Hong Kong's exports grew at a slower pace last month, lagging expectations. Total exports rose in value to HK$126.2 billion, up 14.1 per cent compared with the same month last year, according to the Census and Statistics Department. That was well off May's 22.3 per cent growth rate. Economists contacted ahead of yesterday's announcement had forecast exports would rise by 20 per cent or better in June. Guonan Ma, head of North Asian economics at Merrill Lynch, said: 'The trade-data series, all the months, has been quite volatile, so I hate to read too much into it.' Growth will be tougher to maintain because statistics so far this year have been figured on the basis of extraordinarily depressed year-earlier levels, a situation that will change next month. Hong Kong's trade shrank by a monthly average of 6 per cent in the first half of last year but picked up in the second half, growing by a monthly average of nearly 7.5 per cent. But year-on-year comparisons offer little insight into last month's surprisingly slow growth, since exports were still shrinking in the year-earlier period. Andy Xie Guozhong, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's Greater China economist, had attributed Hong Kong's strong export performance directly to the mainland's strong export performance. Nearly 90 per cent of the SAR's exports are re-exports, and nearly 60 per cent of those originate on the mainland. But the mainland's exports grew by 45 per cent last month and Hong Kong's exports by only 14.1 per cent. Where did those extra mainland exports go if not through Hong Kong? Mr Xie suggested two possible explanations: either an even larger portion of the mainland's exports are being shipped through mainland container terminals instead of through Hong Kong, or there is a backlog in the pipeline that will show up in better than expected Hong Kong exports next month. In any case, he said, 'there is no independent export story for Hong Kong, so I'm not too worried about Hong Kong exports. What I watch is China's exports'. Also puzzling, domestic exports grew by 9.8 per cent in the first six months of the year compared with the same period last year - the first such rise in five years. Ian Perkin, chief economist at the General Chamber of Commerce, said: 'Just how that was achieved is something of a mystery, especially given that Hong Kong's orders on hand and industrial production have continued to show declines throughout the whole period, as have domestic-export prices.' Imports increased in value to HK$132.5 billion last month, up by 14.5 per cent from the same month last year. With imports growing faster than total exports, Hong Kong's visible-trade deficit widened last month to HK$6.3 billion, equivalent to 4.8 per cent of the value of goods imports. This was larger than the deficit of HK$5.1 billion, equivalent to 4.4 per cent of imports, in June last year.