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International Finance

China Trade Surplus Can Cushion But Not Stop Slowdown

Shipping containers at the Yangshan Deepwater Port in Shanghai, China, on Friday, April 9, 2021. China is scheduled to release trade figures on April 13. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

China’s record trade surplus is cushioning the economy from weakening domestic demand and giving policy makers room to delay stimulus. But it won’t be enough to keep growth from slowing further.

Export growth has exceeded analyst estimates for three straight months, and the trade surplus reached $84.5 billion in October, data released Sunday showed. Problem is, gross domestic product is now so large that overseas demand can’t replace easing investment and consumer spending.
Chinese trade growth has been well above pre-pandemic levels this year

China’s economy has slowed sharply in recent months as efforts to rein in the property market ripple through industries from construction to commodities. A power crunch forced factories to slow output, while sporadic coronavirus outbreaks and stringent measures to curb them have damped consumption.

“The government can afford to wait till the year-end to loosen monetary and fiscal policies, now that exports provide a buffer to smooth the economic slowdown,” Zhang Zhiwei, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management Ltd., said in a note.

Premier Li Keqiang said last week the economy is facing “new downward pressures” and policies need to be fine-tuned to provide targeted support for businesses.

All the Ways Beijing is ‘Fine-Tuning’ Policy

  • Allowing small businesses in manufacturing to delay tax payments in the fourth quarter
  • Ordering banks to accelerate mortgage approvals and keep credit to property sector stable
  • Urging local governments to speed up bond issuance to meet annual borrowing target by the end of November
  • Boosting short-term cash injections through daily open-market operations
  • Allowing electricity prices to rise, intervening in the coal market and moderating the campaign to reduce energy intensity in response to an energy shortage
  • Providing 300 billion yuan ($46.9 billion) of low-cost funding to banks for lending to small businesses
  • Urging local governments to start the construction of major infrastructure projects
  • The PBOC has said it will set up a monetary tool to provide cheaper funding for banks to lend to companies in areas related to emission reduction

China’s role as the world’s largest exporter meant it benefited as demand for goods rose in the wake of the pandemic. The World Trade Organization raised its projection for global trade growth in 2021 to 10.8% from 8%, the biggest year-over-year jump since 2010. It estimates a 4.7% increase in 2022.

Stronger Bounce Back

The persistence of China’s export strength has surprised economists who predicted that global spending on made-in-China goods would ease as more countries re-open this year. That proved premature as the more infectious delta variant spread throughout the world.

China’s virus controls meant its factories won orders this year as large-scale outbreaks in countries such as Vietnam, India and Malaysia caused business closures.

Partly as a result of labor-intensive production of textiles and plastic toys relocating back to China, the nation increased its share of global trade to record levels of 14%-15% this year, according to the CBP World Trade Monitor, published on behalf of the European Commission.

Rising Share

“Supply chain problems have seemingly been a blessing for China,” said Craig Botham, chief China economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Chinese companies also exported higher-value products: The country sold almost no vaccines outside its borders pre-pandemic, but shipped shots worth $11.7 billion in the first nine months of the year. Automobile exports more than doubled so far in 2021 as the country emerged as a production hub for electric vehicle manufacturers including Tesla Inc.

Inflation Boost

Strong demand means China’s exporters have gained confidence to raise their prices by as much as 10%-20% from a year ago, partly to offset rising commodity costs, multiple Chinese factory owners told Bloomberg News recently. Almost all of the increase in the value of exports in October may be due to rising prices rather than increasing volume, Guosen Securities Co. Ltd. economists wrote in a report Sunday.

Economists polled by Bloomberg now expect China’s full-year export growth of over 24%. Still, trade has less of an impact now on China’s growth trajectory.

While exports grew 23% trade in the first three quarters of the year, net exports contributed just over 20% of China’s GDP growth over the period, a fraction compared to government and household spending on goods and services, which accounted for 65% of the expansion.

What Bloomberg’s Economists Say…

China’s export growth will remain strong in the coming months, but will be “insufficient to counter domestic headwinds from power shortages and a cooling property sector.”

–Eric Zhu

See full report here

The surplus on China’s current account – a broad measure of trade – rose to its highest level since 2016 this year, but remained at just 2% of GDP in the latest quarter, well below levels of around 10% seen before the 2008 financial crisis.

China's current account surplus has surged post-pandemic

While major global central banks are starting to roll-back monetary stimulus, the People’s Bank of China began tightening last year and has more recently been under pressure to ease to support growth. But Beijing is in a difficult position as many of the recent challenges in China’s economy are on the supply side, such as power shortages and Covid curbs on travel as the country sticks with its “zero-covid” policy. Beijing has vowed not to use the property market as a short-term stimulus.

Fiscal policy will provide the main support to economic growth next year while significant monetary easing is unlikely, according to Huang Yiping, a former central bank adviser. The PBOC has refrained from cutting banks’ reserve requirement ratio since a reduction in July, and has kept policy interest rates steady since early last year.

“The strong exports help to mitigate the weakening domestic economy, but we think it is unlikely to reverse the trend” of slower growth, said Pinpoint’s Zhang.

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