China Exports Fall for a Fourth Month as Once-Reliable Growth Engine Sputters | Kanebridge News
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China Exports Fall for a Fourth Month as Once-Reliable Growth Engine Sputters

Property sector’s downturn has pushed imports to their 11th month of declines in the past year

Fri, Sep 8, 2023 9:13amGrey Clock 4 min

HONG KONG—China’s exports to the rest of the world dropped for a fourth straight month in August, bringing little relief to the country from a deepening economic malaise and weighing on the global trade outlook.

China has struggled to sustain a wave of overseas demand for Chinese-made goods that carried it through much of the three years of the pandemic, particularly as Western consumers tilted their spending back toward services and away from smartphones, furniture and other goods. Higher borrowing rates in the U.S. and other developed countries also hit consumer appetite.

Meanwhile, Chinese imports continued to shrink in August, a reflection of lacklustre consumer demand even after the country loosened its longstanding Covid-related restrictions. A downturn in China’s property market has also sapped demand for raw materials used in construction.

Taken together, the sluggish trade data released Thursday by Beijing provides new evidence that the world’s second-largest economy is struggling to revive domestic demand.

That would ripple through the global economy as China’s slowdown weighs on oil prices and hurts commodity-exporting countries such as Australia, Brazil and Canada. Chinese manufacturers have been under pressure to cut prices to retain market share, potentially sending disinflationary currents around the world.

While Chinese policy makers have trimmed key interest rates and made new attempts to revive home-buying sentiment, economists have widely dismissed these efforts as too piecemeal to revive growth given the speed with which sentiment has soured.

“There’s still a steep hill to climb to get the all-clear on stabilisation for China,” said Frederic Neumann, chief Asia economist at HSBC.

China’s outbound shipments declined 8.8% in August from a year earlier, China’s General Administration of Customs said Thursday. The reading narrowed from the 14.5% year-over-year drop in exports in July, which marked the worst such result since February 2020.

Imports to China, including intermediate components, commodities and consumer products, fell 7.3% in August from a year earlier, slower than July’s 12.4% drop.

Even with the better-than-feared trade data, economists generally agree that exports’ ability to provide support for China’s sputtering recovery remains a distant prospect, particularly given that global trade is expected to contract this year.

“We expect exports to decline over the coming months before bottoming out toward the end of the year,” research firm Capital Economics told clients in a note Thursday.

Apart from the general slowdown in trade, China is facing a raft of other economic headwinds. After a brief spurt of spending in traveling and dining out upon reopening early this year, consumers tightened their purse strings, dragging consumer prices into deflationary territory in July. China is set to report August inflation data on Saturday.

Factory activity, meantime, reported a fifth straight month of contraction in August, while a years long downturn in the housing market has only deepened in recent months. Private investment remains depressed, while the youth jobless rate climbed to a series of record highs in the summer before Beijing decided to discontinue releasing the data to the public.

More broadly, the run of downbeat data during the summer months has sparked growing concerns over China’s long-term growth trajectory and prompted several investment banks to trim their growth forecasts for gross domestic product to below 5% for the year, compared with the official government target of around 5%, which was set in March.

Meeting with Southeast Asian leaders this week, Chinese Premier Li Qiang struck back against widespread pessimism about the country’s near-term economic outlook, saying the country is on track to hit its growth target for the year.

While Chinese policy makers have rolled out a batch of stimulus measures in recent weeks, including trimming interest rates for businesses and home buyers and extending tax relief to households, many economists have questioned whether the policies will be enough to turn around weak consumer sentiment.

China’s reduced appetite for imports—which have fallen for 11 of the past 12 months—reflects in large part the knock-on effects of the country’s continuing property crisis. Both property investment and new construction starts have plunged in recent months amid a loss of confidence in home prices; that in turn has curbed China’s appetite for commodities such as iron ore.

The export data, meanwhile, offers more evidence of China’s shifting trade patterns.

As ties have soured between Beijing and Washington, many U.S. companies have begun to redirect supply chains away from China and toward other Asian countries such as India, leading to a sharp decline in America’s reliance on goods from China.

Rising operational uncertainty, made most clear during China’s pandemic-era lockdowns, which disrupted domestic and global production and logistics, heightened the urgency for many multinationals.

In the first half of the year, China accounted for 13.3% of U.S. goods imports, down from a high of 21.6% in 2017 and representing the lowest level since 2003.

