Exporters close the book on a sorry 2019

Last-minute lift can't save Singapore exports from full-year tumble; slow road to recovery awaits


SINGAPORE'S trade-dependent economy clocked its worst export showing since the global financial crisis, as non-oil domestic exports (NODX) fell by 9.2 per cent year on year in 2019.

The decline, based on preliminary data put out by trade agency Enterprise Singapore on Friday, marks a far cry from the 4.2 per cent expansion that was notched in the year prior. It is also the poorest full-year performance since a 10.5 per cent fall in 2009.

Still, it beats the official guidance - a 9.5 per cent to 10 per cent decline - forecast by policymakers last year.

And recovery, albeit slow and muted, may be on the way: Exports defied expectations to clock growth of 2.4 per cent in December - ending a nine-month, contractionary drought.

On a seasonally adjusted, monthly basis, NODX was up by 1.1 per cent in December - easing from 5.8 per cent in the month prior - to S$14.3 billion.

Barnabas Gan, a United Overseas Bank (UOB) economist, said: "With the positive growth seen in December, it further confirms that Singapore's lacklustre trade momentum may have finally bottomed in 2019."

Some of the analysts' cautious optimism derives from the so-called Phase One trade deal reached this week by the United States and China. While the partial deal is not expected to substantially boost Singapore's economy this year, the hope is for stronger sentiment as bilateral tensions subside.

Indeed, NODX to almost all of Singapore's top 10 markets - save for Indonesia and protest-hit Hong Kong - improved year on year in December. The upswing was supported by mainland China, where exports were up by 9.8 per cent; Taiwan, up by 16.2 per cent; and the US, up by 8.5 per cent. This reverses the wider trend in 2019 where "the US was usually the only market posting growth", Maybank Kim Eng researchers Chua Hak Bin and Lee Ju Ye noted in a report.

The eleventh-hour pick-up - which OCBC Bank chief economist Selena Ling dubbed "a positive close to an eventful and volatile 2019" - was buoyed by pharmaceuticals, as well as specialised machinery and non-monetary gold.

Meanwhile, shipments in the linchpin electronics sector, which have been negative since late 2018, shrank by 21.3 per cent - only slightly better than November's 23.3 per cent slide.

While electronics is expected to be on the road to recovery - the industry's Purchasing Managers' Index sentiment gauge polled at 49.9 in December, tantalisingly close to the 50-point mark for growth - economists have warned against looking for a dramatic resurrection in the sector.

Describing electronics as a continued drag on exports, DBS senior economist Irvin Seah suggested that the blame could lie with both a lag in improvement, "and competition from emerging regional players".

Still, Mr Seah expected a more marked rebound from the second quarter, boosted by new technologies such as 5G and self-driving cars, plus restocking "due to an over-cutting of inventory levels" during the dark days of the US-China trade war.

Citi analysts Kim Jin-Wook and Johanna Chua had similarly suggested on Wednesday that a recent surge in Chinese semiconductor imports could point to an imminent restocking, supplied by Asian chipmakers.

Also, the World Bank recently forecast global growth of 2.5 per cent in 2020, inching up from an estimated 2.4 per cent in 2019, though advanced economies such as Singapore face softer growth of 1.4 per cent.

"The ongoing stabilisation seen in the global economy is an encouraging sign for export-oriented economies like Singapore...," UOB's Mr Gan said. "With the cautiously optimistic view for an improving trade environment in 2020, Singapore's exports should benefit into the year to come."

Singapore's last official forecast tipped NODX to recover to between zero and 2 per cent growth this year.