China's exports rebounded in March but imports shrank for a fourth straight month and at a sharper pace, painting a mixed picture of the economy as trade talks with the United States reach their endgame.
Investors are hoping for signs of economic recovery in China to temper worries about slowing global growth, after the IMF this week downgraded its 2019 world outlook for the third time.
But veteran China watchers had said export gains may be due more to seasonal factors than any sudden turnaround in lacklustre global demand, as shipments were expected to jump after long holidays in February.
March exports rose 14.2 per cent from a year earlier, customs data showed on Friday, the strongest growth in five months. Economists polled by Reuters had expected a 7.3 per cent gain after February's 20.8 per cent plunge.
Shipments picked up around 3 per cent month-on-month, suggesting some improvement in foreign demand, Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said in a note. But he said exports have yet to fully recover from a sharp slowdown late last year.
"With global growth set to remain weak in the coming quarters, a strong rebound in exports looks unlikely," he said.
Adding to the worries, China's imports fell more than expected, suggesting its domestic demand remains weak.
Imports fell 7.6 per cent from a year earlier, worse than analysts' forecasts for a 1.3 per cent fall and widening from February's 5.2 per cent drop.
That left the country with a trade surplus of $32.64 billion for the month, according to Reuters calculations based on the official data, much larger than forecasts of $7.05 billion.
In the first quarter, exports rose 1.4 per cent from a year earlier, while imports fell 4.8 per cent.
A customs spokesman said he expects mild growth in both exports and imports in the current quarter.
China factory surveys for March had provided some glimmers of hope that demand was improving at home and abroad, suggesting government stimulus measures may be starting to take hold.
While export orders remained sluggish, there were signs that a long spell of contraction was easing even as trade talks with the United States appeared to be making progress.
Washington and Beijing have largely agreed on a mechanism to police any trade agreement they reach, including establishing new "enforcement offices," US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday.
However, a top White House official said on Monday the US side is "not satisfied yet" about all the issues standing in the way of a deal to end the US-China trade war.
President Donald Trump said last week that an agreement could be reached in about four weeks.
But economists warn that even if a deal is reached, and both sides rescind tit-for-tat tariffs, Chinese exporters will still have to contend with weakening demand globally.
The International Monetary Fund trimmed its 2019 global growth forecast this week to 3.3 per cent, while slightly boosting its forecast for China to 6.3 per cent, in part because the Sino-US trade war did not escalate as much as expected.
Chinese exporters will also likely have to scramble to win back lost market share.
The trade dispute has prompted some US firms to shift purchases of tariff-targeted products like furniture and refrigerators to countries such as Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico, according to a report by S&P Global Market Intelligence's trade data firm Panjiva.
China's trade surplus with the United States, a major source of frustration for Washington, rose nearly 40 per cent in March from February to $20.5 billion and hit $62.66 billion in the first quarter.
On imports, analysts said companies may not be restocking inventories as much as usual due to concerns over the longer-term economic outlook and global trade, though an infrastructure push is likely to see imports of raw materials improve.
Slackening demand has sent corporate profits into a tailspin, which could curb the fresh investment that Beijing is counting on to fuel an economic revival.
Policymakers have acknowledged the economy is under pressure as multi-year debt and pollution crackdown have deterred investment, while the trade war is increasingly hurting China's exporters and their domestic supply chains.
In response, Beijing has announced more spending on roads, railways and ports, along with trillions of yuan of tax cuts to ease pressure on corporate balance sheets and avert a sharper economic slowdown. State-controlled banks are also being urged to keep lending to companies that are struggling.
Investors are closely watching to see how long it will take those support measures to take hold. But analysts believe China will still need to loosen policy further in coming months to ensure a sustained economic turnaround.
China's economic growth is expected to cool to around 6.3 per cent in the first quarter of the year and may not bottom out until later in the year, according to a Reuters poll. The economy grew 6.6 per cent last year, a 28-year low.