China’s economy grew at a slightly faster-than-expected pace of 6.8 per cent in the first quarter, buoyed by strong consumer demand, healthy exports and robust property investment.
Resilience in the world’s second-largest economy will likely help keep a synchronised global recovery on track for a while longer, even as China faces rising trade tensions with the United States that could impact billions of dollars in business.
But economists still expect China will lose some momentum in coming quarters as Beijing forces local governments to scale back infrastructure projects to contain their debt, and as property sales cool further due to strict government controls on purchases to fight speculation.
Consumption, which accounted for almost 80 per cent of economic growth in the first quarter, played a significant role in supporting the economy even as risks grew for Chinese exporters.
March retail sales rose 10.1 per cent from a year earlier, slightly more than expected and the strongest pace in four months, with consumers buying more of almost everything from cosmetics to furniture and home appliances.
“The retail sales data tells you a lot about consumption. It is not seasonal — if you look at growth in cosmetics, spending on clothing, spending on automobiles, there has been a persistent trend for a few months,” said Iris Pang, Greater China economist at ING in Hong Kong.
“Consumption is really strong, there is strong wage growth in urban areas. We underestimated the power of consumption in China.” First-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth was also backed by robust exports, with shipments to the US jumping 14.8 per cent on-year. Some analysts have speculated Chinese firms may have rushed out deliveries to the US as tariff threats loomed.
“We don’t expect (the US-China tensions) will evolve into a full-scale trade war, but we also argue this uncertainty will not disappear and we expect a bumpy road of negotiations. In terms of the impact of potential tariffs, it is pretty limited, particularly this year,” said Haibin Zhu, chief China economist at JP Morgan in Hong Kong.
“Even in the worst scenario that both countries start to implement the $50 billion tariffs, we’re talking about a few tenths of a percentage point and most likely it will only start to affect the economy late this year and in 2019.”
Crackdowns on financial risks, pollution to continue
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected January-March GDP to grow 6.7 per cent from a year earlier, slowing marginally from 6.8 per cent in the previous two quarters but remaining remarkably steady for such a large and dynamic economy.
On a quarterly basis, GDP grew 1.4 per cent, slightly less than expected and easing from 1.6 per cent in October-December.
Growth has remained comfortably above the government’s target of around 6.5 per cent for the full year, giving policymakers room to further reduce risks in China’s financial system and rein in pollution without stalling economic growth.
Authorities have repeated pledged to reduce a mountain of corporate debt in the name of national security, though they have moved cautiously to avoid stunting business activity.
Beijing has also stuck to its campaign of shuttering heavily polluting factories as it tries to encourage more sustainable and higher quality growth from sectors such as technology.
Smokestack industries have been a key focus of that pivot in industrial policy, even though it is weighing on China’s overall manufacturing outlook.
Industrial output expanded 6.0 per cent in March on-year, the slowest pace in seven months. Analysts had predicted output growth would cool to 6.2 per cent from 7.2 per cent in the first two months of the year.
“Underneath the stable GDP growth is quite rapid rebalancing from industrial, investment and old economy sectors to consumption, services and new economy sectors like tech,” said Robert Subbaraman, chief economist for Asia excluding Japan at Nomura in Singapore.
“The more timely March data, however, point to nascent signs of a growth slowdown underway, led by these old economy sectors.”
Real estate to slow
First-quarter readings on China’s property sector, a key economic driver, were mixed but also appeared to reflect the growing influence of changing government policies.
Real estate investment accelerated to 10.4 per cent in the quarter — the fastest pace in three years — compared with a 9.9 per cent rise in the first two months of this year.
Analysts say a significant rise in land prices, as well as a government push to build more public housing, could have contributed to the unexpected strength in the headline figure and a jump in construction starts.
Property sales, however, continued to slow amid a flurry of government measures to get soaring home prices under control.
January-March fixed assets investment growth slowed to 7.5 per cent, below expectations and 7.9 per cent in January-February.
Infrastructure investment rose 13 per cent on-year, easing slightly from January-February.
Private-sector fixed assets investment rose 8.9 per cent in January-March, accelerating from an increase of 8.1 per cent in the first two months. Private investment accounts for about 60 per cent of overall investment in China.
China to scrap foreign auto ownership limits by 2022
BEIJING, SHANGHAI: China will scrap foreign ownership caps on local auto companies by 2022 and will remove restrictions on new-energy vehicle ventures this year, a major shift that will open the market wider to carmakers from Nissan to Tesla Inc. The country will scrap the limits on firms making fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in 2018, commercial vehicle firms in 2020 and lift restrictions on the wider passenger vehicle market by 2022, China state planner said in a statement.
The moves signals the end of a long-standing rule in the world’s largest auto market where foreign carmakers can currently only own a 50 per cent share of any local venture, a policy put in place to help support domestic carmakers compete against more advance international rivals.
The move also comes after President Xi Jinping said last week the country would scrap ownership limits “as soon as possible”, encouraging global auto brands even as a fierce standoff over trade intensifies between Beijing and Washington.
The rule change could boost US electric vehicle maker Tesla, which has been seeking to set up a wholly owned plant in Shanghai. Tesla chief Elon Musk said last month China’s auto rules created an uneven playing field.
China will also scrap foreign ownership limits in the ship and aircraft manufacturing industries in 2018, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said.