The value of goods shipped from China to the rest of the world fell by more than 4% in December, compared to the same period a year ago, Chinese government data published Monday showed.
That represents the worst monthly performance for China's export sector in more than two years, and the first year-on-year decline since March 2018. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast that exports from China would rise slightly in December.
"In the months ahead we are likely to see some payback of the earlier strength in exports," said Raymond Yeung, an economist at investment bank ANZ.
"It is now more likely than before that a deal emerges eventually that would mean a more lasting suspension of new tariffs," Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at research firm Oxford Economics, said in a note Monday.
"Tariffs can't take all of the blame," Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at research firm Capital Economics, said in a note on Monday.
Despite the disappointing December numbers, 2018 was actually a pretty good year for Chinese exporters. For the entire year, overseas sales of Chinese goods rose 10% in US dollar terms compared to 2017 — their quickest rate of growth in seven years.
Things are unlikely to be so good this year even if the United States and China can strike a deal on trade, with experts predicting an acceleration in the global growth slowdown.
"Exports will remain weak even if China can clinch a trade deal that rows back Trump's tariffs," said Evans-Pritchard.