Asia's Tumbling Exports Signal Trade Pain Has Room to Run
Date: Thursday, February 21, 2019
Key Asian exporters Singapore, Japan and South Korea provided fresh evidence this week that the slump in global trade has further to run, and is beginning to spread to factories.
South Korea’s exports tumbled by 12 percent during the first 20 days of February, data released Thursday showed. A day earlier Japan reported that exports fell 8.4 percent in January from a year earlier, the first back-to-back fall since 2016. Singapore started the week by reporting January exports fell the most in more than two years.
“We’re looking at a decidedly ugly Q1 2019 external demand picture for the region and that is especially bad news for export-dependent countries in Asia,” said Trinh Nguyen, senior economist at Natixis Asia Ltd.
One common denominator: falling shipments to China as that nation’s cooling economy, the U.S.-China trade war, and a slowing of the global technology cycle all take a toll on key Asian economies.
Japan’s exports to China dropped 17 percent in January, while Korea’s fell 14 percent in the first 20 days of February. Shipments to China were likely distorted somewhat by the Lunar New Year holiday, but the slumps are in line with the longer-term trend.
Economists already had been eyeing the end of “front-loading” -- businesses boosting orders ahead of threatened higher tariffs. And broader signs of a global growth slowdown -- including at factories and in overall growth figures -- corroborate the weakness in exports.
The slowing of trade is hurting Japan’s factory sector, with manufacturing activity contracting this month for the first time in two and a half years, according to preliminary data released Thursday. Net exports were already a drag on gross domestic product growth during the fourth quarter, according to data released last week.
The end of an electronics super-cycle is hitting key suppliers. South Korea’s exports of semiconductors, a key driver of growth, fell 27 percent in the first 20 days of February.
Korean exports are likely to drop further in the second quarter as chip prices continue to slide, said Stephen Lee, an economist at Meritz Securities Co. in Seoul. Korean exports fell 5.8 percent in the full month of January.
Trade talks between the U.S. and China are continuing in Washington and are scheduled to run through Friday.
While the slowdown in China is expected to deepen in the first quarter, analysts are seeing signs of stabilization after that as government support measures kick in.
For now, trade data in Asia will get the final test of this week when Taiwan reports on Friday. Economists are projecting a third straight year-on-year drop in shipments, which would mark the worst losing streak since mid-2016.