The longer China delays publishing its detailed trade data for April, the more it is feeding speculation about the possible ulterior motives behind withholding the numbers, and hurting credibility.
Also, with the amount of geopolitical upheaval going on, the transparency of future Chinese trade data releases is being questioned with each passing day as market participants harbor growing suspicions about Chinese intent.
A source close to the government said it was highly likely that future data releases from China would contain fewer details and be published with a greater time lag.
This does not bode well for Chinese economic data in general, which has been the subject of controversy and scrutiny in the past. The government’s refusal to offer any explanation beyond “technical issues” only compounds the problem.
China’s General Administration of Customs usually releases detailed import/export data for a given month in the fourth week of the following month, according to a table on its official website.
But on May 25, when detailed data for April was due, a gaggle of economists, analysts, traders and data geeks were left empty-handed. So far, half of June has passed and it remains unclear when Beijing will release the numbers.
“It is a really worrying situation. The Chinese administration, as a member of the World Trade Organization, has the obligation to open its trade data to the world in a timely manner,” a Hong Kong-based market observer said.
There was also some speculation that the move was due to GAC’s investigation on illegal data distributors.
Another view, from some analysts at trading companies was that the delay might be a result of the Chinese government’s re-organization, which started in March, possibly leading to changes in data release by the GAC.
However, there has been no official announcement that they would be carrying out investigations or making changes to the data release, and instead have given the reason of “technical issues.”
A worse time couldn’t have been picked for the “technical issues.”
Trade tensions between China and the US have dragged for more than three months, and a detailed plan for Beijing to narrow its significant trade deficit with Washington is yet to be disclosed.
Analysts, who rely on monthly numbers to update economic forecasts, said official trade data is far more sensitive to negotiations than ever before.
Then there is the issue of crude oil and refined oil products trade with Iran.
China and Iran agreed to strengthen strategic cooperation during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to China during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in early June, even as the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.
The SCO agreement will possibly pave the way for steady crude flow from Iran to China — data which was typically included in China’s monthly numbers. When it was still being published, the data set included China’s goods imports by country of origin and China’s exports by destination.
China is currently the largest customer of Iranian crude, and did not reduce crude imports from Iran even during the height of the last sanctions against Tehran in 2012.
Over 2011 to 2017, Beijing imported 441,000-627,000 b/d of crude from Iran, according to GAC data. In the first quarter of 2018, China’s imports of Iranian crude rose 17.3% year on year to 658,000 b/d, making Iran its sixth-biggest supplier.
International buyers of Iranian oil have until November 4 to wind-down contracts before the US re-imposes sanctions on the oil, energy, shipping and insurance sectors, a US Treasury Department fact sheet showed.
From Beijing’s perspective, why publish numbers that incriminates itself.
From everyone else’s perspective, how reliable will China’s numbers still be going forward?