China Rebound Gets More Lopsided as Factories Hum, Shoppers Lag

China Rebound Gets More Lopsided as Factories Hum, Shoppers Lag

China’s retail sales grew at the slowest pace since 2022 while industrial production accelerated, highlighting the unbalanced recovery of the world’s second-largest economy.

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(Bloomberg) — China’s retail sales grew at the slowest pace since 2022 while industrial production accelerated, highlighting the unbalanced recovery of the world’s second-largest economy.

Consumer spending expanded 2.3% in April, the National Bureau of Statistics said Friday. That’s down from 3.1% in March and worse than the 3.7% predicted by economists in a Bloomberg survey. Industrial output rose a faster-than-expected 6.7%.

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China’s export-driven manufacturing sector has powered the world’s No. 2 economy this year, as a drawn-out housing crisis weighs on domestic demand. Exports returned to growth in April, but consumer prices remained sluggish. Credit shrank for the first time since 2005, underscoring weak sentiment.

“My biggest takeaway is that China is having a two-speed recovery,” said Larry Hu, head of China economics at Macquarie Group Ltd. He said the mixed data may spur the government to step up support on the margin but won’t lead to any major shift.

Chinese stocks wiped out earlier advances after the data release. The onshore benchmark CSI 300 Index traded down 0.3% and the Hang Seng China Enterprises Index fell 0.1%.

Other data published Friday also showed a diverging economy. Fixed-asset investment grew 4.2% in the first four months of year, a mild slowdown from the previous numbers. But investment in property development plunged 9.8%.

The urban jobless rate was 5%, down from 5.2% as of the end of March.

“Overall the economy operated stably in April,” NBS spokeswoman Liu Aihua said in a briefing, attributing the slowing indicators to base and seasonal effects. “New growth drivers are maintaining a fast growth and the economy continued its recovering and improving trend.”

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The bureau cited the “increasingly complex, grim and uncertain” external environment among challenges ahead and called for the early implementation of existing macroeconomic policies.

The anemic consumption growth may add urgency to Beijing’s plan to encourage companies and households to upgrade their machines and appliances. Authorities began to roll out modest subsidies late last month across cities, including some to help fund car purchases.

“The effect of the new-for-old program for consumer goods is yet to kick in,” said Bruce Pang, chief economist for Greater China at Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., adding that the uncertain economic outlook may deter spending. “In general, consumers’ expectations are yet to turn the corner.”

Auto sales were one of the biggest drags on spending, sliding 5.6% from a year earlier in the deepest single-month drop in almost two years. China’s carmakers are engaged in a price war that may be encouraging consumers to delay purchases.

Sales of clothing, shoes, hats and textile declined 2% from a year earlier, the first monthly contraction since the end of 2022. 

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President Xi Jinping’s government has signaled more support is coming. Beijing will start selling its 1 trillion yuan ($138 billion) ultra-long special sovereign bonds Friday, which could fund infrastructure spending critical to growth. That’s spurred expectations of monetary easing to help banks buy the notes. 

China is also mulling a plan for local governments to snap up millions of unsold homes, Bloomberg earlier reported. Top leaders previously hinted at more stimulus for the property sector, vowing to study measures to reduce inventory.

“Domestically, property remains the weakest link,” said Raymond Yeung, Chief Greater China economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. “Obviously, the political leadership addresses the problem by digesting the inventory. How much the efforts will stimulate household appetite remains questionable.”

Other risks remain. The Communist Party’s focus on ramping up China’s clean energy sectors has stoked tensions overseas, with the US and European Union complaining a deluge of cheap goods are threatening jobs in their domestic markets. The Biden administration has unveiled a 100% tariff on electric vehicles.

(Updates with more details and comments)

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