BEIJING (Reuters) – China grew at its slowest pace since the global financial crisis in the September quarter and risks missing its official target for the first time in 15 years, adding to concerns the world’s second-largest economy is becoming a drag on global growth.
A pick-up in factory output and government confidence that the labour market remains stable were offset by further slowing in the property sector, and economists remained divided on whether or not authorities would step in with major stimulus measures such as interest rate cuts.
China’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 7.3 per cent in the third quarter from a year earlier, official data showed on Tuesday, the weakest rate since the first quarter of 2009.
That was slightly above the 7.2 per cent forecast by analysts but slower than 7.5 per cent in the second quarter, and even then some economists were surprised.
“It’s hard to square the GDP print with the industrial production numbers for the quarter,” said Andrew Polk, economist at the Conference Board in Beijing, one of the more pessimistic research houses on the Chinese economy.
“There are confusing things going on. You have credit growing at the slowest pace since 2002. You have real estate investment slowing on a monthly basis and you have industrial production averaging slightly above 8 per cent on a quarterly basis, slightly down from Q2. With that being the most reliable component of GDP on a quarterly basis, 7.3 per cent seems a bit high to me.”
The data added to expectations that growth will come in below the official 2014 target of 7.5 per cent, which would be the first miss since 1999.
Premier Li Keqiang has stated repeatedly that authorities will tolerate growth slightly below target as they try to reshape the economy so it is driven more by domestic consumption and less by exports and investment.
Li has indicated that the leadership’s bottom line is maintaining employment to ward off social unrest, a policy priority. The government has said growth of 7.2 per cent is needed to keep employment steady.
“Although economic growth has slowed in the third quarter, our employment and inflation situation are generally stable, which means the economy is still operating in a reasonable range,” statistics bureau spokesperson Sheng Laiyun said.
Private and official business surveys have suggested pressure on employment for much of the year, though there have been no reports of widespread layoffs.
A weakening property market continued to weigh on broader activity in the third quarter, with revenue from property sales revenue and new construction tumbling in the first nine months of 2014, blunting the impact of earlier stimulus measures and a long-awaited pick-up in exports.
“The weakest part of China’s economy is still the property sector,” said Wang Tao, analyst at UBS in Hong Kong.
“The government has relaxed some controls recently and property sales may pick up in the fourth quarter. However, we may not see improvement in sectors like heavy industry and we expect the economy to continue to slow down.”