China’s cautious growth target gives world economy little help

Economists had expected a more ambitious target of above 5 per cent following a rebound in consumer spending. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING – China set a modest economic growth target of around 5 per cent for the year, with the nation’s top leaders avoiding any large stimulus to spur a consumer-driven recovery already under way, suggesting less of a growth boost to an ailing world economy.

Premier Li Keqiang announced the goal for gross domestic product (GDP) in his final report to the Communist Party-controlled Parliament, which kicked off its annual meeting on Sunday. Economists had expected a more ambitious target of above 5 per cent following a rebound in consumer spending and industrial output after the end of Covid-19 restrictions.

Having missed a GDP goal last year by a wide margin for the first time ever, a more cautious aim this year could restore Beijing’s credibility and give President Xi Jinping and a line-up of new top economic officials more room to focus on long-term policies. Financial and commodity markets, though, may be disappointed after rallying last week on signs of a stronger-than-expected rebound in the economy.

Beijing’s reluctance to juice growth through commodity-intensive sectors like real estate and infrastructure means “the positive spillover effect, compared with China’s rebound cycles in the past, will somewhat decline”, said Ms Jacqueline Rong, deputy chief China economist at BNP Paribas.

Dr Zhang Zhiwei, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management, said the GDP goal “should be taken as a floor”, implying actual growth could overshoot the target. “Because the Covid-19 policy has been adjusted, there is no urgency for them to run another round of big economic stimulus,” he said.

Mr Li said boosting domestic demand, a reference to consumer spending and business investment, would be the government’s top priority this year, while imports and exports would steadily increase.

The government’s higher employment target for this year – of around 12 million new urban jobs – suggests that officials see more labour-intensive consumer sectors driving the economy, while the growth of government-funded infrastructure investment is likely to slow.

“A rebound in consumption is most likely to lead growth,” said Mr Bert Hofman, a former China country director at the World Bank. “Business investment may remain on the fence until stronger measures to support the private sector become apparent.”

The national budget released on Sunday suggests fiscal support will be restrained. The target for the headline deficit – based on a narrow definition of government revenue and spending – was raised to 3 per cent of GDP for 2023 from 2.8 per cent in 2022.

However, local governments are likely to scale back major investments, with a smaller quota for special local bonds, used mainly to finance infrastructure projects.

“If infrastructure growth turns out to be slow, it might impact industries like steel and cement in other countries as well because China may import fewer commodities,” said Dr Iris Pang, chief economist for Greater China at ING Bank.

Science and industrial policy was second on Mr Li’s list of government priorities, with officials aiming to coordinate businesses to achieve breakthroughs in core technology to boost “self-reliance and self-strengthening”, he said. The issue has gained urgency in Beijing after Washington imposed unprecedented sanctions on China’s microchip sector last year.

The target “gives the message that growth is important but we also have other objectives such as developmental and financial stability considerations”, said Mr Louis Kuijs, chief economist for Asia-Pacific at S&P Global Ratings.

The People’s Bank of China last week vowed to refrain from using “flood-style” stimulus, likely meaning aggressive interest rate cuts are off the table this year.

Property regulation

On China’s property market, which drives as much as 20 per cent of GDP, Mr Li hinted that Beijing will continue to support housing while also regulating the sector more tightly, saying the government wants to prevent “unregulated expansion of the market”.

He also vowed to support privately owned businesses, encourage foreign investment and “boost market expectations and confidence” – a pledge that may appease investors after confidence plummeted last year following repeated Covid-19 lockdowns and the fallout from unpredictable regulatory crackdowns on sectors such as education, Internet platforms and real estate.

The report offered little detail on how Beijing will respond to some of the biggest challenges facing China and the world in the coming year, such as the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“As a responsible major country, China played significant and constructive roles in enhancing international Covid-19 cooperation and addressing global challenges and regional hot spot issues,” Mr Li said, without naming the issues he was referring to. BLOOMBERG

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