June 7, 2020 / 4:21 AM / a month ago

CORRECTED-UPDATE 1-China May exports slip back into contraction, imports worst in 4 years

(Corrects milestone in headline to say imports are worst in 4 years, not 6)

BEIJING, June 7 (Reuters) - China’s exports contracted in May as global coronavirus lockdowns continued to devastate demand, while a sharper-than-expected fall in imports pointed to mounting pressure on manufacturers as global growth stalls.

The sombre trade readings for the world’s second-biggest economy could pile pressure on policymakers to roll out more support for a sector that is critical to the livelihoods of more than 180 million workers. Total trade accounts for about a third of the economy.

Overseas shipments in May fell 3.3% from a year earlier, after a surprising 3.5% gain in April, customs data showed on Sunday. That compared with a 7% drop forecast in a Reuters poll.

While exports fared slightly better than expected, imports tumbled 16.7% compared with a year earlier, worsening from a 14.2% decline the previous month and marking the sharpest decline since January 2016.

It had been expected to fall 9.7% in May.

As a result, China posted a record trade surplus of $62.93 billion last month, the highest since Reuters started tracking the series in 1981, compared with the poll’s forecast for a $39 billion surplus and $45.34 billion surplus in April.

China’s trade surplus with the United States widened to $27.89 billion in May, Reuters calculation based on customs data showed.

This comes as Sino-U.S. tensions are again on the rise, though sources say President Donald Trump has little choice but to stick with a Phase 1 trade deal for now.

Both official and private factory surveys for May showed sub-indexes for export orders remained deep in contraction. Profits at China’s industrial firms fell almost 30% in the January-April period.

Highlighting the uncertain outlook, the Chinese government said in late May it was not setting an annual growth target, for the first time since 2002, reflecting a cautious stance on policy easing. The economy shrank 6.8% in the first quarter from a year earlier.

Many Chinese exporters, stuck with unsold stock and cancelled orders from abroad, are cutting staff and moving into e-commerce to target the domestic market.

One bright spot has been exports of medical supplies, of which China has dominated the supply chain. In the first half of May, China shipped 63.2 billion yuan of medical supplies, Reuters calculations from customs data showed, compared with 71.2 billion yuan in the March-April period. (Reporting by Yawen Chen, Stella Qiu, and Ryan Woo; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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