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China's Oct trade data beats forecasts despite US tariffs

Exports rose 15.6% last month from a year ago; imports quickened to 21.4%

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While China's exports are expected to falter soon, its imports, especially commodities, could remain strong for months to come as Beijing rolls out more measures such as infrastructure spending.

Beijing

CHINA reported much stronger-than-expected exports for October as shippers rushed goods to the United States, its biggest trading partner, racing to beat higher tariff rates due to kick in at the start of next year.

Import growth also defied forecasts for a slowdown, suggesting Beijing's growth-boosting measures to support the cooling economy may be slowly starting to make themselves felt.

The upbeat trade readings from China offer good news for both those worried about global demand and for the country's policymakers after the economy logged its weakest growth since the global financial crisis in the third quarter.

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October was the first full month after the latest US tariffs on Chinese goods went into effect on Sept 24, in a significant escalation in the tit-for-tat trade battle.

But analysts continue to warn of the risk of a sharp drop in US demand for Chinese goods early in 2019, with all eyes now on whether Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping can make any breakthroughs on trade when they meet later this month.

China's exports rose 15.6 per cent last month from a year earlier, customs data showed on Thursday, picking up from September's 14.5 per cent and beating analysts' forecasts for a modest slowdown to 11 per cent.

"The strong export growth in October was buoyed by front-loading activities by exporters ...," said Iris Pang, Greater China economist at ING in Hong Kong, noting the month is traditionally quieter due to long holidays.

"We expect exports to remain strong towards the end of the year as businesses are afraid of a failure in the Trump-Xi meeting, which could lead to broader tariffs from the US on more Chinese goods," she said.

Washington has vowed to hike the tariff from 10 per cent to 25 per cent at the turn of the year, while Mr Trump has warned that if talks with Mr Xi are not productive, he could quickly slap tariffs on another US$267 billion in Chinese products.

Despite several rounds of US duties this year, China's exports have been surprisingly resilient as firms ramped up shipments before even tougher measures went into effect.

Container ship rates from China to the US west coast remain near record highs, suggesting shipments will remain solid well into November and possibly early December. China's exports to the US rose 13.2 per cent from a year earlier in October.

In another positive sign, China's exports by volume also showed solid growth, according to Oxford Economics, which estimated they rose "an impressive" 9.9 per cent.

But analysts say robust export readings won't last much longer, noting Chinese factory surveys have been showing contracting export orders for months now.

US orders for Chinese goods at the latest Canton fair dropped 30.3 per cent from a year earlier by value, as higher US tariffs made goods from batteries to farm tractors more expensive.

Mr Trump has railed against China over intellectual property theft, entry barriers for US businesses and its persistently large trade surplus with the United States. Several rounds of talks this year have appeared to yield little progress.

For the first 10 months of the year, China's surplus with the United States, its largest export market, totalled US$258.15 billion, widening sharply from US$222.98 billion in the same period last year.

While the monthly surplus has eased somewhat to US$31.78 billion in October from a record US$34.13 billion in September, it remains elevated by historical trends.

For trade with all countries, China's surplus was around US$34 billion for October, compared with forecasts of US$35 billion and September's US$31.69 billion.

While China's exports are expected to falter soon, its imports - especially commodities - could remain strong for months to come as Beijing rolls out more measures such as infrastructure spending to boost domestic demand, economists at ANZ said.

Imports for October quickened to 21.4 per cent from 14.3 per cent in September, beating analysts' forecasts for a slight cooling to 14 per cent.

China's crude oil imports in October rose to all-time high as private refiners rushed to stock up ahead of winter, while demand for copper and iron ore was also solid though down from September levels.

China cut import taxes on more goods including machinery from Nov 1, on top of reductions implemented earlier this year, to reduce costs for consumers and companies.

"Import growth also overshot expectations quite a lot. Import growth actually reflects some front-loading in China as well - buying before Chinese tariffs come into effect," Chi Lo, Greater China economist at BNP Paribas, told Reuters.

"More importantly, it also reflects some of Beijing's promise to buy more - as a way to help soothe the trade conflict with the US."

Mr Xi told a trade expo in Shanghai this week that he expects China to import US$30 trillion worth of goods and US$10 trillion worth of services in the next 15 years. Last year, he estimated that China would import US$24 trillion worth of goods over the coming 15 years. REUTERS