Exports maintained double-digit growth for the sixth successive month in April, but the rate of growth slowed. Outgoing trade was worth HK$123.1 billion, up 15.5 per cent from a year earlier. This came after a year-on-year rise of 26.4 per cent in March when exports were worth HK$122.8 billion. Last month's re-exports were up 16.7 per cent to HK$109.4 billion, while domestic exports rose 7.4 per cent to HK$13.7 billion. At the same time, imports increased 18 per cent to HK$133.6 billion. This gave Hong Kong a visible trade deficit of HK$10.5 billion, equivalent to 7.9 per cent of the value of imports - larger than the deficit of HK$6.7 billion, or 6 per cent of imports, in April last year. A government spokesman noted the continued robust performance, saying demand remained strong in all key markets. The growth in the visible trade deficit indicated the continued pick-up in consumer demand, which also resulted in a corresponding rise in inventory levels to keep pace with that demand. However, there were signs that external trade might be easing, as Hong Kong's export growth lagged the mainland, which is seen as an indicator of the health of local trade performance. Mainland exports grew almost 39 per cent in the same month. Bank of East Asia chief economist Shamus Mok Cheung-yuk said this suggested Hong Kong was falling behind the pace of the mainland. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's Greater China economist Andy Xie Guoshong said recent figures across Asia had suggested a divergence of trade performance in the region. While the mainland and Taiwan had continued to improve their external performance, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore had all slowed. Chief economist at the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, Ian Perkin, disagreed that the pace of growth in Hong Kong was declining. Mr Perkin said a 15 per cent rise last month went against fears that exports would taper off because of a slowing in global demand. He said there were many public holidays last month, which would have affected trade. Mr Perkin also suggested that the mainland's entry to the World Trade Organisation - now a big step closer following a vote in the US House of Representatives late on Wednesday to approve permanent normal trade relations with the mainland - would be sufficient to boost trade for the remainder of the year and into next year. 'The prospect of a more open China in the near term as a result of WTO entry may encourage more traders from around the world to enter the market sooner rather than later to ensure their position ahead of formal entry,' he said. However, he also warned Hong Kong's growth rate would be difficult to maintain given the high base of comparison in coming months, while the high interest rate environment around the world might also dampen demand for goods. For the first four months of the year, exports grew 18.7 per cent compared with the same period last year. Re-exports rose 19.6 per cent while domestic exports were up 12.2 per cent. During the same period, the value of imports was 21.5 per cent higher, with a visible trade deficit of HK$34.7 billion, equivalent to 7 per cent of the value of imports.