One of the areas where most media commentary is lagging behind events is regarding China’s trade surplus. Articles dealing with China’s surplus, one the key international trade trends, have been a regular feature of economic analysis ever since it first appeared in 2005-6. What has not received equal commentary are the signs of a very rapid drop in China’s surplus this year.
This trend is so recent and so strong that the usual year on year comparisons do not capture it adequately. Figure 1 therefore shows China’s monthly trade surplus since 1992 up to the latest available figures for June 2009. Figure 2 shows the same data calculated as a three monthly moving average in order to avoid any purely short term distortions.
The trend is clear and striking. China’s trade surplus rose steadily from 2005 onwards and then temporarily rose even further under the impact of the onset of the international financial crisis in September 2008. The peak was reached in January 2009 with a monthly surplus of $42.1 billion. Since then China’s surplus has fallen steadily and rapidly. The surplus for June was $8.25 billion.
Expressed in terms of 3 monthly moving averages China’s monthly trade surplus was $22.5 in August 2008, immediately before the onset of the financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman brothers, rose to $38.1 billion January 2009, and has since dropped to $12.5 billion.
The trends behind China’s shrinking trade surplus are clear. Under the impact of the financial crisis both China’s exports and imports have declined. But its imports have declined far less than its exports. Since the peak month of August 2008 China’s exports have fallen by 28.0% buts its imports have only declined by 18.5%. China’s net trade position is therefore acting as a locomotive for the rest of the world economy.
Indeed this change in China’s trade position, if the trend continues, is a significant stimulus. The monthly extra demand for the world economy created by China for the latest month, compared to August 2008, is $18.5 billion – its monthly trade surplus having shrunk from $26.7 to $8.3 billion. This would be equivalent to an annualised $220.9 billion.
This trend in China’s exports and imports is insufficient to offset the depressive effect on world trade of the fall in demand from the US. Between August 2008 and May 2009, the latest available figure, the US trade deficit fell by $34.9 billion a month, declining from $60.9 billion to $26.0 billion - equivalent to a net negative shock for other countries' trade of $418.8 billion. Nevertheless it does mean that, if this trend continues, China would be taking up about half the slack in world trade created by the downturn in the US – a far from negligible effect. This trend in China’s trade must therefore be watched carefully.