SINGAPORE (Apr 17): Singapore’s non-oil domestic exports (NODX) expanded by 17.6% in March, following the 3% growth from February, according to official figures released by trade agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG) on Friday.

The news comes despite expectations of a slowdown from the Covid-19 outbreak.

Singapore’s March export figures also beat the 8.9% contraction forecast by private-sector economists in a Reuters poll – who predicted a decline as movement control restrictions crimps business activity.

Specifically, the increase was led by a 20.5% surge in non-electronic shipments which follows the 3.2% growth in February. This comes on the back of increases in the export of non-monetary gold (+242.5%), specialised machinery (+54.2%) and pharmaceuticals (+48.6%), the trade agency noted.

Meanwhile, electronic exports were up by 5.8%, extending the 2.5% growth seen in the previous month. The improved performance was on the back of an increase in the exports of disk media products, integrated circuits (ICs) and parts of ICs by 50.6%, 6.7% and 60.1% respectively.

On a month-on-month seasonally adjusted basis, NODX expanded 12.8% in March, reversing from the previous month’s 4.7% decline. This follows the growth in both electronic and non-electronic shipments as well as the “low base a year ago,” ESG points out.

The trade agency noted that Singapore’s NODX to nearly all of its top 10 markets increased in March, with significant growth in shipments to Thailand, Japan, and the United States by 147.2%, 47.6%, and 22.5% respectively.

The growth in NODX to Thailand follows a 4.0% expansion in February and comes from heightened exports of non-monetary gold, disk media products and food preparations. Similarly, NODX to Japan extended the previous month’s 61.6% expansion following increased shipments of pharmaceuticals, specialised machinery and miscellaneous manufactured articles.

Meanwhile, NODX to Malaysia, Indonesia, and China fell 27%, 2.1%, and 0.5% respectively, possibly due to the movement control restrictions.

Interestingly, March saw non-oil re-exports (NORX) dip by 0.9%, following a 12.4% expansion registered by the segment in February. The decline was led by a 8.6% drop in non-electronic NORX, and was mitigated by a 8.6% increase  in electronic NORX.

Overall, total trade in March was up $83.1 billion, compared to February’s $82.5 billion. This comes from a 3.1% growth in total exports and a 1.9% dip in total imports.

While March’s figures brings the best quarterly increase in NODX since 3Q18, economists caution that the export outlook is dim. 

“Most major economies [have been] in lockdown [since] early 2Q20. Global demand may enter into a free fall in April and May, which will significantly impede trade,” observe Maybank Kim Eng economists Chua Hak Bin and Lee Ju Yu.

Drawing reference to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) latest forecast of global trade plummeting by a third this year, the duo say Singapore’s export-oriented economy may have some challenges ahead.

OCBC head of treasury research and strategy Selena Ling agrees. “With the one-month circuit breaker, and coupled with the rising probability of an extension, there may still be downside to come for domestic economic indicators as economic activity has been restricted to only essential services,” she notes.

As such, she expects April’s NODX to contract 13.8% y-o-y, while full-year NODX dips 4 – 6%. 

“While we see the biomedical cluster, especially pharmaceuticals exports, being sustained in the coming months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, NODX is likely to underperform again in April and possibly in the coming months as well”.