China’s export and import growth unexpectedly accelerated in January, defying signs the world’s second-largest economy will slow while fueling speculation that fake shipments are resurfacing.
Overseas shipments rose 10.6 percent from a year earlier, the General Administration of Customs said today in Beijing, a pace that may be distorted by false invoices and holidays and compares with the median projection of economists for a 0.1 percent gain. Imports (CNFRIMPY) advanced 10 percent, leaving a trade surplus of $31.9 billion, the widest for January since 2009.
Asian stocks extended gains and the Australian dollar jumped as the report provided some evidence of support for an economy that’s projected by analysts to grow at its slowest pace in 24 years in 2014. Economists were split over whether the figures were exaggerated again after a crackdown by authorities last year on the use of inflated export invoices to disguise capital inflows.
“The January trade data are puzzling,” with a divergence from figures reported by Taiwan and South Korea that previously showed a “good correlation,” said Ding Shuang, senior China economist at Citigroup Inc. in Hong Kong, who previously worked at the International Monetary Fund. “Inflated invoices aren’t extinguished, although it’s much less severe now than a year earlier.”
The MSCI Asia Pacific Index of stocks advanced 1.1 percent as of 5:12 p.m. in Tokyo. The Australian dollar rose 0.2 percent to 90.55 U.S. cents. China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite Index gained 0.3 percent.
China’s exporters have been challenged by a yuan that’s appreciated about 2.8 percent against the U.S. dollar in the last 12 months, the most among 24 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg. The yuan weakened 0.04 percent today to 6.0630 per dollar.
Economists at Nomura Holdings Inc. and Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. questioned the extent to which the January data indicate strength in the economy.
“We suspect that export over-invoicing activities have re-emerged,” while import gains indicated a “front-loading effect before the Chinese New Year,” ANZ analysts including Liu Li-Gang in Hong Kong wrote in a note. “It is important to note that China’s regional trading partners such as Taiwan and South Korea registered very weak January exports.”
Taiwan and South Korea both reported exports fell in January from a year earlier. “It’s better to look at China’s trade by bundling January and February together,” Citigroup’s Ding said.
The comparison with year-earlier figures is distorted because of false invoices to disguise capital flows in 2013 and the different timing of the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday. A widening discrepancy between Hong Kong and Chinese data for bilateral trade in December spurred speculation that China’s numbers are again exaggerated because of fake exports.
This year’s new year holiday began Jan. 31, while last year’s started on Feb. 9. Today’s data may reflect shipment arrangements that were advanced by exporters ahead of the festival and February’s figures “may slow down a bit,” said Liu Xuezhi, an analyst at Bank of Communications Co. in Shanghai.
Analysts at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc and Barclays Plc said they didn’t see clear evidence of inflated data in January. “While we remain puzzled by the strength of the export data, they seem to point to actual strength,” Louis Kuijs, RBS chief China economist in Hong Kong, said in a note.
China is trying to counter skepticism about the quality of its economic data, with statistics bureau head Ma Jiantang saying last year that the agency has “zero tolerance” for falsified figures. Bill Gross, who oversees the world’s biggest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., said last week that China is the “mystery meat of emerging-market countries” because “nobody knows what’s there.”
The State Administration of Foreign Exchange said in December that it would boost scrutiny of trade financing and that banks should prevent companies from getting financing based on fabricated trade.
Economists’ estimates for exports ranged from a decline of 8 percent to a 5.9 percent gain, following December’s 4.3 percent advance. Imports were projected to rise 4 percent from a year earlier, after December’s 8.3 percent increase, and the trade surplus was forecast at $23.45 billion, based on median projections in Bloomberg surveys.
Two gauges of Chinese manufacturing from surveys of companies declined in January to six-month lows, previously reported figures showed. A measure of new export orders in the official Purchasing Managers’ Index (SHCOMP) fell to 49.3, indicating a contraction for the second straight month.
China’s exports to Hong Kong in December exceeded the city’s reported imports from the mainland by about 70 percent, the biggest difference since April.
Shipments from China to Hong Kong fell 18.3 percent in January from a year earlier to $26.3 billion, contrasting with a 10.7 gain in exports to the U.S. and an 18.8 percent jump in goods bound for the European Union, according to today’s customs figures. Hong Kong will report January trade data on Feb. 25.
Demand from advanced economies will give “substantial support” for China’s growth this year, which along with resilient consumption will keep the government “in a good position to avoid a shadow banking-induced crisis and sharp decline in investment,” Shen Jianguang, chief Asia economist at Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd. in Hong Kong, said in a note today.
Rio Tinto Group, the world’s second-largest mining company, said last month that iron ore production rose 7 percent to 55.5 million tons last quarter and it’s seeking to expand its iron ore output capacity from Australia to meet Chinese demand. China’s imports from Australia surged 41.5 percent in January to $10.45 billion, today’s data showed.