BEIJING, (Reuters) - China stormed back to post a hefty trade surplus in April as exports hit a record while imports eased more than expected, weighed down by sustained monetary tightening and high commodity prices.
The surplus of $11.4 billion, nearly four times greater than expected, followed a small, rare trade deficit in the first quarter and could reignite criticism of Beijing’s policy of limiting currency appreciation.
Exports were slightly stronger than anticipated, growing 29.9 percent in April from a year earlier to $155.7 billion.
Imports climbed at a lacklustre 21.8 percent, well short of estimates. Analysts were at loggerheads over whether this should be read as a sign of surprising weakness in the Chinese economy or simply deferred purchases because of soaring commodity bills.
“Exports are much stronger, that’s the basic thing. Global demand is still pretty strong, a bit stronger than many people feared,” said Tao Wang, economist with UBS in Beijing.
“On the import side, we think that commodity exports had been very strongly up until February and there has been quite a bit of inventory build-up. So right now we think it’s going through some adjustment.”
But Xu Biao, an economist with China Merchants Bank in Shenzhen, said the lower-than-expected imports might contain a much more serious warning.
“Concerns about a slowdown have certainly intensified, and the risks of a worst-case scenario for the Chinese economy, namely a relatively low growth rate and a high inflation, are on the rise,” he said.
The median forecast of economists polled by Reuters last week was for exports to rise 29.4 percent and imports to grow 28 percent, resulting in a trade surplus of $3 billion.
On a seasonally adjusted basis, exports rose 35.1 percent in April from a year earlier and rose 12.3 percent from the previous month. Imports gained 27.4 percent year-on-year and 7.4 percent month-on-month, the customs administration said.
China’s trade numbers also registered an impact from Japan’s earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis. Imports from Japan were $16 billion in April, down 14.9 percent from March, as production and shipments were interrupted.
The strong data, including a 16 percent rise in China’s trade surplus with the United States to its widest since November, came as senior U.S. and Chinese officials met in Washington for a two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
The data could give fresh ammunition to some U.S. lawmakers who have linked the trade imbalance to China’s currency policy, saying a weak yuan gives Chinese manufacturers an unfair advantage in global markets.