BEIJING (Reuters) - China's exports unexpectedly fell for the second straight month in March and import growth dropped sharply, intensifying concerns about weak manufacturing and slowing growth in the world's second-largest economy.
Exports fell 6.6 percent in March from a year earlier, following an 18.1 percent slide in February, the Customs Administration said on Thursday. It was the first time exports have fallen for two months in a row since 2009.
Imports fell 11.3 percent, leaving the country with a trade surplus of $7.7 billion (4.5 billion pounds) for the month, a marked turnaround from a deficit of $23 billion in February.
That compared with market expectations in a Reuters poll of a rise of 4 percent in exports, a 2.4 percent rise in imports and a trade surplus of $900 million.
"We believe that China's trade growth in the first half would be distorted as the export over-invoicing activities last year have inflated the base for comparison. Our field study also shows that the exports are more resilient than what the headline data suggest," said Zhou Hao, China economist at ANZ in Shanghai.
"In the meantime, a moderation in import growth also reflects that China's manufacturing sector remains lukewarm."
First-quarter exports fell 3.4 percent from a year earlier, while imports were up 1.6 percent, producing a trade surplus of $16.7 billion, down 59.7 percent from a year ago.
Economists polled by Reuters expect first-quarter gross domestic product figures due on April 16 to show annual growth slowing to a five-year low of 7.3 percent from 7.7 percent in the final quarter of 2013.
There has been a run of weaker-than-expected data this year that has raised fears the economy may be slowing more than had been expected.
The country's top economic planning agency said on Wednesday it has less room than before to use policy tools to support the economy.
Last week, the government announced plans to quicken construction of railways and affordable housing, and cut taxes for small firms underpin activity.
China economics team; Editing by John Mair