China Customs Official Apologizes for Incorrect Data

A Chinese government spokesman said he gave incorrect and “groundless” investment data sourced from the Internet at a briefing this week, underscoring concern that official numbers may not be credible.

Zheng Yuesheng, spokesman and head of the statistics department at the Beijing-based General Administration of Customs, said in a statement yesterday that he “expresses deep apologies” for citing unconfirmed figures from online sources he didn’t identify.

Zheng was referring to remarks he made at a customs administration press conference on April 10 where he also acknowledged concerns that China’s export data may be overstated. During the briefing, held to discuss March and first-quarter trade figures, Zheng said the nation’s top economic-planning agency had approved about 7 trillion yuan ($1.1 trillion) of investment projects in the fourth quarter of 2012, including new roads, railroads and airports.

He gave the figure when discussing the improvement in first-quarter trade to illustrate the recovery in China’s economic growth.

“The information was sourced from relevant reports on the Internet, which were groundless and must be corrected,” Zheng said in a seven-line statement on the agency’s website.

Customs Investigation

China’s exports rose 10 percent in March from a year earlier, increasing less than forecast for the first time in four months, while shipments to Hong Kong jumped 92.9 percent, which researcher IHS Inc. said was the most in 18 years.

Zheng acknowledged that the practice of false trade declarations exists and said the agency is investigating the issue. At the same time, he stood by the customs administration’s data and said differences between China’s reported exports to Hong Kong and the city’s data for imports from the mainland stem from different statistical methods.

Gains in overseas shipments exceeded forecasts by at least 7.5 percentage points in December, January and February, the first time that’s happened in three straight months in the eight years Bloomberg has compiled analyst estimates for the data.

The unprecedented run of better-than-forecast export growth prompted skepticism of the data at banks including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Nomura Holdings Inc., casting doubt on the strength of the recovery.

Inflating Shipments

Overstated exports would mean China is failing to get the boost from global demand that the data suggest as the new government under Premier Li Keqiang seeks to sustain an economic rebound.

Theories include companies inflating the value of shipments to bring money into China, according to Nomura, and exporting the same goods twice as local governments seek to boost data, Goldman Sachs says.

Exports fell to major partners in March including the U.S., European Union, Japan, South Korea and Canada. The main exception was shipments to Hong Kong, which rose to $48.4 billion, accounting for 27 percent of total exports. Sales to Taiwan rose 44.9 percent, while Taiwan this week reported a 1.2 percent decline in imports from China.

“The breakdown of exports by destination veers towards the absurd,” IHS economists Xianfang Ren and Alistair Thornton said in a note April 10. “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that exporters are faking orders” and using a practice to obtain export-tax rebates, IHS said.

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