China’s September exports and imports tumble amid weak demand, yuan decline


China's exports and imports for September came in well below expectations, dented by weak demand at home and abroad.

Exports in September tumbled 10.0 percent in dollar terms and imports fell 1.9 percent, with a trade surplus of $41.99 billion.

In U.S. dollar terms, exports were expected to fall 3.0 percent and imports to rise 1.0 percent on-year, according to a Reuters poll of analysts, which also forecast a trade surplus of $53 billion.

In yuan terms, exports fell 5.6 percent on-year and imports rose 2.2 percent. The September trade surplus came in at 278.35 billion yuan ($41.40 billion). The trade surplus in yuan terms can be different to the officially reported dollar-denominated figure.

"Domestic demand is equally weak as global demand," Yifan Hu, chief investment officer and chief China economist at UBS Wealth Management, told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Thursday.

She noted that the decline in imports came even as the price of one key import, oil, rose from around $30 a barrel in September 2015 to around $50 last month. Without that rise, imports would have been even weaker, she said.

Additionally, she noted that in September, the yuan was around 5 percent weaker than a year earlier.

"A small depreciation does not help China's exports, especially for this low-value-added exports," she noted.

The Australian dollar lost ground in the wake of the data. The Australian dollar fell as low as $0.7515 in the wake of the data. It was fetching $0.7523 at 11:09 a.m. HK/SIN, compared with around $0.7550 prior to the release of the yuan-denominated data. China is a key trade partner for Australia.

The trade data come against the backdrop of a recent decline in , which started to weaken toward the end of September and over the past week has touched its lowest levels against the dollar in six years. The Chinese currency has tumbled recently against a basket of currencies of China's trade partners.

Analysts weren't certain that the weak trade figures were a signal for slower economic growth ahead.

"The data we have so far suggests that a drop (in) import volumes of a number of key commodities, including iron ore and copper, are partly responsible. This could be an early sign that the recent recovery in economic activity is losing momentum," Julian Evans-Pritchard, a China economist at Capital Economics, said in a note Thursday.

But he cautioned against reading too much into the trade data, which tend to be volatile.

"Unless there is evidence of a renewed slowdown in the broader economic data, we still expect resilient activity to result in some upside to import growth in the coming months, not least given that the sharp drop in global commodity prices at the end of last year should provide a more flattering base for comparison," he said.

The World Trade Organization has projected global trade would register its fifth straight year of sub-3 percent growth, citing shifting exchange rates and falls in commodity prices.

Workers at the Zhong Tian (Zenith) Steel Group factory in Changzhou, Jiangsu.
Kevin Frayer | Getty Images

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1