Meanwhile, trade with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has grown over the past year to become China’s largest export market, ahead of the U.S. and European Union, according to a recent report by HSBC.

China’s warmer trade relations with Asian countries will help buffer the impact of softening Chinese exports to advanced economies. But economists say Beijing won’t be immune if the U.S. and other advanced economies tip into recession.

Global goods trade is expected to drop by 1.5% this year in part due to tightening global monetary and credit conditions before staging a modest recovery of 2.3% growth in 2024, according to estimates by Adam Slater, lead economist at Oxford Economics.

China’s weakening trade activities, meanwhile, is likely to ripple across Asia, slowing industrial expansion and hitting commodity prices, he added.

—Xiao Xiao in Beijing contributed to this article.


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First, the good news for office landlords: A post-Labor Day bump nudged return-to-office rates in mid-September to their highest level since the onset of the pandemic.

Now the bad: Office attendance in big cities is still barely half of what it was in 2019, and company get-tough measures are proving largely ineffective at boosting that rate much higher.

Indeed, a number of forces—from the prospect of more Covid-19 cases in the fall to a weakening economy—could push the return rate into reverse, property owners and city officials say.

More than before, chief executives at blue-chip companies are stepping up efforts to fill their workspace. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase are among the companies that have recently vowed to get tougher on employees who don’t show upIn August, Meta told employees they could face disciplinary action if they regularly violate new workplace rules.

But these actions haven’t yet moved the national return rate needle much, and a majority of companies remain content to allow employees to work at least part-time remotely despite the tough talk.

Most employees go into offices during the middle of the week, but floors are sparsely populated on Mondays and Fridays. In Chicago, some September days had a return rate of over 66%. But it was below 30% on Fridays. In New York, it ranges from about 25% to 65%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes.

Overall, the average return rate in the 10 U.S. cities tracked by Kastle Systems matched the recent high of 50.4% of 2019 levels for the week ended Sept. 20, though it slid a little below half the following week.

The disappointing return rates are another blow to office owners who are struggling with vacancy rates near record highs. The national office average vacancy rose to 19.2% last quarter, just below the historical peak of 19.3% in 1991, according to Moody’s Analytics preliminary third-quarter data.

Business leaders in New York, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they have seen only slight improvements in sidewalk activity and attendance in office buildings since Labor Day.

“It feels a little fuller but at the margins,” said Sandy Baruah, chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a business group.

Lax enforcement of return-to-office rules is one reason employees feel they can still work from home. At a roundtable business discussion in Houston last week, only one of the 12 companies that attended said it would enforce a return-to-office policy in performance reviews.

“It was clearly a minority opinion that the others shook their heads at,” said Kris Larson, chief executive of Central Houston Inc., a group that promotes business in the city and sponsored the meeting.

Making matters worse, business leaders and city officials say they see more forces at work that could slow the return to office than those that could accelerate it.

Covid-19 cases are up and will likely increase further in the fall and winter months. “If we have to go back to distancing and mask protocols, that really breaks the office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the business group Partnership for New York City.

Many cities are contending with an increase in homelessness and crime. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which are struggling with these problems, are among the lowest return-to-office cities in the Kastle System index.

About 90% of members surveyed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said that the city couldn’t recover until homelessness and public safety problems were addressed, said Rachel Smith, chief executive. That is taken into account as companies make decisions about returning to the office and how much space they need, she added.

Cuts in government services and transportation are also taking a toll. Wait times for buses run by Houston’s Park & Ride system, one of the most widely used commuter services, have increased partly because of labor shortages, according to Larson of Central Houston.

The commute “is the remaining most significant barrier” to improving return to office, Larson said.

Some landlords say that businesses will have more leverage in enforcing return-to-office mandates if the economy weakens. There are already signs of such a shift in cities that depend heavily on the technology sector, which has been seeing slowing growth and layoffs.

But a full-fledged recession could hurt office returns if it results in widespread layoffs. “Maybe you get some relief in more employees coming back,” said Dylan Burzinski, an analyst with real-estate analytics firm Green Street. “But if there are fewer of those employees, it’s still a net negative for office.”

The sluggish return-to-office rate is leading many city and business leaders to ask the federal government for help. A group from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition recently met with elected officials in Washington, D.C., lobbying for incentives for businesses that make commitments to U.S. downtowns.

Baruah, from the Detroit chamber, was among the group. He said the chances of such legislation being passed were low. “We might have to reach crisis proportions first,” he said. “But we’re trying to lay the groundwork now.”


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