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China’s slowdown looms just as the world looks for growth
[BEIJING] In the vast metropolis of Chongqing in western China, three huge Ford Motor assembly plants have slowed to a fraction of their earlier pace.
In the eastern province of Jiangsu, hundreds of chemical factories have closed.
In Guangdong province in the southeast, factories have idled workers in droves.
China's huge economy, a major driver of global growth, is cooling just when the world needs its spark. Data released by Beijing in recent months shows softer investment, unprofitable factories and consumers who are no longer so quick to open their wallets.
It is happening at a difficult time. The broader world outlook is beginning to dim. The US economy, which has powered ahead in recent years with strong growth and low unemployment, is showing some signs of a slowdown and is facing higher short-term interest rates that could act as a brake. Europe's resurgence is beginning to show its age, too, with even Germany's industrial engine starting to sputter.
In the past, China has helped the world out of such weak spots, most notably during the global financial crisis. But this time, its economy is showing pronounced weakness.
Car sales have plunged in China since last summer. Smartphone sales are falling. The real estate market has stagnated, with deeply indebted developers forced to pay steep interest rates to roll over their debts. And trade frictions with the West, coupled with tough policies from Beijing toward foreign investors, have made Chinese and foreign companies alike warier of further investment in China.
"European investment in China is going down," Cecilia Malmström, the European Union's commissioner of trade, said during an interview in Washington. "That is more because it is becoming increasingly complicated to do business there, with the forced technology transfer, with the lack of transparency, discrimination as compared to Chinese companies, with the massive subsidies of state-owned companies."
For the heads of state and corporate leaders gathering this week in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, the Chinese economy could be the most pressing issue, even among the trade fights and political uncertainty plaguing the rest of the world.
Previous slowdowns in China, like the one in 2015 and 2016, unnerved investors and global business leaders alike, setting off worries that multinational companies would lose profits from their Chinese subsidiaries, or that Chinese companies would dump their surplus production on world markets at very low prices.
Apple surprised markets this month when it warned of weaker-than-expected demand for its iPhones in China. Ford Motor cut output at its Chongqing joint venture by 70 per cent in November, in what Ford says was a move to reduce inventories of unsold cars. Chemical industry experts said that mostly Chinese-owned chemical factories in Jiangsu had been shutting down because of weak demand and stricter environmental enforcement.
The question now is to what extent nervous business leaders elsewhere will postpone investment as China slows, and how many investors will dump their shareholdings.
"The global economy and financial markets are incredibly sensitive to China's growth and currency outlook," said Robin Brooks, chief economist at the Washington-based Institute of International Finance. "The immediate financial linkages are relatively modest, but they are swamped by sentiment channels."
The global impact of the Chinese slowdown underway could be limited if Beijing decides to borrow and spend its way into more growth. Already this month, China has issued a series of announcements approving six municipal subway construction projects and three new intercity rail lines, at a combined cost of US$148 billion.
"The weaker the data gets, the more confident we get that they'll tip a lot of stimulus into keeping the economy moving," said Michael Blythe, chief economist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in Sydney.
Many of the biggest new construction projects are in China's western regions, said Wang Min, chairman of Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group, a state-owned giant. The projects have been good for his company, China's largest producer of huge earth-moving equipment, and its orders have soared in recent months.
But linking together towns in sparsely populated areas of mountains and deserts is expensive. It adds large sums to China's already very high levels of debt. And the investment may produce scant new economic activity to pay off that extra debt.
Previously accumulated debt lies at the heart of a one-two punch that has laid China's overall economy low in recent months.
Vice Premier Liu He promised at Davos a year ago that China would rein in the growth of credit within three years. Chinese officials were confident at the time that they could head off a trade war with the United States.
They set about putting stringent limits on the country's extensive shadow banking networks. Those networks had been providing a gusher of loans to the country's small and midsize enterprises, which China's big, state-owned banks have long neglected in favour of lending to state-owned enterprises.
But by the end of April, as the economy started slowing, Chinese officials started to say that three years was not enough time. As credit dried up and many private sector businesses started running low on cash, top regulators expressed worry at a Shanghai financial conference in June that they might have already gone too far.
At the same time, momentum was building in Beijing to extend the influence of the Communist Party and state-owned enterprises, mainly at the expense of the private sector. The private sector is responsible for most job creation in China, and the rhetoric from Beijing further scared investors.
Less than a month after the Shanghai conference, the trade war began in earnest. President Donald Trump imposed the first of three tranches of tariffs on imports from China. Corporate executives say that by the time the third tranche hit in late September, consumer confidence was crumbling. Purchases of big-ticket goods, especially cars, fell fast.
Most economists are predicting that the first quarter of this year will be weak in China. Many are predicting that the second will be, too.
But quite a few say they still have confidence in China's consistent, four-decade track record of pulling itself out of slumps quickly. Chinese officials have put new emphasis in recent weeks on rebuilding confidence. And they are at least trying to reassure private companies that the government will not favour state-owned enterprises over them.
"As long as we can create a level playing field," said Ma Jiantang, a senior economic adviser to China's Cabinet, "private companies will surely succeed."