China just reported its February international trade figures, showing a -$7.3 billion deficit as seasonal factors bit into trade volumes. Exports rose about 2% year on year (falling some -36% month on month), while imports rose almost 20% year on year (also falling -28% compared to January). The key driver of the result was the spring festival (Chinese Lunar New Year) holiday celebrations, with factories shutting down, and workers heading home to their families.
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Looking through the seasonal factors, on a rolling quarterly basis and compared to last year, here's how it would stack up: in the 3 months to February 2010 exports were $400m vs $335m, imports were $390m vs $295m, and the surplus was $12.5m vs $40m. So the volumes are definitely up, but there is some tangible reduction in the trade surplus. Indeed the rolling 12-month trade surplus in the chart above shows a downward turn.
And the culprit? Commodities. To be sure, there is some decent volume aspects to the run up in imports, but a large driver in recent months has been the broad based (but agri-centric) rally in commodity prices. Structurally the Chinese economy is slowly headed towards a demand driven economy - that will be inevitable (remember in markets and economics - nothing lasts forever!).
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So what of the yuan argument? Most of the mainstream media reports have been thrashing this data piece as an out for China in the yuan debate. They suggest that with a lower trade surplus the folk over in Washington will let it slide. But in terms of that old chestnut, it - to some extent - doesn't matter. One of the consequences of keeping the yuan fixed or quasi-fixed to the dollar is the inflationary effects (typically if you do a hard fix you need to mimic the monetary policy of the other country - China hasn't done this exactly, but it still has negative real interest rates).
And this has been showing through into rising labor costs, and of course CPI running up near 5%. Sure the main culprit in inflation is commodity prices - especially some recent supply shocks to food prices. But over time and with enough magnitude rising inflation will force a rebalancing of the Chinese economy, as rising wages put pressure the low cost export model.
So the bottom line: China is still seeing strong growth in exports and imports, but curiously enough rising inflation may start to put an end to the massive surpluses of old. So on individual stock selection you need to be aware of some of these broader macro trends, and position yourself more in sectors like consumer oriented stocks (NYSEARCA:CHIQ) to gain from the rising Chinese consumer. With that - a final fact: in 2006 China's per capita disposable income of urban households was 11,759 yuan, in 2010 it was 19,109 yuan - almost double.
Graph Data Sources: China Customs www.customs.gov.cn
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.