Amid China's economic woes, shipyards there have laid off thousands… (David Pierson, Los Angeles…)
BEIJING —China's economy appears to be weakening more rapidly than official statistics would suggest, raising fears of a painful slowdown that could be felt around the globe.
Second-quarter gross domestic product statistics to be released this week are expected to show growth of around 7.5% compared with the same period last year, according to analysts' estimates. That would be the slowest pace since the depths of the global financial crisis. But government data are widely believed to understate the extent of China's woes.
Other indicators point to a much sharper decline, economists said. Record amounts of coal and iron ore are piling up at depots, signaling waning demand for electricity and building materials. Excavators and other heavy equipment are being idled or sold at deep discounts as housing construction has stalled. The demand for diesel, needed to power those machines, has been flat for six months. Shipyards have laid off thousands of workers and half-built vessels have been left to rust.
On Sunday, Premier Wen Jiabao warned of "huge downward pressure" on the world's No. 2 economy, one of the strongest admissions yet that China's top leaders are worried about the recent deceleration. The country's central bank last week unexpectedly cut bank lending rates in a bid to stimulate lending. China's trade minister said last month that the country would be "lucky" to meet its growth targets for imports and exports this year, describing the environment as "grim."
Industrial data point to a decline that government growth figures wouldn't fully reflect, according to economists who are downgrading their forecasts. Local officials throughout China are suspected of padding growth estimates to meet targets set by Beijing to boost their chances for promotion.
"Recent economic data, including steel production and corporate profits, have continued to weaken visibly," said Yiping Huang, an economist for Barclays. "There is a renewed perception that the real economy is much weaker than is suggested by official statistics."
Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturing activity has been slowing, a sign of slackening demand from Europe and the U.S., China's biggest markets for factory goods.
Alan Wang, a footwear trader in the southern city of Shenzhen, said sales this year are down a third. His mostly French and Spanish customers are taking as long as four months to pay their bills. Wang said one of his local suppliers has already closed. Another is on the brink after a U.S. buyer filed for bankruptcy and couldn't pay for a $1.1-million order for tennis shoes.
"This year is really bad compared with last year," said Wang, managing director of Charmy Shoes. "I think China needs another big stimulus. Factories are closing down because they can't get paid."
Such weakness is unwelcome news for a world economy already weighed down by troubles in the Eurozone. China powered through the 2008 financial crisis and has delivered blistering GDP growth over much of the last decade. Now analysts are projecting that the growth rate in 2012 will struggle to reach 8% — a symbolic target that officials are loath to miss.
Developing nations including Brazil have already seen exports of oil, iron ore and other commodities to China slump. Luxury jewelers in Hong Kong are complaining about a decline in free spenders from China. Macao, long a draw for Chinese gamblers, is reporting a steep drop-off in high rollers from the mainland.
"Growth expectations in Macao are going to undergo an uncomfortable adjustment phase," said Gary Pinge, an analyst for financial services firm Macquarie.
The slowdown has also crimped earnings at U.S. corporations that had been expanding in China, including Caterpillar Inc., Nike Inc., McDonald's Corp.and Yum Brands Inc., which operates KFC and Pizza Hut.
With a once-in-a-decade transition of top leadership looming in China this year, stability is paramount. Calls are growing for officials to buttress the economy through policy tinkering and government stimulus.
But China's leaders must proceed carefully. The nation is still suffering the fallout from the last round of intervention following the 2008 global crisis. To keep the economy humming, Beijing spent billions on public works and encouraged banks to lend — easy credit that fueled a housing bubble and a surge of borrowing by local governments.
The real estate sector is now deflating, in part because of government restrictions introduced two years ago to clamp down on speculators. Home prices throughout China have plummeted and developers have been saddled with tens of thousands of unsold units.
Zhu He, sales manager at an 800-unit apartment complex in central Beijing, said the building's owner has pulled dozens of apartments off the market rather than discount them. Two years ago a 1,000-square-foot unit would have sold for $1.15 million; today, maybe $900,000, Zhu said. That could be optimistic. Values in some markets have declined by half.