China industrial profits slow for 6th month, seen weakening further

An employee works at a carbon fibre production line inside a factory in Lianyungang, China, on Oct 27, 2018.
An employee works at a carbon fibre production line inside a factory in Lianyungang, China, on Oct 27, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Profit growth at China's industrial firms cooled for a sixth straight month in October as factory prices and the pace of sales increases softened amid mounting uncertainties stemming from the US-China trade war.

The figures point to further weakening in China's vast manufacturing sector and economy days ahead of a high stakes meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, which Beijing hopes could avert a major escalation in their trade dispute.

China and the United States have slapped tariffs on billions of dollars of each other's goods, hurting manufacturing and casting a shadow on the outlook for global growth.

Industrial profits rose 3.6 per cent in October from a year earlier to 548 billion yuan (S$108.5 billion), a 7-month low and a slowing from September's 4.1 per cent gain, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Tuesday (Nov 27).

The slowdown was largely due to cooling factory-gate inflation and a high-base effect, bureau official He Ping said in a statement.

Some economists believe profitability will continue to deteriorate in coming months.

"As the economy slows, profits will only get worse before they get better," said Yang Yewei, an analyst with Southwest Securities, who forecast an actual decline in 2019's first quarter.

Nomura economists said the trend will remain down "given weakening domestic demand, already-high financing costs, rising credit defaults and the escalation in the China-US trade conflict".

Factory-gate inflation has been easing in recent months on sluggish demand, despite government efforts to shore up the economy, including a flurry of credit-easing measures to boost lending to private firms and ramp up infrastructure spending.



October's profit data came out as worries about the US-China war were deepened by Trump's comments to the Wall Street Journal before his meeting with Xi Jinping in Argentina at the end of this week.

On Monday, Trump told the newspaper it was "highly unlikely" he would accept Beijing's request to hold off on increasing tariffs on US$200 million of Chinese goods to 25 per cent from 10 per cent, as planned for Jan 1.

China faces slower economic growth thanks to the trade war plus efforts to rein in financial risks and tackle pollution problems.

On Monday, Chinese iron ore futures tumbled nearly 6 per cent and steel prices dropped to the lowest in almost five months as worries over weaker steel demand fuelled a sell-off, with raw materials coking coal and coal also down sharply.

Tuesday's profit data showed industrial firms' revenue growth slowed to 9.4 per cent in the first 10 months from 9.6 gain in January-September.

Upstream sectors such as mining and metal producers and state-owned enterprises still commanded the lion's share of profit gains but their growth softened in October. Profit gains were concentrated in five industries, including steel and building materials.

Profits earned by state-owned enterprises grew 20.6 per cent in October from a year earlier, from 23.3 per cent in September.

Shenzhen Energy Group, the southern Chinese city's largest power producer whose main products include electric power, gas and steam, reported a 83.3 per cent decline in net profit for the third quarter.

For the first 10 months, profits for China's industrial firms rose 13.6 per cent from a year earlier, versus a 14.7 per cent increase in January-September, Tuesday's data showed.

At the end of October, industrial firms' liabilities increased 5.9 per cent from a year earlier to 63.7 trillion yuan, according to the Statistics Bureau.