China's industrial profits maintain sizzling pace

Profits rose 21.1% in May, largely driven by heavy industry including chemicals and metals

BEIJING • Profits at China's industrial firms rose sharply in May, maintaining the previous month's sizzling pace despite signs of slowing momentum in the world's second-largest economy and an intensifying trade spat with the United States.

Beijing is trying to walk a tightrope between supporting economic growth and tamping down financial risks, with policymakers freeing up more funds for lending by cutting required reserve levels for banks twice since April.

The latest cut came on Sunday as authorities moved fast to temper any potential drag on growth from the heated Sino-US trade dispute.

Industrial profits rose 21.1 per cent to 607.1 billion yuan (S$125.6 billion) in May, according to data published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) yesterday, compared to 21.9 per cent growth in April.

For the first five months, industrial firms notched up profits of 2.73 trillion yuan, an increase of 16.5 per cent from a year earlier, versus a 15 per cent increase in the January-April period.

The earnings jump in May was driven by price gains and lower costs, statistics bureau official He Ping said in a statement accompanying the data.

His comments were backed by data earlier this month showing that China's producer price inflation picked up for a second month in a row in May to 4.1 per cent.

In the first five months of the year, profit growth was largely underpinned by heavy industry, including ferrous metals processing, chemicals, and oil and natural gas extraction, Mr He said.

Profits for computer, telecommunications and other electronics rose 1.9 per cent year-on-year in the Jan-May period, recovering from losses over the first four months.

Some analysts say the strong profit growth reflects a recovery in output from an easing in a long-running crackdown on pollution that had shuttered production at many factories.

"We would argue that's mostly a recovery from the pollution crackdown, which in our figures resulted in quite a significant slowdown in industrial production during the winter," said Mr Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics.

"If we're right then there's no reason to expect that pickup to be sustained. In our view, the more medium term outlook is still not great."

China's industrial firms have benefited from a hot property and infrastructure construction market over the past two years, which helped stimulate demand for building materials from steel bars to copper pipes, glass and cement.

And while sales have cooled in the face of government restrictions on home purchases, new construction starts rose 20.5 per cent in May and property investment also picked up, suggesting any property slowdown is likely to be relatively modest.

China Petroleum & Chemical Corp in the first quarter reported its best quarterly profit since June 2015 on strong earnings from its refining business.

China's steel output surged to a record in May as mills ramped up production to chase fat profit margins, with a strong outlook for demand likely to keep mills running at nearly full capacity for the rest of the year.

But activity in some parts of the economy including infrastructure investment and industrial output points to softening economic growth.

While industrial commodity prices have been strong this year, the intensifying trade dispute between Beijing and Washington has rattled China's commodity markets this month as both sides threatened new import tariffs.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2018, with the headline 'China's industrial profits maintain sizzling pace'. Print Edition | Subscribe