The contraction in non-oil domestic exports last month was less than forecasters expected, raising faint hopes the economy is starting to bottom out. David Cohen, director of Asia-Pacific forecasts at Standard & Poor's MMS International said: 'It looks as if it is finally bottoming out after months of sharp declines . . . what's encouraging is that we have similar data from other economies around the region. 'Now the question is - when do things start to improve?' Trade Development Board figures showed Singapore's non-oil domestic exports shrank a nominal 21.1 per cent last month to S$7.98 billion (about HK$33.85 billion) compared with the same month last year. The drop follows falls of 21.7 per cent in October and 30.7 per cent in September. A five-strong poll of forecasts compiled by Reuters last week predicted an average fall of 24.7 per cent for last month. The board cited a litany of forces driving the prolonged decline in the city-state's volume of non-oil trade: the synchronised slowdown in the world's leading economies; the high-technology slump; and fall-out from the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Trade-reliant Singapore is mired in its deepest recession since 1964. Gross domestic product is on course to shrink by about 3 per cent this year after expanding 10 per cent last year and at an average annual rate of 7.6 per cent in the 1990s. The board said trade dropped 19.5 per cent in nominal terms last month to S$34.63 billion. In the first 11 months this year it was down 8.1 per cent compared with the same period last year. 'The numbers do offer some encouragement, although it is still too premature to say that this is a turnaround,' one economist said. Singapore's critical electronics exports dropped 24 per cent last month over the same month last year. The sector accounts for about two-thirds of non-oil domestic exports and about half of manufacturing.