Business Maverick

Business Maverick

China’s Soaring Economic Activity Masks Uneven Growth Recovery

A pedestrian walks past a screen showing a live news broadcast of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaking at the National People's Congress in Beijing, China, on Friday, March 5, 2021. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

China’s economic activity surged in the first two months of the year, though the figures mask an uneven recovery a year after the world’s first coronavirus lockdown.

The official data released Monday show eye-popping growth rates of more than 30% for key indicators, largely due to distortions when compared to last year’s shutdown. However, the underlying momentum shows a rebound that’s on a two-speed track, with strong industrial output and export demand and a lagging consumer recovery.

Key highlights of the data:

  • Industrial production jumped 35.1% in January-February from a year earlier, compared with a median estimate of 32.2% in a Bloomberg survey of economists
  • Retail sales climbed 33.8% in the period, versus a forecast of 32%
  • Fixed-asset investment rose 35%, well below a projection of 40.9%
  • The jobless rate was 5.5% at the end of February, up from 5.2% in December

The CSI 300 Index pared an earlier loss after the data dump before resuming its decline to 1.4% as of 11:06 a.m. in Shanghai. The yuan was little changed in both onshore and offshore markets.

Economic Data Soars

Read More: China Heads for Record GDP Growth in Months of Wild Data Swings

The weaker-than-expected investment growth and rise in unemployment points to an uneven recovery. While consumer spending has picked up, the rebound in retail sales hasn’t been as strong as industrial production. Average growth in retail sales in the first two months of the year was 3.2% higher than the same period in 2019, compared with 8.1% for industrial output, according to the National Bureau of Statistics

“We must be aware that the Covid-19 pandemic is still rampaging globally and the world economy is facing severe challenges,” Liu Aihua, a spokeswoman for bureau, said in a statement. “Domestically, the unbalanced recovery is still notable and the foundation for the economic recovery is not solid yet.”

Retailing Drops Off

China is still the only major economy to have powered out of the pandemic after an early control over the virus and then surging global demand for medical goods and work-from-home devices. The economy grew 2.3% in 2020 and is forecast by economists to expand 8.4% this year.

The government is targeting more modest growth of “above 6%” in 2021, allowing officials to focus on managing financial risks in the economy, like bringing down debt and curbing asset bubbles. Beijing has signaled it wants to scale back its pandemic stimulus, with analysts predicting a gradual reduction in monetary and fiscal support.

What Bloomberg Economics Says…

This makes for a lopsided but robust start to the year. It puts the economy on a path to easily clear the growth target of above 6% for 2021, a low bar given the base effect. Fiscal support looks set to be rolled back only gradually — which should keep a prop under the economy. This backdrop could reduce the probability of economy-wide easing on the monetary front.

— Chang Shu, chief Asia economist

For the full report, click here.

Bruce Pang, an economist at China Renaissance Securities, said the investment figures released Monday showed manufacturers still cautious and that businesses, “especially private-owned enterprises, will begin to have a stronger willingness to invest only after the recovery of their profit growth is confirmed.

Consumer demand also still remains weak, with retail sales in February rising only 0.56% from the previous month, “indicating that the Lunar New Year may have had a weaker boost to national consumption than expected,” he said.

The government imposed travel restrictions before the new year holidays, which fell in February this year, to curb sporadic virus cases in some parts of the country. That likely helped to boost industrial output, with factories able to remain open or resume production earlier than usual to meet soaring export demand. But it also suppressed spending on travel, restaurants and leisure activities.

Through March 8, people took almost 41% fewer trips this year than in 2020, according to data from the Ministry of Transport, and travel was down almost 71% compared to the same period in 2019.


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