Slump in China's foreign trade turns screw on deal with Trump

Exports in dollar terms fell 4.4 per cent from a year earlier, while imports dropped 7.6 per cent. Both were the worst result since 2016

In this Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, photo, workers moor a container ship at a port in Qingdao in east China's Shandong province. China's trade growth slowed in 2018 as a tariff battle with Washington heated up and global consumer demand weakened. Exports rose 7.1 percent, customs data showed Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, down from the 7.9 percent reported earlier for 2017. Import growth declined to 12.9 percent from the previous year's 15.9 percent. (Chinatopix via AP)
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China’s foreign trade slumped at the end of last year, setting a grim domestic backdrop for the nation’s negotiators as they seek a deal to end the stand-off with the Trump administration.

Exports in dollar terms fell 4.4 per cent from a year earlier, while imports dropped 7.6 per cent. Both were the worst result since 2016. The nation’s surplus with the US also fell from November, after exporters who had raced to ship orders ahead of higher tariffs boosted that balance to a record high.

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He is slated to travel to the US for further talks around the end of this month, with little progress seen so far on the tougher areas of the dispute such as China’s treatment of intellectual property or support for state firms. The headwinds from trade comes at a time when policy makers are already grappling with decelerating consumption, falling factory sentiment, fears of producer deflation and a worsening employment outlook.

“The bad trade data will quite likely increase the pressure on China to achieve a deal, or at least a suspension of the U.S. tariff hikes,” said Louis Kuijs, chief Asia economist at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong. “At the same time, the US side also seems to be under more pressure to de-escalate tension in terms of news on the economy and financial markets than a few months ago.”

Stocks fell with the Australian dollar after the data were released, with losses in Asian equities most pronounced in Hong Kong. Futures pointed to lower open for sessions in Europe and the US amid signs January’s rally in risk assets is abating.

There’s more bad news to come, according to economists at Commerzbank and Australia & New Zealand Banking Group.


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Chinese shipments are already under pressure from slowing demand from top trade partners - Europe’s recovery is under question, with Germany triggering recession fears, Japan facing a tougher 2019 and the US itself forecast to see waning growth after a robust 2018. China’s exports to the US, European Union, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan all fell from a year earlier.

"There is a clear downward trend," said Zhou Hao, an economist with Commerzbank in Singapore who was among the few to accurately forecast a December contraction in exports. "This is not just due to the trade war and tariffs. On top of those, the major drag is slowing global demand."

While China is no longer as dependent on trade, as the world’s largest exporter, factory output, profits and employment still hinge on demand from overseas. Its domestic appetite also affects production by commodity and machinery exporters around the world. Stabilising trade is one of the goals the leadership set for 2019, on top of supporting employment, investment and the finance sector.

Negotiators expressed optimism after mid-level talks wrapped in Beijing last week, bringing some temporary relief to global investors. Less certain are the further results, as Mr Trump is trying to both appeal to the stock market with a deal and get expanded tariff powers under a new draft law.

Few economists are betting on a grand deal that would dissolve the economic confrontations between China and the US for good.

"Significant uncertainty remains as to whether there could be a ‘deal’ after March 1," Citigroup economists led by Liu Ligang wrote in a note.

"We believe trade growth next year will slow significantly on huge uncertainty and a high base."