Asian exports drop on trade war and weak smartphone demand

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SINGAPORE — Asia’s exports shrank in March, the latest official trade statistics showed, highlighting ongoing U.S.-China trade tensions and a global smartphone slump that has hit electronics exporters hard.

Singapore on Wednesday said non-oil domestic exports — the country’s benchmark trade figure — dropped 11.7% on the year, reversing February’s 4.8% growth. The March figure was the biggest decline since October 2016.

Singapore’s exports to most of its major trading partners declined. Shipments to China dropped 8.7% from a year earlier, while those to Taiwan dropped 27.4% and those to Indonesia fell 22.7%. The U.S. was an exception, with exports to that country rising 23.1%.

The contraction was driven by slumping electronics exports, with March shipments falling at their fastest pace in six years, down 26.7% on the year, compared with February’s decline of 8.2%. Although Singapore is small, it is a manufacturing base for high-value products such as semiconductors and personal computers.

Exports of products originating in the city-state account for roughly half the total, with re-exports making up the rest. Singapore’s total exports in March slipped 3%, while total imports rose 1.5%. The drop in net exports showed up in Singapore’s gross domestic product figures for the January to March quarter, with the economy expanding by 1.3%, the slowest pace in 10 years.

Japan’s exports also fell in March. According to preliminary data released by the Finance Ministry on Wednesday, its exports declined 2.4% on the year in March, the fourth consecutive month of declines. That compared with February’s 1.2% contraction.

The country’s shipments of electrical products, such as semiconductors, slowed in March. Exports to China dropped 9.4% on the year, compared with 5.6% growth in February.

“The outlook for external demand remains weak,” Darren Aw, Asia Economist at Capital Economics said in a note on Wednesday, referring to Japan’s latest figures. “We still think that exports will remain a vulnerable spot for the economy.”

Countries in Asia have struggled with slowing trade since late last year as the U.S.-China spat worsened. The two countries are the biggest trading partners for most Asian nations and the latest figures show the downtrend continuing. The decline in chip exports stemming from the global slump in smartphone demand has also weighed on the region.

Asia’s electronics-dependent economies face continued weakness. South Korea’s exports shrank 8.2% in March, the fourth straight monthly fall, due to tepid demand for semiconductors. Taiwan’s exports also dropped in March for the fifth consecutive month, slipping 4.4% on lower shipments of electronic components.

Not all countries in the region are dealing with export weakness. Vietnam’s exports rose 7.2% in dollar terms on the year in March, reversing a 3.3% decline in February, according to consultancy CEIC Data.