, May 20 , 2004
By Rica D. Delfinado  -  The country’s trade deficit widened by 9.2 percent to $559 million in the first three months of the year from $512 million in the same period last year as exports to rebounding global markets failed to keep pace with imports, the National Statistics Office (NSO) reported yesterday.

Import payments during the three-month period rose by 6.4 percent to $9.752 billion from $9.162 billion a year ago while exports rose by a slower 6.3 percent to $9.193 billion from $8.650 billion a year ago.

Economists expect the trade balance to improve later this year as higher imports of electronic components feed through into stronger exports.

But analysts said concerns are rising that the country’s export performance may suffer from surging oil prices and the prospect of cooling global demand.

"We are keeping our fingers crossed that the export growth will look better in the second quarter," said Song Seng Wun, regional economist with G.K. Goh Securities in Singapore.

"Of course, the current worry is that higher fuel costs and slowing demand may cool the numbers in the second half."

For March alone, imports rose by a slower 4.4 percent to $3.579 billion. In February, imports grew by 6.3 percent.

The March import figure brought the country’s trade deficit for that month to about $228 million, down from the $299-million deficit recorded in March 2003.

The government statistics office announced earlier this month that exports rose 7.1 percent to $3.349 billion in March, lifted by higher global demand for electronic products.

Imports of electronic components hit an eight-month high in March, rising by 2.2 percent to $1.626 billion and underpinning hopes of a stronger export performance in the months ahead.

"Electronics companies have been increasing imports of parts in anticipation of strong demand," said Nicholas Bibby, a strategist at Barclays Capital in Singapore.

"We’re seeing robust exports in April around the region. I don’t see why the Philippines won’t see higher exports."

The country, whose trade deficit widened to $1.2 billion last year from $218 million in 2002, imports all of its electronics parts for assembly and export, as well as crude, oil, industrial machinery, transport equipment, rice, corn and wheat.

Imports of mineral fuels, lubricants and related materials ranked second at $405.88 million or a nine percent expansion from last year’s $372.44 million.

Purchases of industrial machinery and equipment amounted to $163 million while that of iron and steel reached $134.98 million.

Other top imports for March were: transport equipment, $114.92 million; textile, $82 million; telecommunication equipment, $81 million and plastics, $76.6 million.

Japan emerged as the country’s biggest source of imports with shipments worth $679 million in March.

The US followed with 644 million while Singapore was third with $295 million worth of shipments.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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