South Korea October exports fall most in 4 years but government says worst may be over

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean exports in October fell for an 11th consecutive month and by the most in nearly four years as shipments to China kept slowing and computer chip prices plunged, data showed on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: A truck drives between shipping containers at a container terminal at Incheon port in Incheon, South Korea, May 26, 2016.REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

South Korea, the first major exporting economy to release monthly foreign trade data, has been struggling especially hard from the prolonged U.S.-China trade war on top of already cooling global demand.

Exports dropped for an 11th consecutive month and by 14.7% in October from a year earlier, the data showed, the biggest decline since January 2016 and worse than a 13.8% fall tipped in a Reuters survey.

But the government said the worst may be over. Trade, Industry and Energy Minister Sung Yun-mo said in a statement that the rate of decline would begin narrowing due to solid demand in volume terms and as semiconductor prices fall less sharply.

Economists also have predicted year-on-year comparisons would start to moderate soon due to the calendar effect, unless global demand plunges further. South Korean exports started falling in November last year.

“Average exports per working day remains high and some of the (global) uncertainties are clearing. So, I expect the rate of decline to narrow and it will turn positive early next year,” said Park Sang-hyun, chief economist at Hi Investment & Securities.

Investors largely shrugged off the poor October data while focusing on the latest twists and turns in U.S.-China trade talks and on a positive private business survey on China’s manufacturing sector, also released on Friday.nL3N27G23F

The benchmark stock index KOSPI .KS11 slightly extended gains, while the won KRW= slightly cut losses. Three-year treasury bond futures KTBc1 pared gains.


Leading the poor showing in October were a plunge of 32.1% in semiconductor exports in value as prices tumbled from last year’s super rally and a 16.9% fall in total shipments to China, also down from a boom at that time.

Semiconductors, including memory chips made by global giants Samsung Electronics 005930.KS and SK Hynix 000660.KS, account for 18% of South Korea's total exports, while China takes in 25% of its neighbor's global shipments.

The government now expects semiconductor prices to begin improving from late this year on solid demand worldwide.

Park Tae-sung, deputy minister for trade and investment at the ministry, told a news conference that chip exports could recover soon, saying global buyers’ inventories had nearly returned to normal levels and that prices of some memory chips had turned around.

He also said many of the new ship orders received by local companies during a boom in 2017 were due for delivery from early next year. Ships are another major South Korean export.

Imports in October slid 14.6% from a year earlier, more than a predicted 13.2% drop in the Reuters survey.

That brought the October trade balance to a $5.39 billion surplus, versus a $5.98 billion surplus in September.

The trade figures came out shortly after data showed South Korea’s annual consumer price inflation rate stood at zero in October, pulling out of the first deflation on record in September.

Editing by Richard Borsuk, Richard Pullin and Kim Coghill