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China economic picture remains cloudy with mixed trade figures

chinaeconomyBEIJING/SHANGHAI--China's exports fell less than expected in September, with monthly figures showing recovery, but a sharper fall in imports left economists divided over whether the country's ailing trade sector is showing signs of turning around.
  On the surface, the trade data on Tuesday reinforced views that the world's second-largest economy is still slowly losing momentum, putting more pressure on Beijing to roll out further stimulus measures and keeping global markets on edge. But the numbers did not suggest a greater risk of a hard landing, either, as some investors have feared.
  Exports fell 3.7 percent from the same period last year, less than a 6.3 percent drop forecast by economists in a Reuters poll and moderating from a 5.5 percent decline in August. However, imports by value tumbled for the 11th straight month, losing over 20 percent year-on-year in September due to weak commodity prices and soft domestic demand, which will continue to complicate Beijing's efforts to stave off deflation. Economists had expected a 15.0 percent drop, after a 13.8 percent decline in the previous month.
  Highlighting persistent weakness in demand at home and abroad, China's combined exports and imports fell 8.1 percent in the first nine months of the year from the same period in 2014, well below the full-year official target of 6 percent growth. That will likely reinforce expectations that Beijing will cut interest rates again in coming months and announce other measures to avert a sharper economic slowdown.
  "In general, there are no green shoots in this set of data," said Zhou Hao, senior economist at Commerzbank in Singapore. "The growth of port throughput volume still remains low."
  However, monthly figures were more rosy. China's exports to every major market except Taiwan rose from August, as did imports, and some economists were inclined to give that more weight than year-on-year changes. For a table on trade with major markets, see.
  Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics warned that annual export readings may be distorted downward by comparisons with strong export performance at the end of 2014, which many suspected was inflated by yuan speculation disguised as trade. He suggested paying closer attention to monthly trends, which show a steady rise to most major export markets in the U.S. and Europe over the summer.
  "Basically, exports have been doing better since the second quarter, but that recovery trend has been masked on a year-on-year basis because the second half of 2014 was so strong."
  Evans-Pritchard also said that import data had become unreliable given massive swings in prices due to the commodity downturn and a divergence between prices and trading volumes. "For the major commodities like oil, copper, etc. we're actually seeing a pretty healthy trend in import volumes."
  Indeed, China's imports of copper, iron ore, crude oil and coal all rose in September from August, data from the General Administration of Customs showed on Tuesday. Still, import volumes are a leading indicator for exports in China, given a large share of materials and parts are re-exported as finished goods, keeping the outlook cloudy.

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