By Kevin Yao
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's annual economic growth likely slowed to 7.2 percent in the fourth quarter, the weakest since the depths of the global crisis, a Reuters poll showed, which would keep pressure on policymakers to head off a sharper slowdown this year.
The expected slowdown in growth of the world's second-largest economy, from 7.3 percent in the June-September quarter, means full-year would undershoot the government's 7.5 percent target and mark the weakest expansion in 24 years.
Growth of 7.2 pct in October-December would be the weakest since Q1 2009, when the economy grew 6.6 percent as the worst of the global crisis passed.
Fourth-quarter GDP data will be announced on Jan. 20.
The poll of 31 economists showed bank lending, fixed-asset investment and factory output growth may have steadied in December, but factory price deflation likely worsened and consumer price inflation hovered near five-year lows.
"We expect the upcoming December data to show a still frail economy, tepid production momentum, and mounting deflationary pressures," economists at UBS wrote in a note.
Banks may have extended nearly 853 billion yuan ($137.3 billion) in new loans in December, flat from November's level, which showed a 56 percent jump from the previous month.
The People's Bank of China (PBOC) unexpectedly cut interest rates in November for the first time in more than two years to lower borrowing costs to support growth. Later, it loosened loan restrictions to encourage banks to step up lending.
In the poll, M2 money supply is seen growing 12.5 percent in December from a year earlier, up from November's 12.3 percent rise.
Fixed-asset investment, a key growth driver, probably grew 15.8 percent in the whole of 2014, matching the pace in the first 11 months as the government approves more investment projects to offset the impact from a cooling property market.
The National Development and Reform Commission, the nation's top planning agency, approved infrastructure projects with total investment value of 1.77 trillion yuan in 2014, with the bulk in the fourth quarter, according to Reuters calculations based on NDRC announcements.
But analysts say it could take quite some time before construction of planned railways, roads and other projects starts as local governments are burdened by piles of debt.
December factory output likely grew 7.4 percent from a year earlier, quickening slightly from 7.2 percent in November, when many polluting factories in north China were shut for a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Beijing.
The PBOC is widely expected to cut interest rates further or lower reserve requirement ratios (RRR) for all banks, although some analysts believe it may be pausing on policy easing to wait for recent actions to take effect and lift growth.
"The central bank needs time to observe economic operations before taking further easing measures, so the possibility of a near-term cut in interest rates or RRR is not big," Lin Hu, an economist in Beijing for Guosen Securities said in a note.
China's reform-minded leaders have shown greater tolerance for slower growth, but further slowdown in the economy could fuel job losses and undermine public support for changes.
A property slump is expected to last well into 2015, companies will continue to struggle to pay off debt and export demand may remain erratic, leaving the services sector as the economy's lone bright spot.
UBS expects China's GDP growth to slow further to 6.8 percent in 2015, and rising deflationary pressure will spur the central bank to cut benchmark lending rates by at least 50 basis points this year.
FACTORY PRICE DEFLATION
Highlighting deflationary risks, producer prices may have fallen 3.1 percent in December from a year earlier. That would extend to 34 months a streak of declines that has eroded corporate earnings. November saw a 2.7 percent slide.
Annual consumer inflation likely hovered near five-year lows, at 1.5 percent, in December, leaving some room for the central bank to loosen policy if needed.
Reflecting lackluster domestic demand, China's imports may have declined 7.4 percent in December from a year earlier, following a 6.7 percent drop in November.
Export growth likely accelerated to 6.8 percent in December from 4.7 percent in November. The December trade surplus could be around $50 billion, near record highs.
Retail sales, a key gauge of domestic consumption, were seen expanding 11.7 percent in December from a year earlier, steady from November, according to the poll.
(Additional reporting by China economics team and Shaloo Shrivastava in BENGALURU; Editing by Richard Borsuk)