Trade truce boosts China’s hopes after weakest growth in 29 years

China’s economy weakened to its slowest pace in three decades in 2019 as weaker domestic demand and trade tensions with the US took a heavy toll on exports and factory output, official data showed. (AFP)
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Updated 18 January 2020

Trade truce boosts China’s hopes after weakest growth in 29 years

  • US deal revives business confidence with latest data showing surprise acceleration in industrial output and investment

BEIJING: China’s economic growth cooled to its weakest in nearly 30 years in 2019 amid a bruising trade war with the US, and more stimulus is expected this year as Beijing tries to boost sluggish investment and demand.

But data on Friday also showed the world’s second-largest economy ended the rough year on a somewhat firmer note as a trade truce revived business confidence and earlier growth boosting measures finally appeared to be taking hold.

As expected, China’s growth slowed to 6.1 percent last year, from 6.6 percent in 2018, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed. Though still strong by global standards, and within the government’s target range, it was the weakest expansion since 1990.

This year is crucial for the ruling Communist Party to fulfill its goal of doubling gross domestic product (GDP) and incomes in the decade to 2020, and turning China into a “moderately prosperous” nation.

Analysts believe that long-term target would need growth this year to remain around 6 percent, though top officials have warned the economy may face even greater pressure than in 2019.

More recent data, along with optimism over a Phase 1 US-China trade deal signed on Wednesday, have raised hopes that the economy may be bottoming out.

Fourth-quarter GDP rose 6 percent from a year earlier, steadying from the third quarter, though still the weakest in nearly three decades. And December industrial output, investment and retail sales all rose more than expected after an improved showing in November.

Policy sources have told Reuters that Beijing plans to set a lower growth target of around 6 percent this year from last year’s 6-6.5 percent, relying on increased infrastructure spending to ward off a sharper slowdown. Key targets are due to be announced in March.

On a quarterly basis, the economy grew 1.5 percent in October-December, also the same pace as the previous three months.

“We expect China’s growth rate will come further down to below 6 percent” in the coming year, said Masaaki Kanno, chief economist at Sony Financial Holdings in Tokyo.

“The Chinese economy is unlikely to fall abruptly because of ... government policies, but at the same time the trend of a further slowdown of the economy will remain unchanged.”

December data released along with GDP showed a surprising acceleration in industrial output and a more modest pick-up in investment growth, while retail sales were solid.

Industrial output grew by 6.9 percent from a year earlier, the strongest pace in nine months, while retail sales rose 8 percent. Fixed-asset investment rose
5.4 percent for the full year, but growth had plumbed record lows in autumn.

Easing trade tensions have made manufacturers more optimistic about the business outlook, analysts said, though many of the tit-for-tat tariffs both sides imposed during the trade war remain in place.

“Despite the recent uptick in activity, we think it is premature to call the bottom of the current economic cycle,” Julian
Evans-Pritchard and Martin Rasmussen at Capital Economics said in a note.

“External headwinds should ease further in the coming quarters thanks to the ‘Phase One’ trade deal and a recovery in global growth. But we think this will be offset by a renewed slowdown in domestic demand, triggering further monetary easing by the People’s Bank.”

Among other key risks this year, infrastructure — a key part of Beijing’s stabilization strategy — has remained stubbornly weak.

Infrastructure investment grew just 3.8 percent in 2019, decelerating from 4 percent in January-November, despite sharply higher local government bond issuance and other policy measures.

“This shows that local governments continued to face funding constraints,” said Tommy Xie, China economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore.

Some analysts are also worried about signs of cooling in
the housing market, a key economic driver.

Property investment growth hit a two-year low in December even as it grew at a solid 9.9 percent pace in 2019. Property sales fell 0.1 percent, the first annual decline in five years.

Beijing has worked for years to keep speculation and home price rises in check, and officials vowed last year they would not use the property market as a form of short-term stimulus.

China will roll out more support measures this year as the economy faces further pressure, Ning Jizhe, head of the Statistical bureau told a news conference.

