Mainland records strong growth in exports, imports
Denise Tsang and Toh Han Shih
Mainland trade got off to a robust start this year, but economists say it is too early to celebrate a solid recovery.
Exports jumped 21 per cent last month to US$109.47 billion - a growth rate that was back to pre-financial crisis levels - while imports soared 85.5 per cent to US$95.31 billion from January last year, China Customs said yesterday. This led to a trade surplus of US$14.16 billion, 63.8 per cent lower than a year earlier.
While economists said the strong growth rates were encouraging, the recovery was still fragile and a more meaningful comparison would be available at the end of this month, as the Lunar New Year fell in January last year when trade shrank the most.
They said the latest data would not prompt state leaders to embark on a U-turn in trade policies.
'We took the figures with a pinch of salt,' Bank of America-Merrill Lynch economist Lu Ting said. 'China's policy stance is changing, but it is not a U-turn.'
Premier Wen Jiabao said because of last year's low base, last month's key indicators showing sharp growth and inflation gave a distorted picture of the economy being overheated.
Nevertheless, the recovery in exports is gaining momentum and the growth of imports will accelerate for the rest of the year on the back of a state policy to spur domestic spending, according to a JP Morgan research report.
China overtook Germany to become the world's largest exporter last year, when it shipped US$1.2 trillion worth of goods overseas, beating Germany's US$1.1 trillion.
Some economists said a swift, strong recovery in exports could prompt Beijing to revalue the yuan, which has barely moved since the onset of the global financial crisis and hovers at 6.82 against the US dollar.
Deutsche Bank chief economist Ma Jun forecast the yuan could gain about 5 per cent this year and the appreciation could start as soon as next month.
The robust trade is reflected in cargo and container throughput at the mainland's key ports.
Last month, the container throughput of Shanghai, the country's largest port, rose 17.9 per cent year on year to 2.24 million 20-foot equivalent units, but this was 6.5 per cent lower than December and weaker than January 2008's throughput of 2.36 million teu, according to the Shanghai International Port Group, which runs Shanghai port.
Shanghai port's cargo output rose 59.4 per cent year on year to 37 million tonnes last month, its highest cargo throughput ever.
Also last month, the container throughput of Ningbo, the country's fourth-largest port, climbed 19.9 per cent to 968,000 teu, according to official data.
The import of cargo containers into North American ports, a leading recipient of Chinese shipments, will increase 25 per cent in the first half, assuming the US economy does not fall into double-dip recession, according to Hackett Associates, a US consultancy.