China's monthly trade surplus leaped to a record $47.3 billion in July, nearly tripling year-on-year, official data showed on Friday, as the world's second-largest economy saw export growth accelerate while imports surprisingly shrank.
Exports increased 14.5 percent year-on-year to $212.9 billion, the General Administration of Customs announced, while imports decreased 1.6 percent to $165.6 billion.
The surplus, which compared with one of $17.8 billion during the same month last year, beat China's previous record of $40.1 billion in November 2008 and far exceeded the median forecast of $27.7 billion in a Wall Street Journal survey of 15 economists.
Analysts said the figures could lead to upward pressure on China's yuan currency, also known as the renminbi (RMB), whose value is closely controlled by the authorities.
Export growth accelerated from June's gain of 7.2 percent and beat expectations of 8.0 percent. But imports, which had gained 5.5 percent in June, failed to match the forecast of a 3.0 percent increase.
ANZ Bank economists Liu Li-Gang and Zhou Hao said in a note that the surplus suggested "the appreciation pressure on RMB will likely increase" if the central bank does not intervene "actively" in the foreign exchange market.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists Sylvia Sheng and Lu Ting agreed, adding in a note: "Super strong exports data point to a rebound in external demand."
Customs data showed that exports to the United States, the world's biggest economy, grew 12.3 percent on-year in July, while those to Germany jumped 17.1 percent, in line with a 17.0 percent increase to the broader European Union.
The surprise fall in imports was mostly attributable to a crackdown on fraudulent commodity financing that came to light earlier this year, the ANZ economists said.
State media reported in June that a Chinese mining group allegedly used the same commodity stocks as collateral for loans of more than $2.5 billion from different banks.
China's trade statistics are occasionally prone to distortions related to the timing of seasonal holidays such as the Lunar New Year, as well as over-reporting of exports.
- 'Bullish and bearish' -
The figures come as China's economic activity has picked up steam since authorities introduced measures to shore up growth after it slowed at the beginning of the year.
Chinese stocks closed higher after the figures, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index rising 0.31 percent to 2,194.43.
But the Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts warned that the "July data contain both bullish and bearish messages".
"On the bearish side, the declining import growth could imply weak domestic demand" amid slowing growth in fixed asset investment, they wrote.
China's gross domestic product (GDP) accelerated to a higher-than-expected 7.5 percent in the second quarter, up from 7.4 percent in the previous three months, which was the worst since a similar 7.4 percent expansion in July-September 2012.
The government in March set its annual GDP growth target for 2014 at about 7.5 percent, the same as last year.
The target, which is set conservatively and usually exceeded, is closely watched by economists as a weathervane for official expectations about the economy.
China's leaders are trying to shift the country's economic model to one where its increasingly affluent consumers propel economic growth rather than large, state-supported investments.
But since April, in a bid to boost growth, authorities have introduced measures including tax breaks for small enterprises, targeted infrastructure outlays and incentives to encourage lending in rural areas and to small companies.
The trade data came after surveys of China's manufacturing sector showed that activity increased sharply in July, with the official purchasing managers' index (PMI) reaching its highest level in more than two years. A closely watched private PMI survey came in at an 18-month high.
Despite recent signs of vigour in the economy, economists have expressed concern about the potential for China's vast and opaque property sector to dent growth expectations.
An independent survey of China's property prices showed that their decline accelerated in July, dropping for the third straight month.
Property is sensitive in China, where the government must balance the need to satisfy citizen demands for affordable housing against the reality that local governments make much of their income from land sales to developers.