BEIJING (Reuters) - China's exports unexpectedly tumbled in February, swinging the trade balance into deficit and adding to fears of a slowdown in the world's second-largest economy despite the Lunar New Year holidays being blamed for the slide.
The sharp drop in exports follows a series of factory surveys since the start of 2014 that point to weakness in economic activity as demand falters at home and abroad.
Exports in February fell 18.1 percent from a year earlier, following a 10.6 percent jump in January, the General Administration of Customs said on Saturday.
Imports rose 10.1 percent, yielding a trade deficit of $23 billion for the month versus a surplus of $32 billion in January.
That compares with market expectations in a Reuters poll of a rise of 6.8 percent in exports, an 8 percent rise in imports and a trade surplus of $14.5 billion.
Analysts cautioned against reading too much into single-month figures for January or February, given possible distortions caused by the long Lunar New Year holiday, which began on January 31 and covered early February. Many plants and offices shut for extended periods during the festival.
Still, combined exports in January and February fell 1.6 percent from the same period a year earlier, versus a 7.9 percent full-year rise in 2013. Imports rose 10 percent year-on-year in the first two months, compared with a 7.3 percent rise in 2013.
"February export numbers were a surprise on the downside, and even combined January-February numbers were below market expectations," said Li Heng, an economist at Minsheng Securities in Beijing.
"The data shows that the economy faces relatively big downward pressures and macro-policies need to be loosened a bit."
The government may step up fiscal spending to support some investment projects if growth slows further, given there is limited room for the central bank to loosen policy, Li said.
Exports to the United States edged up 1.3 percent in the first two months from a year earlier, while sales to the European Union rose 4.6 percent, according to official data.
China's trade outlook is widely expected to be rosier this year in line with a recovery in developed countries. Minsheng Securities' Li said he expected exports to pick up in March.
Ting Lu, an economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong, said that inflated export data in January-February 2013 means that a direct year-on-year comparison can be misleading.
Fake trade deals to sneak cash into China past the country's strict capital controls were rampant early last year before Chinese regulators cracked down.
After adjusting for such distortions, export growth in the first two months of this year could actually be up about 8 percent, he calculated.
Recent weakness in the yuan is seen as orchestrated by the central bank to squeeze out speculators and deter hot money inflows.
China is fully confident of achieving its 7.5 percent growth target in total trade this year, Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said on Friday, citing an improving global economic environment.
China's combined exports and imports grew 7.6 percent in 2013, just short of the official target of 8 percent.
China's goods trade in 2013 hit $4.16 trillion, overtaking the United States for the first time to become the world's largest goods trading nation, Gao said on Friday.
China aims for annual economic growth of 7.5 percent in 2014, after the economy expanded 7.7 percent in 2013, which hovered near the weakest pace since late 1990s.
A resilient Chinese economy is good news for the world, particularly for major commodity exporters such as Australia.
China's crude oil imports in the first two months of the year rose 11.5 percent from a year earlier, while imports of copper jumped 41.2 percent and iron ore shipments rose 21.8 percent, data from the customs administration showed.
The statistical bureau is due to release combined data on January-February retail sales, industrial output and investment for January and February on Thursday. The figures are expected to show a slightly slower rate of growth than in December.
February inflation data will be published on Sunday.
China's annual economic growth slowed to 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter from 7.8 percent in the previous quarter, and economists polled by Reuters expected growth to slow further to 7.6 percent in the first quarter of 2014.
Editing by Nick Macfie