Fears China jobless rise will dent consumer spending

Slowdown in mainland manufacturing sparks debate over Beijing's bottom line for growth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 5:05am

The slowdown in the mainland's manufacturing sector has sparked concern a rise in unemployment would dent consumer spending that has helped insulate the world's second-biggest economy from the worst of an export-led downturn this year.

While official data showed the job market remains stable, a survey by a private firm found job expectations continue to fall, with weaker sentiment in the second-tier cities cooling labour demand.

During the course of a slowdown in economic growth, the biggest challenge would be from the job market

Consumers' perception about job prospects fell two points in the second quarter from the first, according to findings from Nielsen. Job expectations in second-tier cities sank to 51 from 62, the lowest in three quarters, the survey found.

An uncertain job situation may alarm policymakers who want to ensure a steady rise in individuals' income to bolster consumption while cutting reliance on exports and investment. Such a growth pattern is deemed more sustainable, less damaging to the environment and incurring less financial risk.

"During the course of a slowdown in economic growth, the biggest challenge would be from the job market," Xinhua said in a commentary on Sunday.

The article came after Premier Li Keqiang told provincial leaders recently that Beijing would avoid breaking lower limits in both growth and employment, sparking speculation about where the government's policy bottom-line lies. Gross domestic product growth eased in the second quarter to 7.5 per cent from 7.7 per cent in the first.

In an apparent attempt to clarify doubts, Xinhua said the government's lower limit for growth was 7.5 per cent this year, in line with the official target, but added that to ensure long-run growth until 2020, "any speed below the bottom line of 7 per cent is not allowed".

The commentary cited estimates from an unspecified "authoritative department" as saying that the country's economic growth cannot slide below 7.2 per cent if the government wants to keep the urban jobless rate at about 5 per cent. Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Lu Ting said policymakers had apparently made stabilising growth a higher priority than economic restructuring.

The jobless data was not reliable, which explained why GDP figures were a "relatively good" reference for policymakers to use, Lu said, saying the two measures were closely connected.

Lu expects Beijing to roll out measures that can both boost growth and restructure the economy, such as building urban infrastructure projects that improve the environment, constructing railways in poorer regions, and developing the information technology industry.

The country's official urban registered jobless rate has stayed at about 4.1 per cent in recent quarters.

Ma Jiantang, the chief of the National Bureau of Statistics, said last week a survey-based jobless rate stood at 5 per cent in medium to large-sized cities.

A Peking University study last year showed the urban jobless rate might be as high as 9.2 per cent.