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What's Behind China's Blowout Trade Figures?

Thursday, 10 Jan 2013 | 12:49 AM ET
Robert Francois | AFP | Getty Images

China's exports in December blew past expectations, rising over 14 percent year on year, compared with forecasts for an increase of just 4 percent. And guess what was behind these blowout trade numbers? A surprising surge in demand from the country's top trading partner - the United States.

In addition to resilient demand from emerging markets, shipments to the U.S. rebounded 10.3 percent last month - following a decline of 2.6 percent in November - driven by a rise in consumer goods exports to the world's largest economy. Exports to Europe also edged up 2.3 percent in December, after six months of declines.

(Read More: China Exports Pick Up More Than Expected in December)

"The rise in exports was a result of a rebound in demand from the major market – the U.S. These are not Christmas exports – this is mainly for first quarter (2013) consumption," said ANZ chief Greater China economist Liu Li-Gang.

According to Dariusz Kowalczyk, senior economist at Credit Agricole, Chinese trade numbers suggest that gross domestic product (GDP) growth "likely accelerated to 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter." Exports make up a quarter of China's GDP.

(Read More: World's No. 2 Economy Is Setting Itself Up for Solid 2013)

Caution Going Ahead

But the growth drivers for December may not carry forward into 2013. ANZ's Liu who estimates China's exports will grow 8-9 percent this year, compared with 7.9 percent in 2012, said with the U.S. debt ceiling negotiations looming, the country's demand picture remains unclear.

Donna Kwok, China economist at HSBC, adds that with most of the euro zone economies expected to contract again in the first quarter of the year, Chinese shipments to these destinations will likely see softer readings in coming months.

Xianfang Ren and Alistair Thornton, Beijing-based economists at IHS, are also doubtful that the year-end momentum will continue into the New Year.

"The volatility of the trade data over the past year, especially in the second half, points to weak fundamentals on the demand side," Ren and Thornton wrote in a note.

(Watch Now: Commodity Prices to Be Guided By China)

Chinese imports and exports saw increased fluctuations on a month-to-month basis. Export growth, for example, plunged to 2.9 percent in November, after a 11.6 percent rise in October.

Transaction data from the Canton Fair last autumn, also showed continued declines in export orders by over 9 percent – compared with the spring session. This indicates a weakness in 2013 demand. The Canton Fair, held twice a year, provides anecdotal evidence of foreign demand for Chinese goods.

"We believe China's export sector will face another uphill battle this year - an even tougher one than 2012," they said.

Regional Trade Rebound

In addition to China, there has been evidence of a pickup in exports across the region in December.

Shipments out of neighboring Taiwan grew 9 percent year-on-year in December - the fastest pace in three months - while Malaysia's exports beat forecasts with a 3.3 percent rise in November.

For both nations, growth in exports was helped by an increase in demand for electronics products – which make up more than 20 percent of Asia's overall exports.

Asia's third largest economy, India, is due to report its trade numbers for December on Thursday, with analysts expecting the pace of contraction in exports to have slowed.

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