--Clyde Russell is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.--
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, Feb 9 (Reuters) - China's January trade data has been viewed as unambiguously weak, and while the softer exports are an obvious concern, the dramatic slump in imports isn't nearly as bad as it looks.
Exports dropped 3.3 percent from a year earlier, against a median expectation of a 6.3 percent gain, while imports plummeted 19.9 percent, the biggest slide since May 2009, a time when the economy was dealing with the global recession.
The problem with looking at the trade numbers in percentage terms is that they are dollar-based, value numbers.
They don't take account of volumes, and this is particularly key when looking at commodity imports.
While the value of commodity imports has crashed from January 2014 to January this year, volumes still look fairly healthy.
Not so healthy as to conclude that China's economy is robust, but also far from weak enough to start pressing the panic button. Overall, commodity imports would tend to support the view that the Chinese economy is bumbling along, without strong momentum in either direction.
Crude oil imports were 6.59 million barrels per day (bpd) in January, only 0.6 percent below the levels of January last year.
It's true that they dropped nearly 8 percent from December, but that month saw a record 7.15 million bpd as China took advantage of the more than 50 percent plunge in oil prices to fill strategic and commercial storages.
Over the whole of 2014, crude imports average 6.17 million bpd, meaning January's total was above the average for the previous 12 months, not exactly a weak performance.
The difference is in the price paid. In January 2014, China customs data showed the average price it paid for a barrel of oil was $108.67. The data for January this year isn't yet available, but the price in December was $77.52 a barrel, a figure that's likely to decline given the drop in Brent crude.
In iron ore, imports were 78.57 million tonnes in January, down 9.5 percent from the same month last year, and by the same amount from December.
Again, it pays to be cautious about reading too much into the decline, with December's figure being a record high. January's imports were always likely to fall given steel mills had already restocked, taking advantage or iron ore's decline in the second half of last year.
Iron ore imports averaged 77.7 million tonnes a month in 2014, meaning, like crude, January's figure was above the average in what was the strongest year on record.
The price paid for iron ore in January 2014 was $127.68 a tonne, by December it was down to $75.61, and again is heading lower still.
Imports of unwrought copper were 410,000 tonnes in January, down 2.4 percent from December and 24.1 percent from the same month last year.
Given that January 2014 was a freakishly strong month, it's better to look at the recent trend, with unwrought copper imports averaging 378,400 tonnes a month in 2014, meaning that January this year was ahead of the recent average.
The price paid for refined copper in January 2014 was $7,419.90 a tonne, by December it was down to $6,716.90
Taken together, January's imports of the three main commodities were higher than the average for last year, while the prices paid were substantially lower.
The only commodity where there is unabashed weakness is coal, where imports slumped to 16.78 million tonnes in January, down 38.4 percent from December and a massive 53.3 percent below the level of January 2014.
Coal imports are suffering from a level of caution over the new rules about quality, from plentiful domestic supply and ongoing efforts to limit the fuel's use in order to lower pollution.
Overall, the picture that emerges is that commodity import volumes are holding up, and that much of the reason for the sharp fall in the value of imports is because of slumping prices.
Likewise, given Chinese manufacturers are paying considerably less for their commodity imports, it's plausible that part of the reason for the drop in value of exports is because prices of goods are being lowered.
It would be a more of surprise if the fall in commodity prices isn't having a deflationary impact on the prices of manufactured goods.
The Chinese economy may not be roaring ahead, but be wary of saying it's stumbling based on the dollar value of imports and exports.
Editing by Richard Pullin