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Reading tea leaves for signs of China's recovery

David Dollar's picture

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What to make of it when, within a few hours last week, the statistical bureau depressed us with a 26% decline in exports for February and then elated us with a 27% increase in urban fixed asset investment? These two figures capture nicely the struggle that is going on within the Chinese economy.

We launched our China Quarterly report today with our take on how to reconcile the conflicting data. Clearly, the global economy is in very poor shape. Global GDP declined at an annualized rate of 5% in the fourth quarter of 2008, and global industrial production declined at a 20% rate. These are shocking numbers that those of us born after the 1930s have never seen. Naturally this has had a large effect on China, which is an open, export-oriented economy. China's seasonally adjusted monthly exports peaked at around $120 billion last fall, and then fell off a cliff – dropping by about one-third (see chart).

The other obvious area of weakness is the real estate sector. Even before the global crisis began to affect China, the problems of excessive price rises and over-building were apparent. In the first two months of 2009, real estate investment showed zero growth over the year before. So, two important sectors of the economy – real estate construction and exports have either zero or negative growth.

But it is not all bad news. The government's 4 trillion Yuan stimulus package is for real and is already having visible effect. Infrastructure investment is rising rapidly: railway investment, for example, is up more than 200% from last year. This has backward linkage to industries such as cement (real production up 17% in January-February from the year before). Real retail sales have held up quite well (up 15% in January-February from the year before) indicating that many households are spending the large increases in income they have seen in recent years.

We feel that these data tell a complex but coherent story. Export-oriented manufacturing and real estate construction are in decline, while at the same time there is rapid growth in infrastructure investment, manufacturing industries tied to that, and household consumption of both manufacturing items and services.

Click chart to see larger version.
For me, the best "bottom line" measure on a monthly basis is real growth of industrial value added. This showed a 3.8% increase in January-February compared to the year before. Only a year ago this measure was growing about 15% (see chart). The 3.8% growth rate combines the bad news in the export sectors with the good news in the manufacturing sectors linked to infrastructure or household consumption. Since industry is about half the economy and January-February is two-thirds of the first quarter, this number is a kind of preview of the first quarter GDP data. First quarter GDP growth may be somewhat better than this because we are hoping that services are growing faster than industry now and that the industrial economy has already hit bottom and is accelerating over time.

For the same reasons, we are projecting 6.5% GDP growth for China in 2009 as a whole. We see the first half of 2009 as the worst of the crisis, for China and for the world. There is likely to be some pick-up in exports and real estate investment from the current depressed levels. Meanwhile, the stimulus package will continue to have effect.

The 6.5% projection is a one percentage point markdown from our estimate last November. At the same time, the World Bank has marked down its forecast for global GDP two and a half percentage points, from a 1.0% gain to a 1.5% decline. So, we remain relatively optimistic about China, projecting it to grow 8 percentage points faster than the world average. Whether China can grow at 6.5% or better depends not just on the state of the world but also on China's policies. In the next few days my colleague Louis Kuijs will provide some thoughts about China's policies in the current environment.


Submitted by Anonymous on
Figures , statistics , percentages , ..... , the way we measure - rate outcomes , predictions .. Who is making all these ? non-governmental , independent bodies , the contrary , the exact opposite , that's a thought which should make us all think , we are floating on 'their' reality in the land of figures , statistics , percentages , the ' ups and downs reality' given in by the state of the current situation . Highly likely that all isn't a true reflection , which will , under the current circumstances, never come on the (to) the table . ....

Submitted by Roshni on
Since last few year the global crisis affect the global capital of the world..but as the china tries to overcome this major issue by manargical way is really the population demand major support from the finance back :it is not easy to work faster on it.Real estate also major factor for this globlation....the right step to maintain global vision toward the future..

Submitted by JH on
Just a brief thanks to the World Bank for allowing it's immensely gifted staff to write blogs and allow for dialogue. Welcome to 2.0.

Submitted by All Roads on
David. A few questions for you that are on my mind in general, and I hope you can address per the above: 1) Using the 3.8% as an indicator of GDP for 1st quarter GDP, what are the growth rates you see as the minimum necessary in 3rd/ 4th to make it to 6.5% 2) Using the current logistics market, and import numbers, as an indicator of orders going forward, should we be expecting a 2nd quarter drop vs first quarter? R

Good questions. Because of Spring Festival China only does 20% of its GDP in the first quarter, and traditionally does 33% in the fourth quarter. That seasonality will help the annual number in a year in which we expect first quarter to be the worst followed by gradual pickup. If the first quarter yoy GDP growth is only 3.8% then frankly it is hard to get to 6.5% for the year. It would require the quarterly growth rate to accelerate to 8% (yoy) by the fourth quarter. But I did note in my blog that we are hoping that first quarter will be a bit better than 3.8% if services are growing faster than industry and if March is better than previous months. Our forecast is not formally based on an aggregation of quarterly forecasts, but as an example: if quarterly growth were 5.5% in the first two quarters, then 7.0% in the third and fourth would get you close to 6.5% for the year. On the second question, it is possible that second quarter will be worse than the first but I don't think it's the most likely scenario. I think that the stimulus package will have increasing effect over time. So, if exports stabilize at the new, lower level then second quarter should already show improvement. If second quarter trade is even worse than the first, however, then growth would probably be flat as once again weak export sector is balanced by some pockets of strength closely related to the stimulus package.

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