China's economy is losing steam, with industrial production dropping to its slowest pace in two years last month and inflation also cooling — raising the likelihood of fresh moves to keep growth on track.
A decline in inflation to 4.2 percent in November from 5.5 percent the month before, reported Friday, will allow authorities more flexibility in easing policies that were imposed to cool the overheated economy but now may pose a threat to growth.
The National Bureau of Statistics reported that industrial output rose 12.4 percent in November, its slowest increase in two years.
China's ability to help offset the malaise in Europe and the U.S. will depend on its ability to support growth while avoiding a relapse into higher inflation that undermines the economic gains underpinning support for the ruling Communist Party.
A recent surge in labor unrest and public dissatisfaction over the widening gap between rich and poor, corruption, pollution and other issues have added to jitters as the party prepares for a transition next year to a new generation of leadership.
Moves toward an easier monetary stance may come as early as next week at an annual economic work conference in Beijing that will set policy for the coming year. But the support will be tempered by concern that too much stimulus could touch off another round of excess investment and inflation.
In one indication of that risk, the statistics bureau reported retail sales rose 17.3 percent year-on-year in November, up slightly from October, suggesting sustained demand in China's domestic market even as exports to crisis-stricken Europe falter.
Urban investment in factories and other fixed assets also rose at a relatively robust 24.5 percent in January-November from a year earlier.
China's latest bout of inflation was fueled by a stimulus-led binge in bank lending in 2009 that helped fend off the global crisis. Much of it was squandered in excessive investments in construction and real estate.
"It is inevitable that credit will be eased, but in an orderly way, not like during 2008-2009," said Mei Xinyu, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Commerce.
China has already begun relaxing reserve requirements on banks — raised to record high levels to help soak up excess cash that was helping drive inflation — to help ease a cash crunch and reopen a flow of liquidity needed to keep growth on track.
The progress on capping inflation has come as a relief to price-conscious Chinese families.
Ma Chuanyi, 59, a retired elementary school teacher whose family is remodeling an apartment, said she noticed the price of cement had fallen.
"Some vegetables and other foods are cheaper now in this season," she said. "Household appliances also are not so expensive thanks to discounts."
China's economy has been slowing for most of the year, with growth expected to drop below 9 percent in 2012. GDP growth in the quarter that ended in September was 9.1 percent.
"The challenge for policymakers is to enact measures that boost domestic demand and to loosen credit controls somewhat without stoking inflation and property price bubbles," said Jing Ulrich, JP Morgan's chairwoman for global markets.
Anemic demand from Europe and the U.S. is sapping China's export sector of its vitality while raising the risks of job losses and further unrest.
Price pressures on manufacturers appear to have abated for now: the producer price index was nearly halved last month, dropping to 2.7 percent from 5 percent in October.
Meanwhile, food costs, a major component of the consumer price index and a sensitive issue for families that spend up to half their incomes on food, rose 8.8 percent in November.
Such trends helped the leadership in their campaign to bring inflation down from its peak of 6.5 percent in July, though a high base the year before also contributed to the significant decline in November.
Pressures related to food prices are likely to ease further, Ulrich noted, pointing to a record high grain harvest this fall.
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