China's trade surplus climbs sharply

Updated: 2006-11-09 13:59

China said Wednesday that its trade surplus with the rest of the world had leapt to a record US$23.8b in October, the latest sign of this country's phenomenal rise as a trading superpower.

The surplus, which blew past the previous record of $18.8 billion set in August, is almost certain to add to longstanding trade frictions with the United States and the European Union and lead to renewed calls for China to allow its currency to appreciate at a faster pace.

For the last few years, the Chinese economy has been growing at a blistering pace -- as high as 10 percent. Its factory floors are pumping out millions of toys, textiles, DVD players and laptop computers.

In the first nine months of this year, China says it has racked up a $133 billion surplus with the rest of the world, primarily with the United States and the European Union. In all of last year, China reported a record $101 billion surplus.

Indeed, China's surplus for the month of October was almost as big as its surplus for the entire year of 2004, which was $25.5 billion.

Economists were surprised at the size of the October gain, which has come after months of government efforts to slow the economy and trim the surplus in hopes of easing trade frictions.

"This is obviously going to raise eyebrows," said Dong Tao, an economist at Credit Suisse in Hong Kong. "And so we may now have more talk about currency appreciation."

The Chinese government did not release precise details of the monthly surplus, but it said that in October exports rose 29.6 percent, to $88.1 billion, while imports climbed just 14.7 percent, a slowing from September.

Stephen Green, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank, said that the real surprise was the weakness in imports, which came despite a rise in oil imports.

"This is not being driven by them selling more, it's being driven by them buying less," he said. "It's all a bit strange."

He said the government began its efforts to slow both the economy and overheated investment in the summer, but imports remained strong. And Beijing has let the currency appreciate modestly, which would encourage purchasing goods from the rest of the world.

Some experts believe that Chinese buyers are putting off purchases because of the government efforts, and investments in new factories could be slowing because those efforts are just beginning to be reflected in the figures.

But exports to the United States and Europe continued to grow at a fast pace.

According to the Chinese government, China has already racked up a $116 billion surplus with the United States this year. But the United States government, because it calculates its trade figures differently, often shows much bigger gains for China.

Many economists doubt the situation can be easily addressed by trade negotiations or by pressuring China to revalue its currency.

"This is the reality," said Mr. Tao, the Credit Suisse economist. "Structurally China is the world's factory floor. Two, everyone expected American demand to slow down, and it hasn't. And third, China needs to ease its economy."

He added: "Nothing is going to change overnight, so sit back and fasten your seat belts. This big surplus is not going to go away anytime soon."

Courtesy of The New York Times

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