NON-OIL domestic exports failed to maintain their momentum of March, with year-on-year growth in April slumping back to a modest 2.2 per cent - though not all the way into negative territory as analysts had projected.
The market was looking at a 5 per cent drop - and the NODX's better-than-expected showing has led Citigroup's Kit Wei Zheng to see the official first-quarter GDP growth estimate as being likely to be adjusted up, to 2.2 per cent from 2.1 per cent.
But analysts, including Mr Kit, UOB's Francis Tan and OCBC's Selena Ling, say that the NODX's "underlying details" remain soft, despite an estimated 4.1 per cent increase so far for January-April.
"The volatile nature of Singapore's domestic exports suggests we will experience large spikes, as well as dips, but in our view the trend continues to be relatively flat," say ANZ economists Daniel Wilson and Devika Mehndiratta in a brief report.
Last month's growth in the NODX, which came after an 18.5 per cent surge in March, was largely propped up by exceptional strong shipments of non-regular items such as structures of ships and boats and non-electric engines and motors.
The prognosis ahead isn't good either. "Given that contributors continue to come from more transient sectors, we do not rule out declines in upcoming prints," say the ANZ economists.
"For NODX to truly turn the corner, we would need to see global demand take a step up," they say. "However, with China slowing, the US still slowly recovering and the EU and Japan attempting to jumpstart growth, a sharp rebound in NODX is unlikely in 2015."
Adds Ms Ling: "We should not hold our breath for a stronger NODX pick-up in the second quarter as yet, even with the low base in May-June 2014."
Shipments to South Korea and EU were the two top contributors to NODX's growth last month, according to trade promotion agency International Enterprise Singapore. NODX to Korea increased 30.6 per cent, while those to the EU jumped 11.4 per cent.
But NODX to key markets China, the US, Malaysia and Japan fell. Exports to China slipped 5.1 per cent and to the US, 8.3 per cent.
The underlying growth momentum was certainly missing in April. Month on month, the NODX tumbled by a seasonally adjusted 8.7 per cent, after a 23.1 per cent jump in March, according to IE Singapore's latest trade data released on Monday.
The market had expected worst: a 14.8 per cent drop.
April's NODX growth raised the NODX level to S$14.94 billion. IE Singapore attributed the growth to the expansion in the non-electronic NODX. Even though the latter grew just 4.7 per cent, much slower than March's 21.6 per cent, it was enough to outweigh the dip in electronic NODX and keep the overall NODX growing.
The electronic NODX fell 3.8 per cent year on year in April, in contrast to a 10.4 per cent increase in the previous month, dragged down by declines in shipments of integrated circuits, parts of PCs and consumer electronics, according to IE Singapore.
But OCBC's Ms Ling says that improvements in the North American semiconductor book-to-bill ratio suggests that orders could be picking up. This might benefit the electronic NODX down the road.
Non-oil re-exports (NORX), which rose 1.6 per cent in March, fell 1.9 per cent last month, with both the electronic and non-electronic NORX posting falls.
The NORX's dip mirrors regional trade weaknesses, according to Citigroup's Mr Kit.
Chua Hak Bin of Bank of America Merrill Lynch says: "Weak NORX suggests that the gains in transport and storage and wholesale trade in the first quarter may not hold up."