Guangdong's GDP growth decline weighs on region
The manufacturing powerhouse may need to change its export-driven growth model to climb out of an economic morass
He Hui Feng
The temperature climbed to 30 degrees Celsius in the Pearl River Delta, but despite the rising mercury, a chill swept across the region, known as the "world's factory", with the release of the latest economic data.
First quarter results showed weak economic output growth and rare declines in the region's exports.
Complicating matters, the results may have been skewed by the practice of exaggerating product shipments from the region to Hong Kong to gain from the so-called "interest rate carry trade". The practice came to light early last year when the mainland and Hong Kong released widely differing cross-border trade figures.
Guangdong's gross domestic product grew just 7.2 per cent in the first three months of the year, below an average nationwide rise of 7.4 per cent, according to the province's statistics bureau.
Earlier in the year, officials said they expected the regional economy to grow by 8.5 per cent in 2014.
Li Zhiguang, the owner of a garment business in Guangzhou, said his firm has posted declines in export value and profit this year.
"You see, in Guangdong, a migrant worker costs more than 3,000 yuan (HK$3,765) or even 4,000 a month, twice what they cost three or four years ago," said Li, whose firm makes underwear. "But the price of a bra… and other clothing made for export has remained almost the same in the past 20 years".
In the first two months, profit at large industrial enterprises grew by 7.5 per cent year-on-year to 55.88 billion yuan (HK$73.89 billion), compared with growth of 31.4 per cent during the period in 2013.
Growth in other sectors fell short of market expectations: fixed asset investment rose 17.3 per cent year-on-year to 383.69 billion yuan; retail sales grew 9.3 per cent to 665.84 billion yuan, while the consumer price index increased three per cent.
Guangdong accounts for nearly a quarter of China's foreign trade and its import-export performance in the first three months was dismal, with overseas trade plummeting 25.2 per cent in Q1. Exports declined by 22.4 percent year-on-year to 794.08 billion yuan, while imports decreased by 28.7 percent to 567.05 billion yuan.
In March, the province's trade value tumbled downward, witnessing a 38.6 per cent drop on an annualised basis, according to custom's data.
Economic anxiety has spread like a contagion among the Delta's factory owners as the export and import of manufactured goods (or processing trades), which accounts for more than 47.2 percent of the province's foreign trade, dipped 22.6 per cent.
Hit with rising labour costs and a trend that's witnessed the migration of factory jobs to the country's interior, Guangdong may also be suffering a crisis of confidence as it tries to adapt to changes in the market.
Factory owners "no longer invest in factories in Guangdong," said Li, the undergarment producer. "Now enterprisers like talking about spending money to invest [in] overseas properties."
"The latest figures made me pessimistic about the future of our manufacturing industry," he added.
Officials, meanwhile, are worried that the slowdown will derail their career advancement. Some are cracking down on the interest rate carry trade, where the violumes of products being exported to Hong Kong are exaggerated — in order to score political points rather than address more urgent economic issues.
China's Ministry of Commerce said fraudulent trades between Guangdong and Hong Kong in Q1 last year created artificially high export growth figures to Hong Kong year-on-year, the China Economic Weekly reported.
For example, in April 2013 goods worth HK$306 billion left Shenzhen bound for Hong Kong, but only HK$160 billion worth of goods actually arrived. Mainland companies are massively overstating the value of export shipments to take advantage of a profitable interest-rate carry trade.
Guangdong's 2013 trade figures were spectacular — and false. Mainland companies exaggerated the size of their export shipments in order to obtain letters of credit from onshore banks. The LOCs are used to secure foreign currency loans in Hong Kong, converting the proceeds into yuan, which is then funneled to the mainland and invested in wealth management products in the shadow banking market.
Officials now say the economic situation may not be as dire as current figures suggest; the illicit carry trade may have skewed data for Q1.