By Ana Olivia A. Tirona, Researcher

PHILIPPINE international trade value doubled in April as both exports and imports of merchandise goods posted record growth, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported on Wednesday.

Preliminary data by the PSA showed the country’s total external trade in goods — or the sum of merchandise exports and imports — stood at $14.16 billion in April, more than double the $6.83 billion in the same month last year.

Merchandise exports during the month went up by 72.1% year on year to $5.71 billion, compared with a revised 33.3% expansion in March and a 41.3% decline in April 2020.

Philippine trade year-on-year performance (Apr. 2021)

Meanwhile, merchandise imports grew by 140.9% to $8.45 billion versus the 22% year-on-year expansion in March and the 62.9% decline in April last year.

The April growth figures were the fastest recorded since at least 1991 — the earliest year with available PSA trade data. This also marked the second and third consecutive month of growth for exports and imports, respectively.

The trade deficit stood at $2.73 billion in April. This was a tad smaller than the $2.75-billion shortfall in March, but was bigger than the $187.10-million gap in April 2020.

Year to date, the trade balance widened to a $11.09-billion deficit, from $8.64-billion trade gap in 2020’s comparable four months.

For the same four-month period, exports and imports grew by an annual 19% (to $23.37 billion) and 21.9% (to $34.46 billion), respectively. These surpassed the Development Budget Coordination Committee’s revised growth targets for exports and imports at 8% and 12% for the year.

Exports of manufactured goods grew by 88.1% to $4.71 billion in April. These goods accounted for 82.3% of total export sales that month.

The exports of electronic products grew by 62.6% to $3.22 billion in April, with semiconductors chipping in $2.41 billion, up 40.4%. Electronic products made up 68.5% of manufactured goods exports and 56.4% of total exported goods.

Exports of forest products grew around three times to $25.31 million in April from $7.70 million in the same month last year. Likewise, sales of mineral products increased by 50.2% to $525.42 million from $349.81 million.

Outbound sales of agro-based products were flat, up 0.05% to $350.03 million.

On the other hand, exports of petroleum products plunged to $668,218 from last year’s $66.78 million.

All major import items saw significant annual growth in April. Purchases of raw materials and intermediate goods surged by 118.6% to $3.40 billion from last year’s $1.56 billion. These goods account for 40.2% of the country’s import goods that month.

Capital goods, which comprised 32% of the total, more than doubled to $2.71 billion from $1.32 billion in the same period last year.

Imports of consumer goods were valued at $1.43 billion in April, around 3.3 times more than the $429.54 million.

Purchases of mineral fuels, lubricant and related materials also shot up by almost five times to $841.90 million from $172.57 million previously.

In a note sent to reporters, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said the country’s 72.1% export growth rate in April was the highest among select Asian economies, beating the performances of Malaysia (62.7%), Indonesia (52%), and Vietnam (51%).

It also surpassed outbound sales growth of South Korea (41.2%), Taiwan (38.7%), Japan (38%), China (32.3%), Hong Kong (24.4%), Thailand (13.1%), and Singapore (6%).

“Our latest export growth rate shows that we are steadily recovering from the negative impact of the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic. It can be considered a solid growth considering that the performance was even stronger than the pre-pandemic levels in 2019, and not just due to the low base in 2020,” Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez was quoted in the statement as saying.

Mr. Lopez added the $5.71-billion export earnings recorded in April was higher compared with the $5.65 billion in the same month in 2019.

At the same time, the Trade chief said the doubling of imports of capital goods, raw materials and intermediate goods during the month indicated a pickup in the country’s manufacturing sector.

In a Zoom video interview, Semiconductor and Electronics Industries in the Philippines, Inc. (SEIPI) President Danilo C. Lachica attributed the results in April to an uptick in aggregate demand.

“[C]ompared to last year, manufacturers were not as rampant due to the start of the pandemic [and that there were order cancellations.] But now that demand is high, the equipment manufacturers were not ready to cope with the demand,” Mr. Lachica said.

IHS Markit Chief Economist for Asia-Pacific Rajiv Biswas likewise noted the increase in demand.

“This buoyant growth in electronics exports reflected the global boom in electronics demand since mid-2020, as households in the US and the [European Union] have ramped up their purchases of electronics goods,” Mr. Biswas said in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.

“Meanwhile imports of electronics rose from $1.3 billion in April 2020 to $2.4 billion in April 2021, driven by strong demand for intermediate electronics components in order to meet surging new export orders for electronics,” he added.

In a statement, ING Bank N.V. Manila Senior Economist Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa attributed April’s performance to base effects given the stringent lockdowns imposed in April last year at the onset of the pandemic.

Mr. Mapa also pointed out that despite the stellar year-on-year growth, exports and imports in April were actually down from March as the government reinstated tighter restrictions to try to slow the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal were placed under an enhanced community quarantine from March 29 to April 11. This was later relaxed to a more lenient modified enhanced community quarantine from April 12 to 30.

“April trade data suggests that lockdowns hindered both inbound and outbound shipments as well and we can expect a sustained pickup for both exports and imports in the near term as mobility curbs are relaxed… although the trade balance will likely remain at manageable levels of roughly $3.0 billion with capital-intensive imports not likely to pick up considerably given still subdued investment appetite,” Mr. Mapa further noted.

DTI’s Mr. Lopez was similarly upbeat: “As we gradually and safely reopen our economies both locally and abroad, we are confident that we will see a sustained improvement in our export growth rate this year,” he said.

SEIPI’s Mr. Lachica reiterated their target for exports to grow by 7% this year.

“By luck, it still depends on the availability of raw materials… [T]o sustain the momentum, we need to make sure the vaccination deployment is going as planned. The problem is, if we have another surge, we have to scale down our operations again,” said Mr. Lachica.