China’s Overcapacity Is Already Backfiring
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China’s Overcapacity Is Already Backfiring

Excess investment in industry isn’t made up by trading partners, and it has domestic consequences

By NATHANIEL TAPLIN
Wed, Apr 17, 2024 12:06pmGrey Clock 2 min

In the “ China Shock 2.0 ” narrative, not only is China a security threat and a low-end factory competitor, but it is also angling to swamp the West with cut-rate high-tech goods. There has been less focus on the downsides of such a strategy for China itself.

China’s first-quarter growth beat most estimates , rising 5.3% on the year—thanks mostly to strong industrial output and exports. But the economic data released Tuesday also showed that excess capacity is very real, and could be damaging to China itself.

While China’s industrial engine revved up in January and February , it downshifted again in March: output rose just 4.5% on the year, down sharply from January and February’s 7%. More tellingly, manufacturing capacity utilisation plummeted to 73.8% in the first quarter—its weakest, excluding the pandemic-affected first quarter of 2020, since at least 2015. In volume terms, China’s exports hit a nearly 10-year high in March. But in value terms they were barely above where they sat in October.

In other words, firms’ pricing power both at home and abroad is weakening and margin pressure is probably mounting: The March industrial financial data, which will be released later this month, will be worth watching.

So will private investment in manufacturing. If external demand, in value terms, doesn’t find a stronger footing soon and China’s domestic economy remains weak, then eventually such investment will need to slow. Otherwise the government, or state-owned banks, will have to start absorbing the cost of too many loans to industry more directly, as they already have with real estate and infrastructure .

Particularly interesting is the breakdown of that capacity utilisation data itself. Falling run rates were especially obvious in Beijing’s favourite sectors like automobiles and electrical equipment—the so-called “new productive forces,” including electric vehicles, chips and solar panels, which policymakers have highlighted in recent speeches and have been stalking Western politicians’ nightmares. Automobile manufacturing utilisation rates fell below 65% in the first quarter: well below their previous low (excluding the first quarter of 2020) of 69.1% in mid-2016.

China’s traditional export sectors, on the other hand, have actually held up relatively well. Textiles utilisation rose in the first quarter, while run rates for computer and communication gear fell, but much less sharply.

Meanwhile, economy wide borrowing—excluding government bond issuance—weakened further in March, despite bond yields and interest rates near multiyear lows. If margin pressure starts to force some “new productive forces” to start slowing investment, fiscal policy would need to step in to prop up growth.

Alternatively, China can keep funnelling its excess savings into new manufacturing overcapacity—but Chinese banks and Beijing, not just China’s trade partners, will eventually end up footing the bill.



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The sticky economic factor making an interest rate drop unlikely this year

It’s a key indicator in the RBA board’s decision making process, but it is proving difficult to move in the right direction

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The consumer price index (CPI) rose in April to an annual rate of 3.6 percent, which was 0.1 percent higher than in March, raising doubts about an interest rate cut this year as inflation starts looking stickier than expected. This is the second consecutive month of small rises, potentially indicating that Australia is experiencing the same stalled progress in bringing inflation down that is being seen in the United States, as both nations approach their central banks’ target inflation bands.

In Australia, the target inflation band is 2 to 3 percent, with the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) aiming to achieve the midpoint under its new agreement with the Federal Government following a formal review. In its interest rate decision-making, the RBA does not give as much weight to the monthly inflation data because not all prices are measured like they are in the quarterly data. On a quarterly basis, inflation has continued to fall. In the March quarter, the annual rate of inflation was 3.6 percent, down from 4.1 percent in December, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

CBA economist Stephen Wu noted the April data was above the bank’s forecast of 3.5 percent as well as the industrywide consensus forecast of 3.4 percent. He predicts the next leg down in inflation won’t be until the September quarter, when we will see the effects of electricity rebates and a likely smaller minimum wage increase to be announced by the Fair Work Commission next month compared to June 2023.

The most significant contributor to the April inflation rise were housing costs, which rose 4.9 percent on an annual basis. This reflects a continuing rise in weekly rents amid near-record low vacancy rates across the country, as well as significantly higher labour and materials costs which builders are passing on to the buyers of new homes, as well as renovators.

The second biggest contributor was food and non-alcoholic beverages, up 3.8 percent annually, reflecting higher prices for fruit and vegetables in April. The ABS said unfavourable weather led to a reduced supply of berries, bananas and vegetables such as broccoli. The annual rate of inflation for alcohol and tobacco rose by 6.5 percent, and transport rose by 4.2 percent due to higher fuel prices.

Robert Carnell, the Asia Pacific head of research at ING, said they no longer expect a rate cut this year after seeing the April data. Mr Carnell said an increase in trend inflation was apparent and “rate cuts this year look unlikely”. In the RBA’s latest monetary policy statement, published before the April CPI was released, it said: “Inflation is expected to be higher in the near term than previously thought due to the stronger labour market and higher petrol prices. But inflation is still expected to return to the target range in the second half of 2025 and to reach the midpoint in 2026.”

 

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