Economic activity remains weak in China. April’s industrial output was up 9.3% in April from March’s 8.9%, a seven-month low, but short of expectations of 9.5% growth. The recovery that started in the second half of last year is not gathering any momentum. Second-quarter growth is on track to be little better than the first quarter’s 7.7%, and likely less than 8%.
That is testing policymakers’ patience. They would like to stimulate short-term growth, but are already running loose monetary policy. Any further loosening risks pushing up consumer prices and further inflating asset bubbles, particularly property prices. Meanwhile, state-led infrastructure construction spending, which has been a big driver of growth since the 2008 global financial crisis, is running out of steam and effectiveness, and the debt overhang, as much as 20 trillion yuan ($3.25 trillion), is a worry in Beijing.
The temptation, particularly for provincial and local officials, is to fall back on the tried and trusted remedy to provide a short-term boost to growth, but that also delays the necessary long-term rebalancing of the economy to which the new leadership repeatedly says it is committed. For now, policy makers are likely to stay their course, but they badly need some growth to steady their nerves. With the global economy sluggish, that is more out of their hands than they would like.
Caution should be exercised in interpreting China’s newly published trade and inflation figures for January. Next week’s New Year holiday will have caused distortions. Importers and exporters will have tried to get as much business as possible done before work stops for the holiday. In addition, the timing of the festival, which fell in January last year but this month this, will have made year-on-year trade growth appear stronger and inflation weaker. A clearer picture will appear after February’s trade and inflation figures are published in March and the first two month’s numbers can be compared in aggregate.
With that those caveats, on the face of it, the numbers suggest that the calendar year has started with solid growth both in China and abroad. Exports rose a greater than expected 25% from a year earlier, the fastest pace since April 2011, and up from 14.1% in December. Imports increased 28.8%, more than four-times December’s 6% rise. The boom in imports trimmed China’s trade surplus to $29.2 billion in January, from $31.6 billon a month earlier. Inflation also receded, slowing to 2% from 2.5% in December, though food prices spiked.
Consumer price inflation in China is now down to its lowest level in almost three years. October’s consumer price index rose 1.7% year-on-year, compared to September’s 1.9% and August’s 2%. The deceleration last month was more rapid than expected on the back of weaker food prices. Policymakers now have more scope to spur growth should they chose to do so, though the central bank has been using open market operations as its main way to reverse the slowdown of the economy. The liquidity it is injecting can be swiftly withdrawn if inflationary pressures resume, a lesson learned from the inflation spike that followed the massive stimulus package introduced after the 2008 global financial crisis and which has taken it a long hard slog to bring down.
Central bankers are not noted as being wide-eyed optimists at the best of times. China’s are living up to the stereotype. The world’s investors are regaining some of their animal spirits on the strength of new signs that the slowdown in China’s economy is at last ending, but China’s central bankers are striking an ultra-cautious note in their third-quarter monetary policy report.
They warn that global demand could slump again unless the crisis in the euro zone is sorted out, sending the world into a double-dip recession. As for China’s part of the world economy, ‘the foundation of an economic recovery is not yet solid”. The People’s Bank of China’s policy focus will emphasize growth, but monetary policy will remain “prudent”.
The central bank fears that measures to promote domestic consumption are potential inflationary, even though inflation is subdued despite rising energy prices and labour costs. Year-on-year consumer price inflation was 1.9% in September, down from 2% the previous month.
No mention of further cuts in interest rates or banks’ reserve requirements. Playing with the short-term liquidity taps, as was done with the $60 billion injection into the money markets earlier this week, is the sort of open-market operation the central bank now prefers to “fine-tune” the economy, regardless of the risk of more volatile short-term interest rates. It is a way to talk tight but act loose, and still be able to switch back to acting tight at short notice.
Consumer price inflation ticked down again in September, being 1.9% year-on-year, down from August’s 2%. That was much as expected and leaves inflation running well below the official target for the year of 4%. Officials have been signaling 2.7% as the likely number for the full year.
That would still appear to leave policymakers plenty of headroom for further easing of monetary policy, should they choose to use it. The central bank has cut interest rates twice since June and lowered banks’ required reserves three times since November. Yet its main way to pump up sagging growth has been to open the liquidity taps. The broad measure of the money supply, M2, grew by 14.8% in September, its most rapid monthly expansion since June last year, and above the central bank’s 14% target number for the year.
However, the liquidity taps have been opened cautiously and with some trepidation by the central bank. Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, writing in the latest edition of the Journal of Financial Research, a house organ of the bank’s, is talking of closer to home when he warns of the inflationary risks in the efforts around the world to shore up the sluggish global economy by easing monetary policies. He encouraged central bankers to be ready to start mopping up operations.
At home, property prices are resurging, propelled by the increase in liquidity. Policymakers have fought a two-year-long battle to deflate the property bubble without bringing down the whole house of cards. They will not readily throw that hard-won victory to the winds. With third-quarter GDP growth figures due on Thursday, we’ll get a sighting of how much of the headroom that falling inflation has provided, the central bank has a taste for.
July’s monthly economic indicators now starting to be published show clearly that the hoped-for bottoming of China’s growth slowdown has yet to materialize. Both industrial output and retail sales growth slowed in the month, to 9.2% from 9.5% and to 13.1% from 13.7% respectively. That will add to the pressure on policymakers to increase the stimulative measures they have been taking. The fall in inflation to a 30-month low at 1.8% year-on-year gives them more headroom to do so.
Update: the unexpectedly slight 1% increase in exports in July is further evidence.