What to Watch in China’s Economic Data as Recovery Loses Steam

·4 min read

(Bloomberg) -- China’s economy likely grew rapidly in April, though key data this week may obscure how much momentum the recovery is starting to lose.

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Bustling shopping centers, open factories and accelerated investment: The world’s second-largest economy looked a lot different last month than it did a year earlier, when stringent Covid Zero controls hampered activity across the country and led Shanghai to lock down.

Official data due Tuesday is expected to show improvement from the prior year for China’s industrial output, retail sales and fixed-asset investment. But the comparison to 2022 also means those figures will be distorted, leaving several economists turning to month-on-month changes as they search for a more accurate gauge of the economic rebound.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics is expected to release April economic data Tuesday at 10 a.m. local time. Here’s what to watch:

Industrial Output

Industrial production likely spiked in April. Economists polled by Bloomberg expect output to have jumped 10.8% from a year ago, much stronger than March’s 3.9% expansion.

The month-on-month figures may show a much gloomier picture. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economists project industrial production declined 1.3% in April from March as steel demand cooled and manufacturing surveys suggested a contraction.

Another way to account for last year’s low base would be to look at the two-year compound annual growth rate, Citigroup Inc. economists led by Yu Xiangrong wrote in a note earlier this month. They see output increasing 3.8% in April if that method is used, moderating from March’s 4.4% growth.

Consumer Spending

The biggest headline increase is likely to come from retail sales, which economists forecast skyrocketed 22% in April from the previous year.

While Shanghai’s lockdown helped drive that number higher, consumer spending on services has been strong throughout the recovery so far as people dine out more and travel again.

Spending on goods, however, may have lagged. The property market has shown signs of weakness after a brief pickup earlier this year, curbing demand for products such as furniture and home appliances.

The auto market has also struggled to repeat last year’s boom as a price war squeezes carmakers, weighing on month-on-month sales. On a monthly basis, the Goldman Sachs economists estimate that overall retail sales growth may have fallen to 0.3% last month from 2.9% in March.

Data published last week underscored concerns about a waning recovery, as consumer prices barely grew in April while new borrowing slumped.

That’s fueled a debate about whether the People’s Bank of China will ease monetary policy. Some economists argue the central bank has scope to act this year — including cutting its benchmark policy rate — now that the US Federal Reserve seems likely to pause hiking.

Economists expect the PBOC to take a wait-and-see approach for now. On Monday, the central bank kept the borrowing rate on its one-year medium-term lending facility unchanged, though they injected more funds than expected.

Fixed-asset Investment

Fixed-asset investment is forecast to have risen 5.7% in the first four months of the year from the same period in 2022, the Bloomberg survey shows. That would indicate a pickup from the first quarter.

Infrastructure investment likely remained resilient as local governments issued special bonds to help activity, with sales of new notes in April more than doubling from a year ago.

Those bond issuances have been front-loaded toward the beginning of the year, though, meaning government spending on infrastructure may soon let up. More than 40% of this year’s quota of special local bonds has already been used.

“With the services-led recovery well underway, the infrastructure push could start to unwind,” the Citigroup economists said in the note.

Manufacturing investment is expected to post “robust” year-on-year growth thanks to the low base for comparison in 2022, and property investment may have turned ”slightly less negative,” UBS Group AG economists including Wang Tao wrote in a report this month.

Unemployment Rate

The overall urban jobless rate will likely reach 5.3% in April, unchanged from March, according to the Bloomberg poll.

More attention will probably focus on whether there’s a further uptick in the youth unemployment rate, which hit 19.6% in March — near a record high.

Beijing is clearly concerned about pressure on the jobs market for young people. At a recent national meeting about the problem, Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang called for greater efforts to help college graduates find jobs or start their own businesses. He asked state-owned enterprises to hire at least as many graduates this year as they did in 2022.

Last month, the State Council, China’s cabinet, published a detailed plan to promote employment. Measures included providing subsidies to employers that recruit new graduates and young people who are struggling to find work.

--With assistance from James Mayger.

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