China economy

China’s manufacturing growth cools in July, but construction continues to boom

Low foreign demand blamed for weaker figures, but government spending helps shore up figures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 July, 2017, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 July, 2017, 10:59pm

Growth in China’s manufacturing sector cooled slightly in July as foreign demand for Chinese goods slackened, but a government-led infrastructure push kept construction humming and helped prop up the world’s second-largest economy.

The official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) held above the 50-point mark that separates growth from contraction for the 12th straight month, as China poured funds into a construction boom that has fuelled demand for everything from cement to steel and other building materials.

But the broad consensus among China watchers is that economic growth will cool in coming months as a government crackdown on financial risks raises borrowing costs for businesses and squeezes profits.

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The official PMI stood at 51.4 in July, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Monday, down from the previous month’s 51.7 and a touch below the 51.6 forecast in a Reuters poll.

Export orders, which helped Chinese factories stage a strong recovery in June, ebbed in July, with manufacturers reporting slackening foreign demand. Overall factory production also expanded less quickly than in June.

New export orders slipped to 50.9 in July from 52 in June, helping drag the index for overall factory orders to 52.8 from 53.1.

“The breakdown suggests weaker foreign demand is partly to blame – new export orders fell by a larger margin than overall new orders,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, a Singapore-based China economist at Capital Economics.

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While China’s foreign trade faces a mostly positive environment in the second half of the year, uncertainties still exist, commerce vice-minister Qian Keming said in Beijing on Monday.

The United States and China failed earlier this month to agree on major new steps to reduce the US trade deficit with China, casting doubt over President Donald Trump’s economic and security relations with Beijing.

Domestically, the construction sector remained robust as the government stepped up investment in infrastructure projects. Separate data showed China’s steel sector in rude health, expanding in July at its fastest pace since April 2016.

The PMI reading on the construction sector showed a solid pickup to 62.5 in July from 61.4 in June.

Raw material inventories eased just slightly in July, according to the survey, while imports were almost steady and suggested stable domestic demand.

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Activity at large factories gathered steam in July, with the sub-index for big manufacturers rising to 52.9 from 52.7.

Cooler months

A year-long construction boom helped China post stronger-than-expected economic growth of 6.9 per cent in the first half of 2017.

But higher bank funding costs seen in the first half will filter through into the real economy eventually, while the red-hot property market moderates after waves of government cooling measures.

The increase in borrowing costs is expected to hit smaller firms harder. Indeed, a reading on medium-size and small manufacturers showed activity contracted in July.

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Growth in the services sector also cooled in the month, falling to 54.5 from a three-month high of 54.9 in June, another official NBS survey found.

China’s leaders are counting on growth in services and consumption to rebalance their economic growth model from its heavy reliance on investment and exports.

While the PMI data on Monday hinted at a slowdown, Beijing is still expected to meet its economic growth target of about 6.5 per cent for the full year – encouraging news for President Xi Jinping ahead of a major leadership reshuffle in the autumn.

Markets will now look to the private Caixin/Markit PMI manufacturing survey for July, which focuses more on small and medium-size firms. It is due to be released on Tuesday.

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While economists caution against reading too much into the official PMI figures, which can be volatile, ANZ analysts said the infrastructure boost has more to run.

“The slowdown in July PMIs is only temporary, and we may see a rebound in upcoming months. The continuous ascent in prices suggests to us a longer industrial recovery,” said Betty Rui Wang, ANZ’s senior China economist.