SINGAPORE'S exports last month suffered their deepest plunge in almost seven years, signalling that the economy could shrink again in the fourth quarter.
Non-oil domestic exports dived for the seventh month in a row, down 17.5 per cent on top of a 15 per cent drop in October.
The 'usual suspects' - electronics and pharmaceuticals, which together make up half of exports - were mainly to blame, said HSBC economist Prakriti Sofat.
Electronics shipments fell for the 20th straight month by 17 per cent, while drug exports logged their ninth consecutive drop, falling almost 50 per cent.
But the decline has now gone beyond specific sectors and markets.
Demand for exports sank across all of Singapore's top 10 markets and most of its products, according to data released by IE Singapore yesterday.
Even excluding electronics and pharmaceutical products, exports dropped by nearly 10 per cent, the worst in at least five years, said Ms Sofat.
Shipments to the United States, Europe and China - Singapore's three biggest markets - plummeted by almost 30 per cent on average.
For the rest of Asia, including Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Japan, exports fell by about 20 per cent.
Emerging markets were the only bright spot. Exports to places like Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East jumped 41 per cent, after falling 18 per cent in October.
The weak export numbers come on the heels of other dismal economic indicators. Retail sales dipped in October by the most in six years, while industrial production data last month sank to a record low.
This 'reinforces the likelihood' that economic growth in the fourth quarter will stay negative, said Citigroup economist Kit Wei Zheng.
Singapore's economy shrank by 0.6 per cent in the third quarter over a year earlier, the first time it has done so since the Sars period in 2003.
Exports are likely to remain below water for at least the first half of next year, economists said. Businesses and consumers will continue to cut back on spending, as economies around the world struggle to get back on their feet.
The US purchasing managers' index for new factory orders, which leads Singapore's exports by about four months, is standing at its lowest level in 30 years, said Morgan Stanley economists.
'As a benchmark, in the 2001 cycle, exports contracted by as much as 31 per cent at the trough,' they noted.
Mr David Cohen of Action Economics also predicted that things 'will get a little worse first before they get better'.
'The recent export data out of Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan have all shown similar weakness, and with the global economy still deteriorating, the first quarter is certainly not going to be pretty.'
China, in particular, disappointed last week when its exports declined for the first time in seven years, illustrating its vulnerability to the global downturn.
So far, the anticipated boost from the pharmaceuticals sector has yet to materialise, Mr Cohen added.
'For exports and production in general, we continue to wait for a pick-up in the biomedical sector, but that remains a disappointment,' he said. Drugs output is supposed to help smoothen the vagaries of economic ups and downs as it follows its own production cycles.
The weakening Singapore dollar is unlikely to be enough to offset falling exports, and at best can provide only limited relief for exporters, said Citigroup's Mr Kit.
Economists do not expect further depreciation of the Singdollar to help exporters. 'The exchange rate is primarily a medium-term policy tool and ineffective as a short-term counter-cyclical measure,' said DBS economist Irvin Seah.
'The problem we face now is demand weakness, not uncompetitive pricing in exports. Even if we weaken the currency, any benefits are likely to be offset by continued sluggishness in demand.'
Mr Seah expects exports to shrink about 6 per cent this year, with a further contraction of 6.5 per cent next year.
The Government has said it expects exports to fall 5 to 7 per cent this year, and to range between -1 and 1 per cent next year.