by Michael Pettis
Editor’s note: This article was written a month ago but many of the observations and quotes from the press and political personna from that time (middle of July) sound much like we have read in the past week. Obviously the author is unlikely to have found reasons to change much of what he wrote a month ago on the basis of more recent news.
China’s official GDP growth rate has fallen sharply – on Friday, July 13, Beijing announced that GDP growth for the second quarter of 2012 was a lower-than-expected 7.6% year on year, the lowest level since 2009 and well below the 8.1% generated in the first quarter. This implies of course that quarterly growth is substantially below 7.6%. Industrial production was also much lower than expected, at 9.5% year on year. In fact China’s real GDP growth may have been even lower than the official numbers. This is certainly what electricity consumption numbers, which have been flat, imply, and there have been rumors all year of businesses being advised by local governments to exaggerate their revenue growth numbers in order to provide a better picture of the economy.
Some economists are arguing that flat electricity consumption is consistent with 7.6% GDP growth because of pressure on Chinese businesses to improve energy efficiency, but this is a little hard to believe. That “pressure” has been there almost as long as I have been in China (over ten years) and it would be startling if only now did it have an impact, especially with such a huge impact occurring so suddenly. Adding to the slow economic growth, the country may be tipping into deflation. Last Monday the National Bureau of Statistics released the following inflation data:
In June, the consumer price index (CPI) went up by 2.2 percent year-on-year. The prices grew by 2.2 percent in cities areas and 2.0 percent in rural areas. The food prices went up by 3.8 percent, while the non-food prices increased by 1.4 percent. The prices of consumer goods went up by 2.3 percent and the prices of services grew by 1.9 percent. In the first half of this year, the overall consumer prices were up by 3.3 percent over the same period of previous year.
In June, the month-on-month change of consumer prices was down by 0.6 percent, prices in cities and rural went down by 0.6 and 0.5 percent respectively. The food prices dropped by 1.6 percent, the non-food prices kept at the same level (the amount of change was 0). The prices of consumer goods decreased by 0.9 percent, and the prices of services increased by 0.3 percent.
My very smart former PKU student Chen Long, who follows monetary conditions in China as closely as anyone else I know tells me:
The most interesting thing is that even if CPI remains stable month-on-month, it will turn negative year-on-year in January 2013. And if it continues to decline month-on-month at current rates, we could see negative year-on-year CPI as early as August/September.
June CPI increased 2.2% from a year ago, slightly lower than market consensus of 2.3%. June PPI dropped 2.1% on yearly basis, versus the median forecast of a 2.0% decline. On a monthly basis, CPI and PPI were down 0.6% and 0.7% respectively. The consumer price index has posted three consecutive months of negative monthly growth, and it was also the second consecutive month-on-month fall of PPI. Moreover, the year-on-year PPI growth has been negative for four months.
Inflation in China seems to have been licked. This is just what one would have expected in a financially repressed system, in which inflation creates its own correction by increasing the financial repression tax on household savers (thus reducing consumption) and lowering the cost of capital for manufacturing borrowers. Of course this same system means that deflation is unlikely to last very long because, as long as interest rates are not slashed, deflation will cause the real deposit rate and the real borrowing rate to rise. These increase consumption and reduce production, so putting upward pressure on prices.
Unlike some other analysts, in other words, I am not concerned about deflation persisting for long unless the PBoC cuts interest rates much more sharply than any of us expect. I know this may sound strange – most analysts believe that cutting interest rates will actually reignite CPI inflation – but remember that the relationship between inflation and interest rates in China is, as I have discussed many times before, not at all like the relationship between the two in the US. It works in the opposite way because of the very different structure of Chinese debt and consumption.