Tuesday, May 28, 2024

China’s new retail and industrial data beat expectations — but signs still point to trouble ahead

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Photo: Florence Lo (Reuters)

Official economic data out of China for the January and February period came in better than expected. Industrial output rose 7%, higher than the 5% forecast by economists in a Reuters poll, and sped up from the 6.8% growth in December, according to data published Monday by the National Bureau of Statistics.

Meanwhile, retail sales grew 5.5%, better than the 5.2% predicted by analysts but slowed from the previous period’s 7.4%.

Still, the country’s troubled real estate sector continues to weigh on the economy: Investment in property development fell 9%. Commercial real estate sales are also down double-digit percentages.

“The national economy maintained the momentum of recovery and growth and got off to a stable start,” the statistics office said in its release. Beijing typically releases combined data for January and February to smooth over distortions caused by the Lunar New Year holidays.

China’s shaky domestic demand

Clouding the strong numbers from Monday’s data release are the persistent signs of weak domestic demand in China. New bank lending in China fell more than expected in February, according to Reuters calculations based on People’s Bank of China data.

Total outstanding yuan loans grew by 9.7% last month, a record low in data going back to 2003, according to Bloomberg. The sluggish borrowing demand comes even as the Chinese central bank made a surprise cut in the amount of cash that banks must hold in reserve, suggesting the stimulus measure has had little impact. And Beijing’s exhortations for unleashing “new quality productivity” (also translated as “new quality productive forces”) remains more rhetorical than substantive, particularly absent deeper structural reforms to the country’s economy.

With shaky demand at home, China’s bid to hit a GDP growth target of 5% this year will likely mean leaning heavily on its export machine. But that gambit will also face hurdles as governments, including the EU and Brazil, launch probes into China’s allegedly unfair trade practices. Separately, the U.S. is considering whether to investigate Chinese shipbuilding following a petition from major American labor unions.

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