China’s Economic Data Show Weakest Start Since 2009

March 10 (Bloomberg) — China’s industrial output had the weakest start to a year since 2009 and lending and retail sales growth slowed, toughening challenges for a new leadership that wants to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Production increased 9.9 percent in the first two months and retail sales rose 12.3 percent, government data showed March 9, trailing economists’ estimates. New local-currency loans in February fell to 620 billion yuan ($99.6 billion), the People’s Bank of China said yesterday, lower than the estimates of 27 out of 28 analysts in a Bloomberg News survey.

Strengthening U.S. demand after the unemployment rate fell to a four-year low may help incoming Premier Li Keqiang achieve the 7.5 percent expansion in gross domestic product sought by policy makers entering the final week of their meeting at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. China’s exports jumped 23.6 percent in the first two months of the year, the most for a January-February period since 2010.

“Exports are still an important growth driver for China so the pickup should make policy makers less concerned about the disappointment in some of the other indicators,” said Louis Kuijs, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Plc in Hong Kong. “When push comes to shove, they know the recipe to kick-start growth, so if things do slow down to a rate they aren’t comfortable with, they can encourage investment.”

At the same time, February credit data indicate the central bank may be working to contain the expansion in lending and aggregate financing that started last year, said Kuijs, who previously worked as an economist for the World Bank in Beijing.

Increasing Optimism

New local-currency loans in February trailed the 700 billion yuan median estimate in a Bloomberg survey and were lower than the 710.7 billion yuan in the same month last year and the 1.07 trillion yuan figure in January. Aggregate financing, a broader measure of credit, fell to 1.07 trillion yuan last month from a record 2.54 trillion yuan the previous month, PBOC data showed.

U.S. stocks have risen 8.8 percent this year, compared with a 2.2 percent gain in the Chinese benchmark index, as optimism increases that the world’s biggest economy is responding to an unprecedented monetary stimulus. In China, the decline in four February purchasing managers’ indexes, and official data released over the past week, are raising concerns that a recovery that started in the fourth quarter may be peaking even as house-price gains accelerate and inflation risks increase.

Spending Crackdown

The growth in January-February retail sales was below the lowest economist projection of 13.8 percent and was the smallest for that period since 2004. The moderation follows a crackdown by new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping on lavish spending by government officials and state-owned companies, part of efforts to curb corruption and waste.

Shares of Kweichow Moutai Co. (600519), maker of the eponymous high- end white spirit, have dropped 19 percent since Xi took power on Nov. 15, compared with a 14 percent gain in the Shanghai Composite Index.

The increase in factory output compared with the 10.6 percent median estimate in a Bloomberg survey. The statistics bureau doesn’t break out figures for January and February retail sales and industrial output in an attempt to smooth distortions caused by the timing of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Fixed-asset investment excluding rural areas in the first two months of the year rose 21.2 percent, against a median economist estimate of 20.7 percent and a 20.6 percent pace for the whole of 2012.

Inflation Worry

Consumer prices climbed a more-than-estimated 3.2 percent in February from a year earlier. Standard Chartered Plc estimates inflation will average 4 percent this year, compared with the government’s target of 3.5 percent.

“From a monetary policy perspective, by mid-2013, the inflation issue should begin to move up policy makers’ list of things to worry about,” Li Wei, a Shanghai-based economist with Standard Chartered, said in March 9 note. Li forecasts the central bank will raise benchmark interest rates once in the fourth quarter by 25 basis points as the CPI rises above 5 percent.

China’s economic growth slowed for seven quarters before recovering to 7.9 percent in the final three months of 2012, led by government-directed spending on infrastructure. The central bank also allowed expansion in credit in the less-regulated shadow banking sector.

The rebound may accelerate to 8.2 percent in the first quarter before slowing to 8 percent in the last three months of the year, according to median estimates in Bloomberg surveys last month.

Policy Dilemma

At the same time, the PBOC has flagged growing inflation and financial risks since December and the government stepped up efforts to curb resurgent home prices on March 1, ordering higher down payments and interest rates for some mortgages and implementation of a 20 percent capital gains tax.

“Policy makers face a dilemma as growth is weakening yet inflationary pressure keeps building,” said Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Hong Kong. “The government will eventually have to tighten policy to contain inflation but in the short term, the next several months, the government may put policy on hold to observe how growth and inflation move and fine-tune accordingly.”