China’s Falling Inflation Still Demands Policy Caution

April’s consumer price inflation numbers released Friday follow weak trade and industrial production figures that all point to the slowdown in China’s economy continuing. The question is whether that slowdown is running to plan, or whether it is slowing more rapidly than the authorities would like, and thus requires a policy response to stimulate growth.

Outside commentators are leaning increasingly towards expecting that given the recent sets of monthly economic indicators, particularly those for inflation. The consumer price index (CPI) came in at 3.4% for April, down from March’s 3.6% and below the government’s 4% target for the third consecutive month. Yet, to this Bystander, the central bank’s warning earlier this week that inflation is falling but not yet stable suggests authorities will continue to be cautious about loosening monetary or fiscal policy.

The chain reaction that would cause a hard landing to the economy is a property bubble burst causing the local government debt bubble to burst, triggering a banking crisis, triggering a financial crisis, triggering an economic crisis, triggering a social crisis. Managing down the property bubble, as the first line of defense, has been the policy priority.  It has has some success in lowering home prices and reining in speculative building. Year-to-date property investment, at 18.7% is down from 34% in the same period a year earlier. But that growth rate still shows how much more there is to do.

If that doesn’t provide policymakers with reason for caution, then the suicide bombing of a government office in Yunnan earlier this week over an allegedly uncompensated land seizure, unusually prominently reported if only the most dramatic of increasingly common violent protests over land evictions, provides them with a stark and tragic reminder of what lies at the other end of the chain if the property bubble isn’t let down in a controlled way.

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