Asia's exports stutter, missing out on US revival
The U.S. economy may have stopped sneezing, but Asia's exports are still laid up with a nasty cold.
Growth in exports from seven of East Asia's biggest exporters - Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore - slowed to a halt in the second quarter, according to national trade data compiled by Reuters, led by a 9 percent drop in exports to the European Union compared to a year earlier.
Growing trade between China and its neighbors has failed to offset a sharp decline in demand from Europe and slumping demand for things made in Japan. More troubling is that the slowdown dashes expectations earlier this year for a gathering recovery in the United States to trigger a rise in demand for Asian exports.
(Read more: Time to bet on Chinese exporters: Goldman Sachs)
Exports still represent the equivalent of roughly 35 percent of the region's combined economic output. But the U.S. recovery has been led by housing and shale-gas investment, not demand for the electronics Asia's factories supply.
That could make it harder for Asia's economies to weather rising global interest rates and a westward migration of international investment funds. While foreign investors are still accumulating Japanese stocks, they have sold off roughly $12.5 billion of other Asian stocks since May, according to data from Nomura.
"The attraction for more money to be put into this region at this time is not there," said Kelvin Tay, chief investment strategist at UBS in Singapore.
"We're caught in the middle of nowhere."
The trade numbers contain some notable surprises: though Japan's falling yen has made its export earnings swell when measured in its own currency, demand remains weak and its exports in U.S. dollar terms fell 14 percent in the second quarter.
And despite a rising currency, South Korea's exports rose 1 percent, with exports to China climbing 13 percent on booming sales of industrial machinery, auto parts and popular consumer items like smartphones, TVs and refrigerators.
That might bode well for China's slowing economy, suggesting that factories are preparing for a boost in orders, and that China's efforts to shift growth from investment and exports to domestic demand are stoking an appetite among consumers for high-end white goods like those made by Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and Hyundai Motors.
"The Chinese government has been pushing hard to boost domestic consumption, and South Korean exports of late appear to be enjoying that," said Lee Sang-jae, economist at Hyundai Securities in Seoul. "Private consumption there is growing much faster than the overall economic growth."
Economists and investors who look to South Korea as a bellwether for global export demand see in its rising numbers glimmers of hope for the rest of Asia, too. Markus Rosgen, strategist at Citigroup in Hong Kong, said such optimism was reinforced by last week's positive survey of European purchasing managers by London-based financial information services firm Markit.
And Deutsche Bank's chief Asian economist, Michael Spencer, pointed to the U.S. Institute for Supply Management's index of national factory activity, which rose in July to a 2-year high of 55.4, beating economists' expectations of 52.0 and June's reading of 50.9.
But such optimism wasn't reflected in last quarter's exports to Europe or the United States. Exports from China to the EU dropped 8 percent, and fell 20 percent from Japan, marking a seventh straight quarter of declines. Exports to the United States dropped 2.4 percent, led by a 21 percent drop in exports from Hong Kong and a 7 percent decline from Japan.
While surveys in the West may be improving, they have yet to lift the mood among managers in Asia. HSBC/Markit's survey of regional purchasing managers indicates that new orders are falling in China, South Korea and Taiwan, and that growth is slowing in Japan.
"This suggests that an immediate rebound is not on the cards for Asia," Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC in Hong Kong, wrote in an Aug. 2 note to clients. "In developed markets, broadly speaking, things have picked up nicely. But the feed through to emerging markets is lacking."
(Read more: Red flags for Singapore economy as exports slump)
Instead of boosting Asian stocks on hopes of an export rebound, therefore, economists warn more investors are likely to shift funds from Asia to the United States with its relatively more positive outlook.
"It is becoming obvious that although the U.S. economy is still struggling to regain its growth momentum, it is probably the 'prettiest pig at the fair' - best of a group of somewhat unattractive options," Chris Christopher, an economist at U.S. consulting and publishing firm IHS, wrote in a note to customers on consumer market trends.
The biggest weakness in export demand came from the country seemingly enjoying the most dramatic rebound - Japan.
Thanks to unprecedented efforts by the central bank there to stimulate demand by buying assets with newly minted money, Japan's yen has lost more than a fifth of its value against the U.S. dollar in the past year. That translated into a 7 percent increase in Japanese exports last quarter, helping Toyota Motor almost double its net profit to a quarterly record 562.19 billion yen ($5.69 billion). Toyota attributed more than a third of its quarterly operating profit to a falling yen.
Despite the rising yen value of its exports, though, Japan actually shipped out almost 6 percent less in the second quarter than the year before. And the value of those exports in U.S. dollars fell 13.8 percent.