By JOE McDONALDAP Business Writer
BEIJING (AP) - China reported higher import growth in March in a possible positive sign for its economic recovery but analysts said doubts about the accuracy of Beijing's data made it hard to draw conclusions.
Imports rose 14.1 percent from the 5 percent for the combined January-February period, customs data showed Wednesday, suggesting Chinese manufacturers and consumers might be buying more.
Export growth slowed to 10 percent from the previous two-month period's 23.6 percent. That could add to challenges for newly installed Communist Party leaders as they try to sustain the rebound from China's deepest downturn since the 2008 global crisis and avoid job losses.
"Exports growth was expected to decelerate," said Alaistair Chan of Moody's Analytics in a report. "On the imports side, it is too soon to tell if the bounce reflects higher domestic demand or simply a rebound" from February's sharp reported decline.
Economic growth rose to 7.9 percent in the three months ending in December, up from the previous quarter's 7.4 percent. Analysts say the recovery is being propped up by government spending and could be vulnerable if trade or state-driven investment weakens.
Analysts said possible problems with the accuracy of official data made it hard to use them to get a clear picture of China's economic health.
Commentators raised questions after China reported much stronger trade with other countries in recent months than was shown by data from the governments of those economies.
Some suggested Chinese companies might be reporting phony sales abroad as a way to evade currency controls and move money into China. Others say Beijing might have exaggerated trade volume to make the economy look healthier during the transition to a new generation of Communist Party leaders in recent months.
"Today's trade data release has not instilled any more confidence in either the quality of data or the strength of the recovery," said IHS Global Insight analyst Alistair Thornton in a report.
Referring to February's explosive reported export growth, Chan of Moody's Analytics said, "It now seems that it was probably due to some issue with the reporting of exports, or possibly over-invoicing as firms evaded capital controls to bring in more foreign capital."
Beijing's strict controls on capital flows into its economy and tax breaks and other privileges for foreign investors give Chinese companies an incentive to covertly bring in money from abroad. Economists believe a portion of China's reported foreign investment is money sent abroad by Chinese companies and "round-tripped" back into the country.
Francis Lun, managing director of Lyncean Holdings in Hong Kong, said the accuracy of the export number was in doubt, based on what is known about the value of Chinese goods passing through Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory.
"Chinese exporters may have over reported their value to get export credit rebates because the figures in Hong Kong to and from China do not add up," he said. "Instead of 10 percent growth, you have 2 or 3 percent."
China's trade data are volatile in the early months of each year as companies shut down for several weeks during the Lunar New Year and then buy raw materials to resume production.
March exports rose to $182.2 billion while imports were $183.1 billion, leaving a rare monthly deficit of $900 million, according to the General Administration of Customs.
The trade surplus with the United States narrowed by 34 percent from a year earlier to $11 billion. The surplus with the 27-nation European Union shrank 35 percent to $5.3 billion.
Exports to Germany, China's biggest European trading partner, fell 7 percent while shipments to France declined 6.7 percent.
General Administration of Customs of China: www.customs.gov.cn
AP Business Writer Pamela Sampson in Bangkok contributed.
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