Yep, the February trade numbers out of China were downright frightening: exports fell more than 25% year-over-year in U.S. dollars.
At first glance, that’s a horrible figure, the worst decline since 2009. It was also well below the 14.5% drop expected by economists and the 11% drop recorded in January. In renminbi terms, it was the biggest year-on-year drop ever.
But panicking now might be early. It’s worth noting that neither the Chinese stock market nor its currency have reacted much to the news.
So what’s going on?
The export crash is misleading in this case because the January and February months host China’s biggest holiday, the Chinese New Year, when factories rush to meet orders before business shuts down for the better part of a week. The holiday’s start date shifts according to the lunar calendar and can distort comparisons.
In February 2015, exports jumped 48%. So this February exports were up against a strong performance last year. No one would confuse last year as a good one for China’s trade.
Imports, less affected by the holiday, performed better this February—improving to a 14% decline from a 19% decline in January.
This year’s figures are still not favorable. The combined January and February export decline this year was 18%, the worst start to a year since 2012, according to HSBC. But the real test for trade will come next month, when China’s struggling export sector gets a favorable baseline comparison to last March, when exports fell 15%.
If the numbers don’t improve then, then the real worrying should start.