EXPORT growth slowed sharply last month - up just 11.1 per cent over May last year - surprising economists who were left pointing the finger at weak economies in America, Europe and Japan. It was the slowest rate of growth since January last year. Nomura Research Institute economist Daryl Ho Hon-kit said: ''The total of 11.1 per cent is extraordinarily low for May. ''I don't believe it is due to the slowdown in China, because it is too early for that since these are May figures. It could be down to sluggish growth in the US market. It is somewhat ambiguous at this stage.'' The figures, released by the Government yesterday, give a first snap at the trade picture last month. A further breakdown, detailing geographic and product spreads, is due out in about two weeks' time. Economic slowdown in China was highly unlikely to have hit demand last month, economists said, as no drastic measures to cool down the economy were in force then. Year-on-year figures show growth in domestic exports slid 6.5 per cent to $18.15 billion, while that of re-exports decelerated to 17.1 per cent, giving a growth rate of 11.1 per cent for total exports. The bill chalked up for re-exports last month tipped $66.93 billion. The 11.1 per cent compares with year-on-year growth in total exports of 20.2 per cent in April; 18.4 per cent in March; 17 per cent in February; and 21 per cent in January. Growth of imports was also down on recent months, at 11.3 per cent to give a total bill of $90.72 billion. GT Management Asia senior economist Simon Ogus dubbed the figures ''quite horrible'', saying they could mark the start of a worrying trend if no seasonal or external factors emerged. Mr Ho said while the figures were lower than expected, data were always very volatile: the Lunar New Year effect prompted a decline in the growth rate of total exports of 8.6 per cent in January last year and even without the seasonal distortion the same figure in March 1991 was a modest 3.4 per cent climb. Jardine Fleming Broking regional economist Ranjan Pal also noted that domestic exports came off sharply, while a greater emphasis would have been on re-exports if China was the culprit. China takes up some 25 per cent of Hongkong-made goods. Mr Pal said: ''I do expect exports to slow down because we are quite convinced China is entering into a period of significant deceleration, but I think this may not be it.'' Also laying the blame on external factors, HSBC Holdings economic adviser Jim Wong Hock-yuen said it was too early to spot trends and pointed to strong orders-on-hand data. The slowdown, which was matched by a drop-off in the rate of growth of demand for foreign goods in Hongkong, left the territory with a total trade deficit of $5.64 billion, equivalent to 6.2 per cent of the value of imports. This compares with a deficit of $4.94 billion, or 6.1 per cent the value of imports, in May last year. For the year so far, Hongkong has notched up a shortfall of $24.01 billion. Bank of East Asia head of economic research Benjamin Chan Sau-san said: ''There has been quite a significant slowdown in the growth of both exports and imports. ''While re-export growth still looks quite good, for the first five months of this year growth is just 23 per cent compared with 31 per cent in 1992.'' He attributed the fall to recession across key European markets, including west Germany and France, and is looking to a pick-up in the American economy to spur growth in the second half. Wardley Investment Services senior economist Connie Leung Woon-ho also pointed to a higher base in the previous year, as traders pushed through shipments ahead of a decision on China's Most Favoured Nation trading status and Section 301 talks. Nomura's Mr Ho is looking for the China effect to put the brakes on Hongkong next year, when it will slash the territory's gross domestic product by between 0.5 and 1.2 percentage points. under the most drastic scenario.