China reported weaker-than-expected investment and retail sales in April and a drop in home sales, clouding its economic outlook even as policymakers try to navigate debt risks and defuse a heated trade row with the United States.
Fixed asset investment grew the slowest since 1999 while the pace of retail sales softened to a four-month low, suggesting a long-anticipated slowdown in the world's second-largest economy may finally be setting in even as protectionism is on the rise.
The lone bright spot on yesterday's activity data was industrial output, which jumped more than expected as automobile and steel production surged.
"Industrial activity was buoyed by the easing of pollution controls (imposed over the winter). But there are signs in the rest of today's data that the economy is losing momentum," Capital Economics senior China Economist Julian Evans-Pritchard wrote in a note following the data.
"Domestic spending is likely to continue to soften given the headwinds from slowing credit creation," he said, adding that the rebound in industry may be short-lived once companies rebuild inventories which were depleted in recent months.
Capital Economics has long predicted Beijing will loosen monetary policy later this year to keep growth from slowing too sharply as it continues a crackdown on financial risks.
Industrial output rose 7.0 percent in April, the National Bureau of Statistics said, beating forecasts for a rise of 6.3 percent and up from a seven-month low of 6.0 percent in March.
But while April exports and imports were surprisingly solid, business surveys point to a sharp weakening in export order growth, possibly as companies grow worried about being stuck with high inventories if the US and China start imposing tit-for-tat tariffs.
Analysts also suspect some firms may be rushing out shipments to beat any punitive trade measures. Washington and Beijing will resume trade negotiations this week.