Thailand's customs-based exports contracted for a fifth straight month but by less than forecast in February, as the global economy slowed, with shipments expected to drop further in the first half of the year, the Commerce Ministry said on Thursday.

Exports, a key driver of growth, dropped 4.7% in February from a year earlier, better than a 6.9% fall forecast in a Reuters poll, and against January's 4.5% decline.

In February, imports rose 1.1% from a year earlier, compared with a forecast rise of 2.1%, resulting in a trade deficit of $1.11 billion for the month.

Shipments are expected to show a further drop in the first and second quarters before improving in the second half, Phusit Ratanakul Sereroengrit, head of the ministry's department of international trade promotion, told a news conference.

"There remains a large stockpile which slows imports from other countries," he said. "The second half should be more positive," he added.

The ministry will maintain its target of 1%-2% export growth this year, official Poonpong Naiyanapakorn said.

February's export fall, which was also due to a high base last year, was led by lower shipments of industrial goods, with electronics down 4.7% year-on-year and hard disk drives tumbling 45%, the ministry said in a statement.

The value of rice exports rose 7.7% in February from a year ago but the volume dropped 5.7% to about 600,000 tonnes.

February's exports to the United States dropped 9.5% year-on-year while those to Southeast Asia fell 5.8%. Exports to China declined 7.9% from a year earlier, the ministry said. (Reporting by Orathai Sriring, Kitiphong Thaichareon and Satawasin Staporncharnchai; Editing by Ed Davies)