China Slips Into Deflation in Warning Sign for World Economy
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China Slips Into Deflation in Warning Sign for World Economy

The lifting of Covid-19 pandemic curbs has been followed by an unusual bout of falling consumer prices instead of a surge

Fri, Aug 11, 2023 8:26amGrey Clock 5 min

HONG KONG—China’s consumer prices tipped into deflationary territory in July for the first time in two years, as a deepening economic malaise in the world’s second-largest economy enters a potentially dangerous new phase.

The data released Wednesday adds to a darkening picture for China, where the economic recovery has been losing momentum because of a host of problems. A drop in exports is accelerating, youth unemployment has hit record highs and the housing market is mired in a protracted downturn.

Now, the country is suffering an unusual bout of falling prices on a range of goods, from commodities such as steel and coal to daily essentials and consumer products such as vegetables and home appliances. It is the opposite of what happened in most of the rest of the world when Covid-19 restrictions eased, with many countries still trying to tame inflation.

Chinese consumer prices fell 0.3% in July compared with a year earlier. This could be transitory, however. Stripping out volatile food and energy prices, so-called core inflation rose to 0.8% in July, the highest level since January, from 0.4% in June.

The danger is that if the expectation of falling prices becomes entrenched, it could further sap demand, exacerbate debt burdens and even lock the economy into a trap that will be hard to escape using the stimulus measures Chinese policy makers have traditionally turned to.

Deflation is particularly risky for countries with high debt burdens such as China, since it will add to debt servicing costs for borrowers and likely prompt them to spend and invest less.

China’s total debt reached nearly three times the size of its gross domestic product in 2022, higher than that in the U.S., according to the Bank for International Settlements.

“The reality looks increasingly grim,” said Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University economist who once headed the International Monetary Fund’s China division. “The government’s approach of downplaying the risks of deflation and stalling growth could backfire and make it even harder to pull the economy out of its downward spiral.”

For now, Chinese policy makers say they are sanguine about falling prices, dismissing suggestions that deflation is here to stay.

Dong Lijuan, a statistician at China’s National Bureau of Statistics, on Wednesday said consumer prices will likely rebound gradually later this year as the high base effect begins to fade.

China’s predicament stands in contrast to those of the U.S. and other Western countries, where soaring inflation prompted central banks, including the Federal Reserve, to raise interest rates in an effort to cool growth without triggering a recession.

In the U.S., consumer prices rose 3% in June compared with a year earlier, the slowest pace of increase in more than two years, while annual inflation in the European Union stood at 6.4%, easing from 7.1% in May.

Falling prices in China may help ease inflationary pressure elsewhere around the globe, as Chinese exports become cheaper. They also pose a risk: a flood of low-price Chinese-made goods could hurt foreign competitors and lead to job losses in developed countries.

For China, the absence of inflation reflects an imbalance in the economy characterised by ample supply and dormant domestic demand, which economists say is partly the result of Beijing’s paltry social security support for households.

Wang Lei, who works at a video gaming company in Beijing, said his and his wife’s overall expenditures have fallen compared with last year’s. Seeing colleagues and friends get laid off spooked him into reining in any unnecessary expenditures, apart from renovating an apartment that he purchased two years ago.

“It’s better to save more and be cautious now,” said 40-year-old Wang. “The economic outlook is not certain.”

China’s central bank has trimmed interest rates several times this year, but fiscal and monetary policy makers haven’t launched any larger-scale stimulus measures, in part because of constraints such as elevated debt levels.

Prices charged at the factory gate, which have been contracting on a year-over-year basis since last October, fell 4.4% in July from a year earlier, narrowing from June’s 5.4% decline, according to data published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics on Wednesday.

But it was the consumer-price reading, which has remained positive even as producer prices turned negative, that marked the bigger shift.

After flatlining in June, last month’s 0.3% decrease in consumer prices represents the first negative print since February 2021, when the reading was thrown off by year-over-year comparisons to the early days of the pandemic when supply chains and food prices were in disarray.

Apart from a single month in the first year of the pandemic, both consumer and producer prices haven’t been in deflationary territory at the same time since 2009, at the depths of the global financial crisis.

July’s negative consumer inflation result was mainly driven by a drop in food prices from a year earlier, when food prices were pushed up by extreme weather conditions, a spokeswoman for China’s statistics bureau said Wednesday. Prices of pork, a staple of Chinese dinner tables, plunged 26% in July from a year earlier. Vegetable prices also fell last month.

Even so, consumer inflation isn’t likely to pick up much this year, economists say. The reason is consumer confidence, or rather the lack of it, as households continue to feel the lingering impact of three years of Covid uncertainty, regulatory uncertainty and ongoing concern about the health of the property market. The real-estate sector, one of China’s main drivers of growth for decades, is in a deep funk, with fresh worries stoked this week by default concerns around one of China’s biggest property developers.

Unlike many countries in the West, where government cash handouts to consumers during the pandemic fuelled a spending boom on physical goods such as furniture and personal electronics, Beijing so far has offered no such direct support to its households.

On top of that, a renewed downturn in the housing market has curbed Chinese consumers’ appetite for consumption, since many households have treated apartment units as their main store of wealth, and are highly sensitive to fluctuations in home prices, said Wei Yao, chief China economist at Société Générale.

“The problem is there’s no obvious driver to power recovery at the moment,” she said.

Even if consumer prices begin to pick up again, Chinese factory owners and exporters are likely to struggle with pricing power for some time, eroding their profit margins and hurting their willingness to expand production or hire more workers.

While producer price deflation eased in July, the 4.4% drop was worse than 4.1% expected by economists polled by the Journal.

During the pandemic, many factories in China ramped up production to accommodate a surge of overseas orders. Now, as demand in the West fades, producers of automobiles, consumer goods and other products are being saddled with excess inventory, forcing many to slash prices to reduce stockpiles.

One manufacturer of robot vacuum cleaners based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen is looking to sell more overseas, in part because domestic rivals are offering cheaper options and the sluggish recovery in consumer demand has eroded sales at home, according to a company executive.

The ultimate challenge for Chinese policy makers is how to forestall a self-reinforcing spiral in which a fall in prices leads to reduced production, lower wages and suppressed demand.

Economists expect China’s central bank to lower interest rates further in the coming months, though many are skeptical that such moves alone can dispel deflationary pressures.

That is because confidence among businesses and households has been slow to recover, resulting in limited appetite for them to invest and spend more. Such an environment renders moderate stimulus measures largely ineffective, argues Arthur Budaghyan, chief emerging markets strategist at BCA Research.

“The Chinese government has to do something very big to confront deflation,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve done enough yet.”

—Grace Zhu and Xiao Xiao in Beijing contributed to this article.


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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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