Chinese imports grew at the slowest pace in 20 months in June, government data showed Sunday, providing further evidence of the broad effect of monetary tightening on the economy.
The slowing rate of imports in June, which dropped to a 19.3 percent annual pace from 28.4 percent in May, is expected to heighten investors’ concerns about how swiftly the Chinese economy, the world’s second-largest after that of the United States, is slowing.
But coming a day after data showed that inflation in June had reached a three-year peak of 6.4 percent, analysts took the data showing a jump in the trade surplus as a sign that the Chinese central bank might have to raise interest rates further, to rein in prices and to discourage capital inflows.
Last week, the central bank raised interest rates for the third time this year, underlining the government’s confidence in the economy’s ability to cope with tighter monetary policy.
The data Sunday showed that June exports had risen 17.9 percent from the same period a year ago, slowing from a 19.4 percent rise in May and pointing to the weakness in overseas demand that has seen exports and new orders soften across most of Asia.
Exports reached a record of $162 billion in June, while imports for the month were $139.7 billion. That left the country with a trade surplus of $22.3 billion in June, compared with $13.1 billion in May.
The median forecast of economists polled by Reuters was for exports to rise 18.7 percent and imports to grow 25 percent, for a trade surplus of $16.3 billion.
“The big trade surplus means P.B.O.C. will continue to experience large capital inflows,” said Liu Li-gang, an economist with Australia & New Zealand Banking, referring to the People’s Bank of China. “The P.B.O.C. will have to address this inflow problem.”
Beijing has repeatedly said it will restructure its economy, cutting its reliance on exports and investment, and promoting domestic consumption in their place. As a result, import growth has become a bellwether for the strength of Chinese demand.
A slowdown in Chinese export growth had been anticipated in response to the slowing U.S. economy and as factory growth in Asia and Europe slid in June.
A series of indicators in the past few weeks have pointed to a moderation in the heady pace of the Chinese economy, including data on Taiwan’s exports to the mainland and purchasing manager surveys of new orders.
The People’s Bank of China has made clear that inflation remains a priority. Most analysts say that the resultant economic growth from that policy mix will be slower than the near double-digit pace of the past few years but that there is little risk of a hard landing.
“Imports were below expectations,” said David Cohen of Action Economics in Singapore. “We are perhaps seeing some reflection of loss of momentum in China’s growth. After all, there has been tightening in policy. The numbers are consistent with decelerating growth, with the soft landing that many people are looking for.”
On a calendar-adjusted basis, exports expanded 16.4 percent in June from a year earlier, while imports jumped 19.2 percent, the Chinese Customs Department said.
Exports rose 3.1 percent in June from May, while imports fell 3 percent month-to-month. On a calendar-adjusted basis, June exports rose 4.2 percent from May, while imports fell 2.6 percent from May.
The trade surplus in June was the highest in seven months. Chinese trade surpluses have led to criticism from trade partners like the United States who accuse Beijing of giving its exporters an unfair advantage with an inexpensive currency.
Despite the latest data, the Chinese trade surplus is on track to narrow from the $183 billion of last year as the government tries to rebalance the economy.
“For the second half of the year, we expect exports to continue to fall due to the impact from the European debt crisis, Japan’s earthquake and other factors,” said Tang Jianwei, an economist at Bank of Communications in Shanghai.
“The trade surplus will be maintained in the second half of the year, but domestic demand is still relatively strong,” he said. “So we are expecting a full-year surplus of $100 billion.”