China's Earliest Monthly Economic Indicators Flash Warning Sign

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China Outlook: Further Weakness in the Economy?
  • Minxin PMI declines, snapping two months of increases
  • Baidu index drops, MNI sentiment weakens as challenges mount

China’s economy is still showing a muted response to waves of monetary and fiscal easing as of the half-way mark for the last quarter of the year, some of the earliest indicators suggest.

A privately compiled purchasing managers’ index and a gauge based on search engine interest in small and medium-sized businesses deteriorated this month, while a sentiment indicator dropped sharply from October. Combined, the reports make gloomy reading ahead of official releases, the earliest of which will be manufacturing and services PMI reports due Dec. 1.

Six interest-rate cuts in a year and expedited fiscal spending have yet to revive growth as overcapacity and weakness in old drivers like manufacturing and residential construction weigh on the world’s second-biggest economy. If official data confirm the sluggishness, Premier Li Keqiang’s growth goal may be missed for a second-straight year.

Here’s a look at what the economy’s earliest tea leaves show:

Minxin PMI

The unofficial purchasing managers indexes for manufacturing and services sectors both declined, snapping increases in the two previous months.

The manufacturing PMI declined to 42.4 in November from 43.3 in October, while the non-manufacturing reading fell to 42.9 from 44.2, according to reports jointly compiled by China Minsheng Banking Corp. and the China Academy of New Supply-side Economics. Numbers below 50 signal deteriorating conditions.

"China’s economy hasn’t bottomed yet and downward pressures are mounting," Jia Kang, director of the Beijing-based academy and former head of the finance ministry’s research institute, wrote in an e-mail. "We expect authorities to step up growth stabilization measures."

The Minxin PMIs are based on a monthly survey covering more than 4,000 companies, about 70 percent of which are smaller enterprises. The private gauges have shown a more volatile picture than the official PMIs in the past year.

Baidu SME Index

An index based on search interest in the products and services of small- and medium-sized enterprises edged down this month, showing weaker momentum in SMEs, which contribute about 60 percent of China’s economy.

The preliminary reading of an index from Beijing-based Baidu Inc., which handles more than 6 billion searches a day, slipped to 98.2 this month from 98.4, the final reading of October. Readings below 100 signal deterioration.

Sub-indexes for sectors such as electronic engineering, commercial services and chemical raw materials declined from last month, while those for software and home appliances picked up.

MNI Business Sentiment Index

The gauge, released by Market News International in New York, slumped to 49.9, a five-month low, in November from 55.6 in October. It is based on a monthly poll of Chinese business executives at companies listed on either the Shanghai or Shenzhen stock exchanges.

The reading "suggests that growth momentum remains soft,” Nomura Holdings Inc. economists led by Zhao Yang in Hong Kong wrote in a note. "We continue to expect a moderate fiscal stimulus from the central government, with policy banks playing a critical role in financing. The People’s Bank of China will likely maintain an accommodative monetary policy stance, though the pace of easing may slow."

World Economics Sales Managers Index

Slightly better news: An index based on a monthly survey of sales managers for medium and large private sector companies was unchanged at 51.6 in November, according to report from London-based World Economics.

Yet reflecting the rebalancing theme that has marked much of China’s data this year, the manufacturing SMI declined slightly from the previous month, while the services SMI held up, showing a similar trend to official PMI reports.

“Services activity rose while the manufacturing sector fell slightly," Chief Executive Ed Jones wrote in a report on the research institute’s website. "The overall picture is still one of slow economic growth after the prolonged slowdown from mid-2014.”

Westpac-MNI Consumer Sentiment

It’s not all bad news. A consumer sentiment report produced by MNI and Westpac Banking Corp. released Wednesday showed an improvement to 113.1 in November, from 109.7 a month earlier. Readings on current and expected personal finances improved, as did gauges on business conditions for the next 12 months and next 5 years.

Consumers were also a rare bright spot in October’s official data, with retail sales growth rising while investment, industrial output and credit growth all remained sluggish.

Still, it’s important not to over-interpret movements in relatively new or volatile indexes, Bloomberg Chief Asia Economist Tom Orlik wrote in a report. Supportive monetary policy, aggressive fiscal policy and recovering auto sales offer reasons to "look past the early indicators and expect China’s growth to hold steady into early 2016," Orlik wrote.

— With assistance by Xiaoqing Pi

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