GUANGZHOU, Dec. 25 (Xinhua) -- After a roller-coaster year, China's foreign trade may yet reach its 8-percent growth target by the end of 2013. Exporters remain optimistic.
A survey of over 500 Chinese exporters in October by Global Sources, a Hong Kong media company, shows two thirds of them looking to increase revenue in the first half of 2014.
Hardware and automotive parts suppliers are the most optimistic, with nearly 75 percent anticipating higher export revenues in the first half of next year.
The feelings are in line with customs statistics showing a 9.3 percent increase in trade volume in November and an all-time export high of 202 billion U.S. dollars, up 12.7 percent from the previous year.
The increase brought growth in the first 11 months of 2013 to 7.7 percent, close to the 8 percent target set at the beginning of the year.
During a monthly press conference, Ministry of Commerce (MOC) spokesman Shen Danyang attributed the fast growth to three factors: government policies to stabilize expansion; a low base number in November 2012; and recovery in traditional markets.
China will continue opening up in 2014 and traditional export strengths will be retained while avenues are explored. Shen added that exporters should not be too optimistic, even though exports will continue to growth rapidly.
MOST VOLATILE YEAR
Shen's caution does not come out of nowhere. Overseas trade has just gone through a most Mercurial year in two decades.
The increase during January to March was a stunning 13 percent, but dropped to under 5 percent in the second quarter. Foreign trade rose only 0.4 percent in May, and June saw the first decrease in 17 months.
Moderate growth in July and August was followed by another negative number in September, then a 5.6 percent rebound in October.
"The fluctuation comes from several sources, which include the uncertain recovery in global markets, and carry trades which greatly distort the customs figures," explained Xiao Yaofei, a professor with Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.
Shen Danyang believes that this new wave of increase is better grounded, as recoveries are seen across a range of industries, including labor intensive sectors such as bags, shoes and toys.
Analysts are still concerned that carry trades, a kind of cross-border interest rate arbitrage, are also behind the growth in November. The government and the trade companies are warned to look at the underlying reasons for the fluctuations.
Lu Zhengwei, chief economist of Industrial Bank, believes choppy, distorted trade figures are related to both the overvaluation of the yuan and high domestic interest rates
"They are the conditions which breed carry trades. When exchange rate volatility is small enough, hot money will flood into China via trade channels," Lu explained, "and these conditions still exist."
According to the Global Sources survey, 66 percent of respondents list "yuan appreciation" as their primary obstacle, replacing production and labor costs in the previous survey 6 months ago.
The yuan gained more than 2 percent against the greenback in 2013 alone, undermining export competitiveness, especially for small and middle sized suppliers.
The situation worsened in recent months, when the currencies in some emerging markets depreciated against the U.S. dollar, making Chinese products even more expensive. These developments add weight to the need for reform, including the internationalization of the yuan.
A central economic work conference in mid-December emphasized a push for market interest rate reform and reform of yuan exchange rate mechanism to increase efficiency.
Rising costs and price pressure from the buyers are concerns of over 60 percent of the companies, mainly from the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangsu. About 64 percent of them did not think their revenue growth in the next half year would be over 20 percent.
Craig Pepples, president of Global Sources' corporate affairs, said rising prices are not just a result of high costs, but come from a shift from cheap to upscale production.
"Moving from being a source of inexpensive goods to a hub for top-quality products that offer good value for money is part of the evolution of China's export industry," said Pepples. "Upscale, and OBM and ODM production will secure China's place as an export powerhouse even as new low-cost manufacturing hubs emerge."
Haier, the country's largest exporter of home appliances, invested heavily in global marketing and new media promotions this year to contend with yuan appreciation and sluggish demand.
"It's a bad time for all home appliances makers worldwide, but I think we can maintain double digit growth," said Zhang Qingfu, sales director for the Middle East and African markets.
While a challenge to trade, yuan appreciation opens a time window for global expansion. China's overseas investment may soon surpass the foreign direct investment (FDI) it attracts.
According to the MOC, Chinese investors splashed out money on 4,522 companies in 156 countries and regions in the first 11 months of 2013. Non-financial direct investment hit 80.24 billion U.S. dollars, up 28 percent year-on-year, exceeding the total of 77.2 billion dollars in 2012.
Actual use of foreign capital from January to November was 105.5 billion U.S. dollars, increasing 5.48 percent from the previous year, with 20,434 new foreign funded enterprises established, 9.19 percent fewer than last year.
The MOC issued a new foreign investment guide in late December, covering political, economic and social backgrounds in 165 countries and regions. The fifth edition since 2009 should help Chinese investors to reduce risk. The recent economic conference also decided to simplify approval for investment overseas.
During another conference in south China's Guangzhou in late December, Justin Yifu Lin, former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, suggested that Africa will be a prefect receiver of China's unwanted labor-intensive capacity, with its advantage of cheap labor.
"China's transformation from labor intensive industries to capital and technology intensive industries will bring opportunities for countries with lower wave levels to start their modernization," Lin added.
"Direct investment from Chinese companies will help underdeveloped regions cope with environmental problems and poor infrastructure, while including them in the global industrial chain."
While labor intensive industries focus on emerging markets in Asia and Africa, high-end manufacturers are more interested in developed markets.
China's investment in the United States leapt 232.2 percent in the first 11 months of this year.
Francisco J. Sanchez, a former U.S. undersecretary of commerce, said at the same occasion that the United States could also become the bridgehead for Chinese companies' global expansion.
Sanchez added that if costs of labor, gas and electricity keep decreasing in the United States, manufacturing labor cost will be almost the lowest among developed countries.
Chinese enterprises that invest in the United States will have bright futures, he said.