BEIJING – China's trade surplus ballooned to its biggest in 45 months in October as export growth darted to a five-month high above 11 percent, surpassing expectations and adding to other data that suggest a less urgent need for new economic stimulus measures.
The figures provided further signs for the country's top policymakers meeting in Beijing to anoint new leaders for the coming decade that a long slide in economic growth may be over.
Still, the trade figures don't point to a swift recovery either.
Analysts said exports may have been amplified by a weak year-earlier month and one-off orders from customers for Christmas.
China Commerce Minister Chen Deming was also wary about reading too much into the figures, saying on Saturday that while exports suggested the world's No. 2 economy is stabilizing, global demand would remain anemic next year.
"I think the October export rebound is mainly due to the delivery of orders for Christmas season," said Wang Han, an analyst at Industrial Securities in Shanghai.
"I would stay cautious about the export outlook in the coming months as demand from the United States and European countries has not fully recovered."
China customs data showed exports climbed in October by 11.6 percent from a year earlier, the fastest pace since May and beating expectations for a 9 percent rise.
Imports were more lethargic, growing 2.4 percent, in line with September but below forecasts for a 3.1 percent rise.
Reflecting the mixed picture, the data showed exports growth to the United States picked up in October from September. Exports to the European Union fell from a year earlier for the fifth month running but the slide was the smallest since June.
Imports from Australia, China's biggest supplier of raw materials, fell 21.8 percent, the deepest fall since January 2009. The value of the imports was the lowest since February 2011.
Analysts said iron ore and coal purchases from Australia may have been dented by a week-long Chinese holiday in October, but the data underscored worries the trade outlook is uncertain at best.
"Looking into November and December and considering the volatility in U.S. and European markets, as well as the recovery in domestic investment, we feel export growth will pull back," said Chen Hetian, an analyst at Rising Securities in Beijing.
Brisk export sales alongside flagging import shipments are both a political and economic problem for China.
Beijing wants domestic consumption to replace exports and investment as the key driver of growth. At the same time, China's major trade partners want it to import more to help right global economic imbalances.
Beijing has made good headway in cutting China's current account surplus to 2.6 percent of gross domestic product this year from 10.6 percent in 2007 and under a 4 percent bar deemed by Washington to be appropriate.
But the jump in October's trade surplus to $32 billion, the largest since January 2009 and well above forecasts for $26.9 billion, showed China still risks having exports driving too much of its growth.
Chen had flagged the trade figures on Friday, telling reporters on the sidelines of China's Communist Party congress that exports rose more than 11 percent and imports grew by 2.8 percent.
However, he also said it would be difficult for China to hit a 2012 target to grow total trade by 10 percent, a line he reiterated on Saturday.
"January through October export growth was over 6 percent, so it will be very difficult to meet our target, but we will still try," Chen said at a press briefing.
"The outlook for the next few months is relatively serious and the difficulties will extend into next year."
This year's weakening demand for China's exports was reflected in the just-concluded Canton Fair, China's largest biannual trade exhibition, where total transactions this autumn season dropped 9.3 percent from a year earlier.
Still, other Chinese economic data suggest the worst may be over, even if a sharp rebound is not at hand. Two factory purchasing managers' reports last week showed a contraction in new orders eased in October.
Figures on Friday, including industrial production and investment, suggested the economy was picking up after growth fell for seven straight quarters through the third quarter.
Despite efforts to rebalance the economy towards domestic consumption, exports generated 31 percent of gross domestic product in 2011, World Bank data shows, and supported an estimated 200 million jobs.
To steady the economy, Beijing has tried to help exporters and importers by speeding up payments of tax rebates, cutting red tape, and giving exporters more access to bank loans.
More broadly, it has also cut interest rates twice this year and lowered banks' reserve requirements twice. But as the economy pulls out of its downturn, economists expect Beijing to stand pat on policy for now.
(Reporting by Aileen Wang and Koh Gui Qing; additional reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Neil Fullick)