[Chinese and foreign economists generally agree that the best hope for the country’s long-term economic health is for the current emphasis on debt and investment to give way to greater consumer spending. Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending climbed 9.6 percent last year, led by blistering growth in online retail sales of 26.2 percent. But as in other countries, including the United States, much of that growth has come at the expense of brick-and-mortar stores and malls.]
By Keith Bradsher
Shoppers in Sanya, China, in September. Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending
climbed 9.6 percent last year, led by blistering growth in online retail sales of
26.2 percent. Credit Yuyang Liu for The New York Times
BEIJING — China’s economy firmly hit its growth target last year and even accelerated a bit at the end. In most countries, that would be seen as unequivocally good news.
But this is China, where figures are sometimes doubted and where economists look for signs of strain underneath the numbers. Indeed, Chinese officials who released the economic data on Friday faced questions about the country’s mounting debt. And in an unusual move, its central bank on Friday took an extra step to inject more money into the economy over the next month.
China’s economy grew 6.7 percent last year after accelerating slightly to 6.8 percent in the fourth quarter, the government’s statistics bureau announced on Friday morning.
The strong economic growth in 2016 came after a weak start last year, when China’s currency and stock market were tumbling and many foreign investors fretted that the country’s three decades of robust economic expansion might be ending.
The Chinese government appears to have delayed an economic reckoning, but at a high cost. The central bank and state-owned banks shoveled trillions of renminbi into a surge of credit, putting aside longstanding worries about a deeply indebted corporate sector and signs of a real estate bubble. The government borrowed and spent heavily, continuing oversize projects like the construction of world-class highways and high-speed rail lines to cities that are increasingly remote from the main hubs of economic activity near the coast.
But Ning Jizhe, the commissioner of the National Bureau of Statistics, dismissed concerns about rising debt.
“I don’t think this worry is necessary,” he said at a news conference.
Hours after the data release, the central bank said on its official Weibo microblog account that it was providing temporary help to “several large commercial banks” that have been distributing large sums of cash ahead of China’s Lunar New Year celebrations, which begin at the end of next week.
Consumers Keep Spending
Chinese and foreign economists generally agree that the best hope for the country’s long-term economic health is for the current emphasis on debt and investment to give way to greater consumer spending. Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending climbed 9.6 percent last year, led by blistering growth in online retail sales of 26.2 percent. But as in other countries, including the United States, much of that growth has come at the expense of brick-and-mortar stores and malls.
Real Estate Prices Surge
When Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of China’s central bank, said at a news conference in Shanghai last February that the answer to China’s immediate economic troubles lay in more mortgages, few paid close attention. Chinese officials previously expressed concern that real estate prices were already too high, hurting affordability and exposing the economy to significant risks if prices tumbled.
But after Mr. Zhou’s remarks, state-owned banks were instructed to step up mortgage lending, and the results were spectacular. Sales of commercial buildings rose 34.8 percent, and residential sales climbed 36 percent as prices leapt higher and higher. The steel, cement and glass industries — all suffering from overcapacity in recent years — benefited as they supplied builders, and electricity production to power those factories rose. Municipal governments in Shanghai and elsewhere began imposing administrative controls this winter to limit further real estate price increases.
Debt Piles Up
More mortgages were part of a big expansion in the overall credit moving through the Chinese economy. To achieve its 6.7 percent growth last year, the Chinese government allowed total credit to rise at nearly two and half times that pace, according to a calculation by Louis Kuijs, an economist at Oxford Economics. Credit used to grow at the same pace as the economy, but debt has been accumulating faster than the economy’s output since the global financial crisis.
The central bank, the People’s Bank of China, said on Friday afternoon that it was providing liquidity assistance for 28 days to several large commercial banks. It did not identify the banks. The central bank also did not provide details except to say that it was using a market mechanism to make sure the extra money entered the country’s financial system.
The People’s Bank of China did not respond to requests for clarification. Stock markets were up on Friday in China, and short-term interest rates were only slightly higher — two signs that while money may be fairly tight in China ahead of the holidays, any difficulty has not yet become severe enough to alarm investors.
What’s in a Number?
Many concerns have been raised about the quality of Chinese economic data. Western economists have suggested that Chinese government statisticians underestimate growth in boom years and overestimate growth during busts to present a smoother overall picture of the Chinese economy. Worries about data quality increased after the state-run People’s Daily quoted Chen Qiufa, the governor of the northeastern province of Liaoning, as saying on Tuesday that local governments had inflated growth data from 2011 to 2014.
But many economists say last year’s growth appears to have been real — although bringing additional debt that could burden the economy for years to come. Mr. Ning insisted on Friday morning that national economic data was reliable, and he added that if local officials were caught fabricating data, “we will show no leniency.”
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