By Kevin Yao
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s economy likely perked up slightly in the fourth quarter, enabling the government to hit its growth target after the previous year’s miss, but the outlook for 2024 remains shaky amid a protracted property slump and weak consumer confidence.
Data on Wednesday (0200 GMT) is expected to show gross domestic product (GDP) grew 5.3% in October-December from a year earlier, quickening from the 4.9 pace in the third quarter, according to a Reuters poll.
But on a quarterly basis, the economy is forecast to grow 1.0% in the fourth quarter, slowing from a 1.3% pace in July-September, underlining the weak momentum despite a raft of policy steps.
For 2023, the economy likely expanded 5.2%, partly helped by the previous year’s low-base effect which was marked by COVID-19 lockdowns.
The economy grew just 3% in 2022 due to strict COVID curbs, badly missing the official target.
Confounding most analysts’ expectations, the world’s second-largest economy has struggled to mount a strong and sustainable post-COVID pandemic bounce, burdened by a protracted property crisis, weak consumer and business confidence, mounting local government debts, and weak global growth.
Beijing set a growth target of around 5% in 2023 and policy insiders expect it to maintain a similar goal for this year.
Analysts polled by Reuters expected growth to slow to 4.6% in 2024, and ease further to 4.5% in 2025, which may raise the heat on policymakers to unveil more stimulus to restore confidence and ride out the property slump.
Recent data suggested the economy was starting 2024 on shaky footing, with persistent deflationary pressures and a slight pick-up in exports unlikely to kindle a quick turnaround in lacklustre factory activity. December bank lending was also weak.
“Attention will be on the year-end data to be released on Wednesday,” said Matthew Ryan, head of market strategy at global financial services firm Ebury. “GDP growth is particularly worth watching, as it could set the tone for sentiment toward China in 2024.”
Investor disappointment with China’s performance last year pushed the yuan currency to a 16-year low at one point. The market capitalisation of stocks listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen fell by a cumulative $258 billion during 2023 and Hong Kong-listed shares lost $592 billion.
MORE EASING STILL SEE ON THE CARDS
Separate data on December activity, to be released alongside GDP data on Wednesday, is expected to show factory output growth steadied while consumption growth slowed and investment remained tepid.
Retail sales, a key gauge of consumption, are forecast to grow 8.0% in December from a year earlier, slowing from a 10.1% rise in November. Factory output is seen growing 6.6% in December year-on-year, matching November’s rise.
The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has pledged to step up policy support for the economy this year and promote a rebound in prices.
On Monday, the PBOC left the medium-term policy rate unchanged, defying market expectations for a cut as pressure on the yuan currency continued to limit the scope of monetary easing.
Analysts polled by Reuters expected the central bank to cut the one-year loan prime rate (LPR) — the benchmark lending rate — by 10 basis points (bps) in the first quarter.
“Despite the surprise, we continue to expect the PBOC to eventually deliver two rounds of policy rate cuts and one RRR cut in H1 2024, given the ongoing economic dip and the fading of pent-up demand for consumption, which we expect to accelerate following the Chinese New Year holidays in February,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, said in a note.
The government, which in October unveiled 1 trillion yuan ($139.22 billion) in sovereign bonds to fund investment projects, is likely to press ahead with more fiscal spending to drive growth, analysts said.
($1 = 7.1829 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Kevin Yao; Editing by Kim Coghill)