Are Chinese Exporters Lying About How Much Business They’re Doing? The Chinese Government Thinks So But Issues Sketchy Export Figures Anyway

The Chinese government said Wednesday that its country’s exports grew 14.7 percent in April, but analysts say that port cargo volume, manufacturing activity and a recent warning to exporters not to fudge their numbers suggest the trade figure is a lie.

Analysts say the real number could be as low as 5.7 percent from last year, and that the figure is being distorted by exporters seeking ways to circumvent capital inflow rules.

The government said last month’s trade surplus came in at $18.2 billion, higher than the estimate of $15.6 billion, just one month after the country reported an $884 million deficit. Exports were expected to have grown 8.6 percent, up from 4.9 percent in April of last year.

But instead the government reported a much higher figure, even as the country’s first quarter GDP growth was down 0.2 points to 7.7 percent and its official Purchasing Managers' Index -- a key gauge of industrial output -- declined to 50.6 from 50.9 in March, showing barely any expansion.

So what’s going on? According to financial services group Nomura, Chinese companies are providing false information to their government in order to hide efforts to bring in more capital from abroad than the state allows.

“We believe exports to destinations like Hong Kong, a major financial hub, are likely being over-invoiced in an attempt to circumvent capital controls and bring foreign capital into China,” said Nomura analyst Zhiwei Zhang in a research note.

"This is definitely much better than expected," Citigroup economist Ding Shuang told Dow Jones Newswires. "But this probably reflects some over-invoicing [by exporters]. It was inconsistent with cargo volumes at the nation's ports."

Trade figures from other countries in the region also suggest something fishy is going on; South Korea exports were barely up last month, and Taiwan saw a 1.9 percent decline. Demand from the U.S. is weaker this year than last, and Europe’s is down, providing further evidence that China didn’t deliver as many goods to the world as it says it did in April.

Just last week the country’s foreign exchange regulator issued a stern warning that it would look at company export invoices and crack down on anyone providing false data.

Why would Chinese companies lie to their government about how much they exported last month?

Mainly because the government strictly controls capital inflows -- aka how much cash can come into the country from abroad. By cooking their books, Chinese exporters can circumvent these rules and obtain capital, mainly via Hong Kong.

China also said it imported 16.8 percent more products in April than it did last year following a 14.1 percent rise in March.

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