China outstrips US as world's biggest goods trader

China December trade surplus misses estimates
China December trade surplus misses estimates

China's annual trade in goods topped $4 trillion for the first time last year, surpassing the U.S. as the world's largest trader.

In 2013, exports from the world's second-largest economy climbed 7.9 percent to $2.21 trillion, while imports rose 7.3 percent to $1.95 trillion, official figures showed, bringing total trade to $4.16 trillion, an increase of 7.6 percent from 2012.

Trade surplus for the full year stood at $260 billion, widening 12.8 percent from 2012.

Surplus for December, however, missed targets, coming in at $25.6 billion, far short of the $31.15 billion a poll by Reuters and smaller than the $33.8 billion logged in November.

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Exports for the month rose 4.3 percent from the year-ago period, lower than the 4.9 percent rise consensus and down from November's 12.7 percent rise.

Imports, meanwhile, rose an annual 8.3 percent in December, better than the 5.3 percent expected rise. Imports climbed 5.3 percent in the month before.

The Shanghai Composite widened its losses to a five-month low on the news, while the Australian dollar slipped against the greenback.

The China trade figures are closely watched for a gauge of how global demand is faring.

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Analysts said despite the miss on the trade surplus front, the strong showing in imports numbers indicates the economy remains in good shape.

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"[The] pick-up in imports reflects that domestic demand is stronger than people expected. We think China is still capable of growing 7-7.5 percent in 2014," Geoff Lewis, global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, told CNBC.

"Trade data is usually volatile around this time of year, with the Chinese New Year seasonal effect, so we should not be paying too much attention to monthly data for a while," he added.

According to Richard Martin, managing director of IMA Asia, the current global recovery isn't "normal" and investors shouldn't expect all of Asia's export engine to fire up in a regular fashion.

"Traditionally, when the west recovers, [China] exports will get a lift from strong consumer driven recovery in the Europe and United States. But that's not the case now. European consumers are still deleveraging, there's a bit of shyness still there in the US consumers, so that means you don't get a big factory run up," Martin told CNBC.

"So I'm fine with where that export number was for china and I think we'll just see it modestly lift through the first half of this year. Second half of this year, it should accelerate," he added.

There have been concerns about the outlook of China's economy, which is expected to record in 2013 its weakest growth since 1999.

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Last week, billionaire investor George Soros warned that China remains the "major" uncertainty facing the global economy.

Beijing is due to release gross domestic product figures on January 20.

- By CNBC's Li Anne Wong. Follow her on Twitter @LiAnneCNBC