BEIJING (REUTERS) - Activity in China's factory sector unexpectedly shrank to a 6-1/2 year low in September, a private survey showed on Wednesday (Sept 23), raising fears of a sharper slowdown in the world's second-largest economy that could spell more turmoil for financial markets.
Global investors and policymakers are on edge over China after the US central bank last week held off from raising interest rates, saying it was unsure if international problems, and China's slowdown in particular, will hurt the US recovery.
The preliminary Caixin/Markit China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) fell to 47.0 in September, the worst since March 2009 and below market expectations of 47.5 and August's final 47.3. Levels below 50 signify a contraction.
China's factory activity has now shrunk for seven months in a row, and the latest survey showed conditions in September deteriorated from August by almost every measure, with companies cutting output, prices and jobs at a faster pace as orders fell.
Economists had expected the September headline PMI figure to remain anaemic but edge up slightly, as a slew of stimulus measures since last year slowly take effect and as many factories which had closed in August began to reopen.
Most Asian stock markets extended early losses after the report while US stock futures dipped 0.6 per cent. The Australian dollar also eased on worries that demand in the country's biggest trading partner would fall.
The flash PMI is one of the first measures to be released about China each month and is closely followed by investors.
It's no secret that China's economy has been gradually slowing in recent years from a breakneck double-digit pace in past decades, as Beijing tries to transform its growth model from a reliance on heavy manufacturing and exports to one with a more vibrant services sector and stronger domestic demand.
But persistently weak factory activity and cooling investment could spark fears that the downdraft is now too intense for services alone to offset, putting the economy at risk of a more profound slowdown that could jeopardise the fragile global recovery.
Factory output sank to its lowest since the global crisis, and soft orders suggested more weakness ahead.
New orders - a proxy for both domestic and overseas demand - fell to a near four-year low of 46.0 from 46.6 in August.
Export orders contracted at the fastest clip since mid-2013.
The China president of US crane and mining equipment maker Terex Co told Reuters on Monday that he expects half of the country's machinery makers to close amid a four-year market downturn, though he remained optimistic for the longer-term. "Everyone thinks it's a market that is declining, but it's still growing. It's declining growth," Ken Lousberg said.
The dismal PMI reading raises the chance that third-quarter economic growth could dip below 7 per cent for the first time since the global crisis. Some economists believe current growth is already much weaker than official data suggest.
But it will also reinforce views that Beijing will roll out more support soon, including further cuts in interest rates and bank reserve requirements and higher infrastructure spending.
"Patience may be needed for policies designed to promote stabilisation to demonstrate their effectiveness," said He Fan, chief economist at Caixin Insight Group. "Fiscal expenditures surged in August, pointing to stronger government efforts."
China's surprise yuan devaluation last month and a plunge in its stock markets since June have fuelled worries about more shocks to the economy, although Premier Li Keqiang has brushed off concerns it is facing a hard landing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping added his voice on Tuesday to officials trying to reassure the world that the government was still committed to reforms following its massive intervention to rescue the stock markets and boost growth.
Steady financial markets will be critical for the president this week during his visit to the United States, where he is likely to be grilled on China's policy plans.