Ning noted that per capital GDP in China had surpassed $10,000 for the first time last year. But analysts believe more painful reforms are needed to generate additional growth.

Beijing has been relying on a mix of fiscal and monetary steps to weather the current downturn, cutting taxes and allowing local governments to sell huge amounts of bonds to fund infrastructure projects.

Banks also have been encouraged to lend more, especially to small firms, with new yuan loans hitting a record 16.81 trillion yuan ($2.44 trillion) in 2019.

The central bank has cut banks’ reserve requirement ratios (RRR) — the amount of cash that banks must hold as reserves — eight times since early 2018, most recently this month. China has also seen modest cuts in some lending rates.

Analysts polled by Reuters expect further cuts in both RRR and key interest rates this year.

But Chinese leaders have repeatedly pledged they will not embark on massive stimulus like that during the 2008-09 global crisis, which quickly juiced growth rates but left a mountain of debt.

Containing financial system risks will remain a high priority for policymakers this year. Corporate bond defaults hit a new record last year, while state-linked firms had to step in to rescue several troubled smaller banks.

Even with additional stimulus and assuming the trade truce holds, economists polled by Reuters expect China’s growth will cool this year to 5.9 percent.


New emissions blow for VW as German court backs damages claims

Updated 26 May 2020

New emissions blow for VW as German court backs damages claims

  • Scandal has already cost firm more than €30 billion; ruling serves as template for about 60,000 cases

KARLSRUHE, Germany: Volkswagen must pay compensation to owners of vehicles with rigged diesel engines in Germany, a court ruled on Monday, dealing a fresh blow to the automaker almost 5 years after its emissions scandal erupted.

The ruling by Germany’s highest court for civil disputes, which will allow owners to return vehicles for a partial refund of the purchase price, serves as a template for about 60,000 lawsuits that are still pending with lower German courts.

Volkswagen admitted in September 2015 to cheating in emissions tests on diesel engines, a scandal which has already cost it more than €30 billion ($33 billion) in regulatory fines and vehicle refits, mostly in the US.

US authorities banned the affected cars after the cheat software was discovered, triggering claims for compensation.

But in Europe vehicles remained on the roads, leading Volkswagen to argue compensation claims there were without merit. European authorities instead forced the company to update its engine control software and fined it for fraud and administrative lapses.

Volkswagen said on Monday it would work urgently with motorists on an agreement that would see them hold on to the vehicles for a one-off compensation payment.

It did not give an estimate of how much the ruling by the German federal court, the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH), might cost it.

Volkswagen shares were 0.5 percent lower. The BGH’s presiding judge had signaled earlier this month he saw grounds for compensation.

Costs mount

“The verdict by the BGH draws a final line. It creates clarity on the BGH’s views on the underlying questions in the diesel proceedings for most of the 60,000 cases still pending,” Volkswagen said.

A lower court in the city of Koblenz had previously ruled the owner of a VW Sharan minivan had suffered pre-meditated damage, entitling him to reimbursement minus a discount for the mileage the motorist had already
benefited from.

The court at the time said he should be awarded €25,600 for the used-car purchase he made for €31,500 in 2014.

“We have in principle confirmed the verdict from the Koblenz upper regional court,” said BGH presiding federal judge Stephan Seiters.

Volkswagen had petitioned for the ruling to be quashed altogether by the higher court, while the plaintiff had appealed to have the deduction removed.

A Volkswagen spokesman said that outside Germany, more than 100,000 claims for damages were still pending, of which 90,000 cases were in Britain.

The carmaker also said it had paid out a total of €750 million to more than 200,000 separate claimants in Germany who had opted against individual claims and instead joined a class action lawsuit brought by a German consumer group.

The carmaker said last month it would set aside a total of 830 million for that deal.

In a separate court, Volkswagen agreed last week to pay €9 million to end proceedings against its chairman and chief executive, who were accused of withholding market-moving information before the emissions scandal came to light.