China’s Exports Unexpectedly Drop Blow to Confidence

China’s exports fell the most since the global financial crisis, dealing another blow to confidence as Communist Party leaders meeting in Beijing assess the risk from the nation’s first onshore bond default.

Shipments abroad dropped 18.1 percent from a year earlier, the customs administration said in Beijing yesterday, trailing the median estimate for a 7.5 percent increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 45 economists. Reports today showed inflation eased to a 13-month low in February and producer prices fell for a 24th month.

Distortions in the data from the Lunar New Year holiday and fake invoicing that inflated numbers last year make it harder to assess the true picture. As the nation chases a 7.5 percent annual growth target, set at last week’s meeting of the National People’s Congress, officials need to contain stresses in the financial system from the credit boom that began with stimulus measures in 2008.

“People see a lot of negative news coming out of China: growth momentum is slowing and when there is a default of one company they tend to think it’s going to be a systemic problem and spill over into the rest of the economy,” said Ding Shuang, senior China economist at Citigroup Inc. in Hong Kong. “These numbers may support their negative views, that even external demand may not be that strong.”

Inflated Base

Even so, the drop in exports isn’t as bad as it appears when taking into account the holiday, the inflated base of last year’s numbers, and a weather-related “soft patch” in the U.S. economy, said Ding, whose forecast of an 8.5 percent decline in sales was closest to the customs figure.

Imports rose 10.1 percent, more than projected, leaving a trade deficit of $23 billion, the biggest in two years.

Shanghai Chaori Solar Energy Science & Technology Co., a maker of solar cells, on March 7 became the first company to default in China’s onshore bond market after failing to pay full interest due. The number of publicly traded non-financial Chinese companies whose debt-to-equity ratios exceed 200 percent has jumped 57 percent since 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite Index last week had its first gain in three weeks, rising 0.1 percent after a 2.7 percent drop the previous week. The yuan posted its biggest weekly increase since October, following a record decline of 1.4 percent in February, on speculation the central bank ceased engineering a decline in the currency to discourage appreciation bets.

Demand Deterioration

Trade will be a “clear drag” on growth in the first quarter and the yuan should weaken this week, said Dariusz Kowalczyk, senior economist and strategist at Credit Agricole SA in Hong Kong. “The trade data explain some of the downward pressure on the yuan in February -- it can be justified not only by central bank guidance but by actual deterioration of demand and supply in the forex market.”

Analysts’ estimates for February exports ranged from a drop of 8.5 percent to a 14.4 percent increase. The decline, after a 10.6 percent gain in January, was the biggest since August 2009.

The increase in imports compared with the median forecast for a 7.6 percent gain and a 10 percent advance in January. The trade deficit compared with the median projection for an excess of $14.5 billion and a $14.9 billion surplus a year earlier.

Holiday Effect

The customs administration attributed the data volatility to the impact of the Lunar New Year holiday, which started on Jan. 31 this year and Feb. 9 in 2013. Traders tried to “export fast” before the festival and “import first” after it, according to a statement on the agency’s website yesterday.

“We will probably have to wait for next month’s data to get a true picture of the export situation but we shouldn’t worry too much,” said Wang Tao, chief China economist at UBS AG in Hong Kong, one of three analysts to predict a decline in overseas sales.

Exports for January and February combined declined 1.6 percent, the most for that period since 2009, according to previously released data, and compared with a 23.6 percent gain a year earlier. Wang estimates the underlying growth rate was about 6 percent.

Reports today from the National Bureau of Statistics showed consumer prices rose 2 percent in February from a year earlier, compared with January’s 2.5 percent gain. Producer prices fell 2 percent, the most since July. Premier Li Keqiang last week set a target for consumer inflation of about 3.5 percent this year, the same goal as in 2013.

Yuan Decline

Economists were split last month over whether January’s trade figures showed a re-emergence of inflated export invoices to disguise capital inflows after authorities started a crackdown in the second quarter of last year. The yuan’s decline last month may help squeeze out the practice, according to Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.

“The trade figures will become more real in the coming months” as the currency has “become much more volatile and less predictable than before,” ANZ China economists led by Hong Kong-based Liu Li-Gang wrote in a report yesterday.

The yuan fell last month amid speculation the central bank was engineering a decline in preparation for widening the currency’s trading band against the dollar. The People’s Bank of China last month included an “orderly” broadening of the band among its 2014 policy goals.

The trade growth target for this year is 7.5 percent, the National Development and Reform Commission said in its annual work report to the legislature last week. China is confident it can achieve the goal, Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said at a March 7 briefing.

The statistics bureau will provide data on January-February industrial production, retail sales and fixed-asset investment on March 13. The central bank will publish data on February credit and money supply over the next week.

— With assistance by Rachel Butt, and Nerys Avery

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