Chinese economic data

Chinese economic growth: The Chinese economy (GDP) contracted by 9.8 per cent in the March quarter (Bloomberg forecast: -12.0 per cent). GDP contracted at a 6.8 per cent annual rate in the year to March (forecast: -6.5 per cent), following a 6 per cent expansion in the year to December. It was the sharpest contraction in economic activity since at least 1992 when official GDP records began.

Chinese activity data (March): Retail sales fell at a 15.8 per cent annual rate (forecast: -10 per cent) with industrial production down 1.1 per cent (forecast -6.2 per cent); and fixed asset investment down 16.1 per cent (forecast: -15 per cent).

Chinese property investment fell at a 7.7 per cent annual rate over the year to March following a 16.3 per cent contraction over the year to January/February.

Unemployment: The unemployment rate fell from record high of 6.2 per cent in January/February to 5.9 per cent in March.

The Chinese data is important for exporters, especially rural producers, consumer goods, mining and energy companies.

What does it all mean?

• China’s economy contracted by the most since 1992 in the March quarter – as expected – as government coronavirus (COVID-19) containment measures shut down large swathes of the world’s second largest economy.

• This week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that China’s annual economic growth rate for 2020 would average 1.2 per cent. Should this eventuate, it would be the slowest growth rate since the final year of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, reflecting the huge economic and social toll wrought by the virus.

• That said, it appears that some ‘green shoots’ are emerging on China’s supply side. Bloomberg economists estimate that China’s back-to-work rate had climbed to around 95 per cent by April 10 with some coronavirus-enforced restrictions being eased. Data from Bloomberg also shows that larger industrial enterprises – oil refineries, steel mills and construction companies – have mostly resumed operations. In addition, around 85 per cent of small business reported being back at work last week.

• And in promising news for Aussie exporters, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development has advised that 85 per cent of housing-related and municipal infrastructure projects – that were delayed due to COVID-19 enforced shutdowns – had resumed construction on April 1.

• On Thursday, China’s central bank Governor Yi Gang said, “Chinese economic growth is resilient”. And judging by China’s historic-high total new credit data in March, it appears policymakers are willing to provide solid support to the COVID-19 ravaged economy.

• The People’s Bank of China have continued to cut lending rates and reduce funding costs, supporting credit expansion. And in another positive sign, China’s residential home prices lifted in March on the back of pent-up demand following February’s lockdown. On the demand side, international trade data was better-than-expected in March, but that will be short-lived with major trading partners now grappling with their “lockdown recessions.”

What do the figures show?

• The Chinese economy (GDP) contracted by 9.8 per cent in the March quarter (forecast: -12.0 per cent). GDP contracted at a 6.8 per cent annual rate in the year to March (forecast: -6.5 per cent), following a 6 per cent expansion in the year to December. It was the sharpest contraction in economic activity since at least 1992 when official GDP records began.

• Retail sales fell at a 15.8 per cent annual rate (forecast: -10 per cent) after declining at a 20.5 per cent annual rate in the year to January/February. Over the year to March, spending fell the most on restaurants & catering (down 46.8 per cent), clothing (down 34.8 per cent), jewellery (down 30.1 per cent), household electronics (down 29.7 per cent), furniture (down 22.7 per cent) and motor vehicles (down 18.1 per cent). But spending lifted on food (up 19.2 per cent), medicine (up 8 per cent), telecommunications (up 6.5 per cent) and office supplies (up 6.1 per cent).

• Industrial production fell at a 1.1 per cent annual rate in March (forecast: -6.2 per cent) after declining at a 13.5 per cent rate in January/February. Over the year to March, production fell the most for manufacturing (down 1.8 per cent), followed by power supply and energy (down 1.6 per cent). But mining was up 4.2 per cent. By industry, auto manufacturing fell by 22.4 per cent, but pharmaceuticals (up 10.4 per cent) and telecommunications (up 9.9 per cent) both rose the most.

• Fixed-asset investment fell at a 16.1 per cent annual rate in March (forecast: -15 per cent) after declining at a 24.5 per cent rate in January/February. Over the year to March, investment fell by the most for the private sector (down 18.8 per cent) followed by state-owned enterprises (down 12.8 per cent). By industry, investment by textiles (down 37.1 per cent), general equipment (down 32.1 per cent), and railways and ships (down 31.6 per cent) fell the most. But investment in utilities rose by 2 per cent.

• Chinese property investment fell at a 7.7 per cent annual rate over the year to March following a 16.3 per cent contraction over the year to January/February.

• The unemployment rate (nationwide survey-based jobless rate) fell from record high of 6.2 per cent in January/February to 5.9 per cent in March.

What is the importance of the economic data?

• China’s National Bureau of Statistics releases its monthly economic statistics around mid-month. Quarterly GDP data is released around the 19th of January, April, July and October. China’s Customs Office releases trade data, and the People’s Bank of China releases financial statistics, around the 10th of each month. China is Australia’s largest trading partner and changes in the Chinese economy have major implications for the Aussie economy.
What are the implications for interest rates and investors?

• While China’s economy is expected to bounce-back in the June quarter – supported by a lift in infrastructure spending, lower interest rates and reduced bank borrowing costs – the recovery in 2020 is expected to be modest. In fact, CommBank Group economists are predicting annual growth of just 3 per cent this year as labour market strains hold back consumer spending.

• The long road back to recovery is no more evident than in China’s jobs market. A recent study by China’s Peking University shows that the number of new positions on offer shrunk by 27 per cent in the March quarter, led by recruitment cuts among exporters and foreign enterprises. And round 2.3 million people received unemployment insurance in January and February, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. A Reuters poll of economists estimates that nearly 30 million jobs may be lost in China in 2020, crimping consumer spending.

• And on the demand side, external headwinds are intensifying as China’s major trading partners endure deep recessions. Government containment efforts in the US, UK, Europe and Australia to contain the pandemic – including business shutdowns, travel bans and social distancing measures – will continue to adversely impact trade, supply chains and demand for Chinese goods.

• The IMF expects the Chinese economy to rebound by 9.2 per cent in 2021. If this forecast is realised or exceeded, Australia’s own road to recovery will be enhanced. But our economic dependence on China is likely to be questioned after we emerge from the crisis.

• Preliminary Australian March international trade data is scheduled for Thursday March 23.

Published by Ryan Felsman, Senior Economist, CommSec