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China's two-track economy: 5 things to watch for in Q4 GDP

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China will release gross domestic product figures for the fourth quarter of 2015 on Tuesday amid rising concern about the health of the country’s economy — which in turn has reverberated through global markets.

China’s economy grew 6.9 per cent in real terms in the first three quarters, official data show. That is in line with the government’s full-year target of “around 7 per cent” but would be the slowest full-year growth since 1990. Here are five things to look for in Tuesday’s numbers:

Nominal growth. Suspicion surrounds China’s “GDP deflator”, the inflation gauge used to convert nominal GDP into the politically sensitive real GDP growth rate. The GDP deflator should be the broadest measures of inflation, capturing price changes for all goods and services, including non-consumption goods. But if the fourth-quarter deflator diverges sharply from more familiar gauges of Chinese inflation, investors will suspect that China’s stats bureau is cooking the books and look to nominal growth as a more reliable indicator of the state of the economy.

‘Other’ services. As traditional growth engines such as manufacturing and construction wane, services are now the main drivers of China’s growth. In the third quarter, a broad category called “other” services — which includes healthcare, education, law, and accounting among others — boosted China’s unexpectedly strong headline growth figure.

Yet many are sceptical about these figures due to the lack of specifics, the inherent challenges of measuring the value of services, and suspicions that China’s statisticians fudge the data to meet predetermined targets. If the government provides more detail about which services are growing fastest, it could allay the scepticism. If not, doubts will grow.

Financial services. In addition to “other” services, financial services were a major contributor to overall growth through the first three quarters as China’s stock market boom early in the year drove trading commissions and other brokerage services. In the fourth quarter, base effects will start to kick in, however, as the stock market boom began around November 2014.

Moreover, the trading volumes that ramped up during the first half of the year’s rally and bust were far more muted during the fourth quarter recovery. Another strong growth contribution from financial services will fuel more data scepticism.

Industrial production. The statistics bureau will release monthly industrial output data alongside the quarterly GDP figures on Tuesday. Factory surveys for December indicated that China’s struggling manufacturing sector may have finally bottomed out after declining for most of 2015. Industrial production accelerated strongly in November after hitting a near seven-year low in October. If the acceleration continued in December, it may be a sign that the worst is over for China’s factories

Net exports. The contribution to annual GDP growth from net exports was zero or negative from 2008 to 2014, undermining the conventional wisdom about China’s “export-led” economy. But China’s merchandise trade surplus surged to a record of $595bn in 2015 as tumbling commodity prices lowered the country’s import bill, customs data show. Customs figures do not include services trade, however, so the GDP figures will reveal how much net exports cushioned the slowdown in the domestic economy.


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