A bigger-than-expected slide in China's imports in May strengthened expectations more policy stimulus may be needed to avert a sharp slowdown in the world's second-largest economy.
Economists say persistent weakness in the country's imports
point to a slackening domestic economy. Meanwhile, erratic global demand and a relatively strong yuan, also cast doubts over the government's ability to hit its full-year trade growth target of six percent.
Exports in May fell 2.5 percent from a year ago, data from the General Administration of Customs showed on Monday, smaller than a 5 percent fall forecast by economists, while imports tumbled 17.6 percent versus an expected 10.7 percent drop.
"The data shows the Chinese economy is still in the process of seeking a bottom. We expect trade conditions to continue to be sluggish in the following 4-5 months, with more government policy rolling out to stabilize (the economy)," said Liu Yaxin, macro strategist at China Merchants Securities in Shenzhen.
Liu added that Chinese companies were being outflanked in global markets due to a firm yuan CNY=CFXS, which has gained against major non-dollar currencies in recent months.
China posted a near record trade surplus of $59.49 billion in May, but weak imports highlight slowing domestic consumption.
Many analysts have already penciled in sub-7 percent growth for the second quarter, raising the risk that the government will not meet its full-year growth target of around 7 percent.
China's exporters have been struggling to cope with weak overseas demand, rising labor and currency costs, exacerbating downward pressure on the economy.
In May, exports to the United States, China's top export market, rose 7.8 percent from a year earlier, while shipments to the European Union, the second largest market, dipped 6.9 percent, customs data showed.
"With more bad news likely on the economic front, the government is under pressure to come up with more supportive policy measures again," Kevin Lai, senior economist at Daiwa Capital Markets in Hong Kong, said in a research note.
"However, like the previous rounds of stimulus, the overall impact on the real economy would not be so meaningful."
TEPID DOMESTIC DEMAND
Imports of oil and iron ore suffered double-digit falls in May, underscoring soft demand at home and oversupply. Bloated stocks could take months to draw down, prompting steel mills to pump up exports of steel even at weak prices.
"The price differentials in May were not favorable for imports. That, coupled with continued weak demand for financing buying, pushed down the inflows," said Jin Yidan at Minmetals Jingyi Futures.
For the first five months, exports edged up 0.7 percent from a year earlier, while imports dipped 17.3 percent, customs data showed. Combined exports and imports fell 8.0 percent from a year earlier, well below the official target. China's trade grew 3.4 percent in 2014.
"The government set up the target of trade growth at 6 percent this year, which at this moment, is still impossible to achieve, particularly with the weak imports," said Haibin Zhu, chief China economist at JPMorgan in Hong Kong.
"Even with export growth, it's quite challenging to meet the six percent target."
Economists polled by Reuters expect some signs of steadying in the economy in the months ahead thanks to stimulus measures.
China cut interest rates for the third time in six months in May - on top of two reductions in the amount of money banks must keep in reserve - in a bid to lower borrowing costs and stoke a sputtering economy that is headed for its worst year in a quarter of a century.