Chinese exporters reported a subdued start to the lunar year as their business continued to slow and expectations for the coming month dimmed. 

Our survey of 200 exporting companies was taken just before US president Donald Trump confirmed he was  delaying the imposition of fresh tariffs on Chinese imports in the hope of doing a trade deal with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart. 

The results of our survey suggest that companies are learning to live with trade tensions, with just 24 per cent in February saying the dispute was having a negative or very negative impact on business compared with nearly 40 per cent in November and more than 45 per cent in September, when Mr Trump imposed fresh tariffs on $200bn in Chinese goods imports. 

Although a short series, it does suggest the impact of the dispute is waning because more companies are  taking countermeasures, ranging from trying to sell into new markets to moving affected production lines offshore. The number of survey respondents who said they were not doing anything to mitigate the impact of the dispute has nearly halved since November. 

Even without the trade dispute, however, Chinese exporting groups must grapple with the implications of slowing global growth. The FTCR China Export Index ticked down 0.1 points to 52.1 in February, while our survey found more companies reporting their exports were falling in volume and value terms, and more expected these soft conditions to persist into March. 

Recent data from the US, Japan and Europe suggest those economies are decelerating by varying degrees, weighed down in part by China’s own slowdown. Other gauges in our survey, including new orders, profits and payrolls, pointed to relative stability in operating conditions. On the other hand, year-on-year indices were almost uniformly below the 50 mark, which separates expansion from contraction. 

The recent fall in growth of Asian exports to China highlights the impact that tighter onshore credit conditions have had on the Chinese economy, but also points to weakening demand beyond the mainland (note South Korea’s sharp drop was also caused by falling semiconductor prices). 

Despite hopes for more easing measures from the Chinese authorities, the leadership is at pains to  damp expectations of large-scale stimulus as was seen during the global financial crisis and in 2015-16. Without that, any rebound in activity may be subdued and that means more difficult operating conditions ahead for Chinese and Asian trading firms.

The FTCR China Export survey is based on interviews with 200 export manufacturers, trading companies and shipping agents nationwide. For further details click here. This report contains the headline figures from the latest Export survey; the full results are available from our Database.

FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and south-east Asia. Our team of researchers in these key markets combine findings from our proprietary surveys with on-the-ground research to provide predictive analysis for investors.