China economy grows but on shaky footing: AFP survey

BEIJING (AFP) - China's economic growth likely picked up slightly in the first quarter of this year, according to an AFP poll of analysts, but they say the rebound is fragile and key data unreliable.

First-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) for the world's second-largest economy is due to be announced on Monday and the median forecast in the poll of 12 economists was for an 8.0 percent increase year-on-year.

That would be a notch up from the 7.9 percent attained in the final quarter of last year, which snapped seven straight quarters of slowing growth and raised hopes of a stable recovery as other major economies remain relatively weak.

China's economy grew 7.8 percent in 2012, its slowest rate in 13 years, and authorities have kept their growth target for 2013 at a conservative 7.5 percent.

In an effort to boost the economy, Beijing last year relaxed monetary policy and access to credit, while keeping a eye on politically sensitive price increases.

Inflation remains moderate, coming in at just 2.1 percent in March year on year, but could speed up because of a rapid increase in credit in January and March.

"While retail sales remained subdued in Q1 on the government's initiative to crack down (on) corruption and official (extravagance), real estate sales and car sales are much stronger than expected," said ANZ Bank economist Liu Ligang.

But home sales surged due to a rush of purchases ahead of expected new restrictions meant to curb speculation, Liu said, indicating that improvements in the sector might not last.

China's leaders have vowed to rebalance the economy away from reliance on traditional growth drivers investment and exports and towards consumer demand, but that is not proving easy.

"The economy is still mainly supported by infrastructure projects... which is absolutely unsustainable," said Mr Shen Jianguang of Mizuho Securities Asia in Hong Kong.

"Electricity (consumption) in March had zero growth, which means investment demand was very weak because of overcapacity," he added.

March trade figures showed a small but still surprising deficit of US$880 million (S$1.1 billion), a rarity in a country that normally records surpluses, and analysts viewed the figure with scepticism.

Exports to Hong Kong - which are often re-exported to other destinations - grew 93 percent last month while those to the European Union and the United States fell 14 percent and seven percent respectively, said Alistair Thornton and Ren Xianfang of IHS Global Insight.

"This seems a little incongruous, to say the least," they wrote in a report, adding that some declared exports could have been used to disguise capital inflows into China, or to exploit tax rebates on overseas sales, or for political reasons.

"Either the trade data is unreliable, or if it is reliable, then what are being booked as exports are not actually exports," they said.

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