Surprise 5.6% fall in Singapore exports in October; first decline in two years

SINGAPORE’S non-oil domestic exports (NODX) contracted by a shock 5.6 per cent year on year in October from a high year-ago base, with both electronic and non-electronic exports falling. This is the first decline since November 2020.

October’s fall was significantly larger than the 1.7 per cent decline forecast by economists in a Bloomberg poll, and also reversed from the previous month’s 3.1 per cent growth, according to Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG) data on Thursday (Nov 17).

On a seasonally-adjusted monthly basis, NODX decreased by 3.7 per cent in October, extending the 3.9 per cent decline in the preceding month. Non-electronic NODX contracted sequentially but electronics grew. On a seasonally-adjusted basis, the level of NODX was S$15.9 billion in October, lower than in September (S$16.5 billion) and a year ago (S$16.6 billion).

Barclays economist Brian Tan noted the volatility of non-monetary gold and pharmaceuticals, which he said were the main drags on NODX, sequentially.

Excluding the “sharp drops” in gold and pharmaceutical exports, NODX would likely have increased by 3.6 per cent month on month, seasonally adjusted – “partly recouping” September’s 5.6 per cent drop, he said.

The economist added that this would have been “a positive development, but still not enough to point convincingly to stabilisation”.

The shipment of electronic products fell 9.3 per cent year on year in October, continuing the previous month’s 10.6 per cent contraction.  Contributing most to the decline in electronic NODX were integrated circuits (-11.1 per cent), disk media products (-45.7 per cent) and parts of PCs (-31.6 per cent). 

Non-electronic exports fell 4.5 per cent from the previous year, reversing from September’s 7.6 per cent expansion. Pharmaceuticals (-34.7 per cent), non-monetary gold (-45.5 per cent) and petrochemicals (-18.4 per cent) contributed the most to the decline in non-electronic NODX. 

The decline in both industries is “a clear sign that global growth is grinding lower”, said Maybank economists Chua Hak Bin and Lee Ju Ye. They added that the drop in exports may be “an early warning sign” of a potential 2023 recession, albeit a shallow one, due to “offsetting crosscurrents” of global headwinds and reopening tailwinds.

“We think a ‘two-sided economy’ will become more stark in 2023. Some of the reopening sectors, like hospitality, aviation, F&B, and construction, will expand at a healthy pace, even as manufacturing and trade-related activities contract,” said the Maybank team.

Alex Holmes, senior Asia economist at Oxford Economics, echoed the gloomy outlook: “October data add weight to our view that the external sector is set for rough few quarters. There is certainly room for further falls.”

NODX to Singapore’s top 10 markets shrank overall in October, mainly due to mainland China, where exports were down 32 per cent; the European Union, down 19.5 per cent; and Malaysia, down 16.1 per cent. NODX to Thailand and Indonesia contracted in October after previously growing in September.

But NODX to the United States, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea rose, outstripping growth in the month before.

Despite the fall in NODX, total trade was up 8.6 per cent year on year, though this represented an easing from the 20.7 per cent growth in September. Exports were up 6.3 per cent and imports were up 11.1 per cent.

Total trade growth in October was mainly due to the increase in oil trade, which expanded by 23 per cent, reflecting elevated prices compared to last year, said EnterpriseSG.

On a seasonally-adjusted monthly basis, however, total trade fell 5.1 per cent, deepening from September’s 1.5 per cent decrease. Seasonally adjusted, the level of total trade reached S$110.6 billion, lower than the previous month’s S$116.5 billion. Both exports and imports declined.