pointing to a broad slowdown in trade as the global economy loses momentum.

South Korea’s Trade Ministry said Nov. 1 that exports fell 5.7% in October compared with a year earlier, led by sinking exports of memory chips, petrochemicals and computers.

The cost of shipping containers full of goods around the world has fallen in recent months, as consumers retrench following a splurge on gadgets and home improvements while stuck at home during the depths of the pandemic. Prices for moving goods from Asia to the U.S. West Coast last week were 87% lower than the same time last year, according to data from online freight marketplace Freightos. Ocean carriers are canceling dozens of sailings on the world’s busiest routes during what is normally peak season.

The decline in Chinese exports in October followed several months of slowing growth. Exports in September rose at an annual 5.7% rate, down from the double-digit pace Chinese exports posted around the middle of the year.

China’s imports from the rest of the world dropped 0.7% in October from a year earlier, underscoring weak domestic spending in China’s economy.

That was also weaker than the flat import performance expected by economists, which meant China’s trade surplus widened in October to $85.15 billion, from $84.7 billion in September.

Zichun Huang, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients Monday that he expects Chinese exports to fall further in the months ahead as the global economy slides closer to recession.

Weakening exports aren’t the only headwind facing the world’s second-largest economy.

Lockdowns have hurt economic activity throughout the year, and the threat of further measures to snuff out even the tiniest Covid-19 outbreaks means consumers are reluctant to spend and businesses hesitant to invest, compounding the drag from a deflating property bubble.

Economists say China is poised to fall well short of officials’ earlier goal of expanding 5.5% this year and will likely record its worst 12 months for growth—aside from the first year of the pandemic—in decades.

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