China's factory output grew at the lowest pace in nearly six years in August while growth in other key sectors also cooled, raising fears the world's second-largest economy may be at risk of a sharp slowdown unless Beijing takes fresh stimulus measures.
The output data, combined with weaker readings in retail sales, investment and imports, pointed to a further loss of momentum as the rapidly cooling housing market increasingly drags on activity in other sectors from cement to steel and saps consumer confidence.
Industrial output rose 6.9 percent in August from a year earlier - the lowest since 2008 when the economy was buffeted by the global financial crisis - compared with expectations for 8.8 percent and slowing sharply from 9.0 percent in July.
"The August data may point to a hard landing. The extent of growth slowdown in the third quarter won't be small," said Xu Gao, chief economist at Everbright Securities in Beijing.
"The chances of cutting interest rates and bank reserve requirements have increased. I think they are more likely to cut interest rates."
Some analysts believe annual economic growth may be sliding towards 7 percent in the third quarter, putting the government's full-year growth target of around 7.5 percent in jeopardy unless it takes more aggressive policy measures. Experts reckon output growth of around 9 percent would be needed to attain such a goal.
"Short of outright policy easing, China will likely miss the 7.5 percent growth target this year, and a sharp economic slowdown will endanger the undergoing structural reforms," Liu Li-Gang and Zhou Hao at ANZ wrote in a note.
"As such, we reckon that Chinese authorities should further relax monetary policy as soon as possible to prevent the growth momentum from decelerating further."
Reinforcing the tepid economic activity, China's power generation declined for the first time in four years, falling 2.2 percent in August from a year earlier.
Jiang Yuan, a senior statistician with the bureau, said in a statement that the dip in August factory growth was due to a combination of factors: weak global demand, especially from emerging markets, and the slowdown in the property sector that hit demand for steel, cement, and vehicles.
China's economy got off to a weak start this year as first-quarter growth cooled to an 18-month low of 7.4 percent. A raft of stimulus measures pushed that up slightly to 7.5 percent in the second quarter, but soft July and August data suggest the boost from those steps is already quickly waning.
"The government must take forceful policy measures to stabilise growth," said Li Huiyong, an analyst at Shenyin & Wanguo Securities in Shanghai.
Other activity indicators for August were also mostly weaker than expected.
Retail sales climbed 11.9 percent, lagging forecasts of 12.1 percent and slowing from 12.2 percent in July.
Fixed-asset investment, an important driver of economic activity, grew 16.5 percent in the first eight months from the same period last year, lower than forecasts, it said.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 16.9 percent growth in fixed-asset investment, slowing from 17.0 percent in Jan-July.
Much of the broader decline appears linked to the cooling property market, which is showing further signs of deterioration.
Property investment data also released on Saturday showed further declines in sales and new construction, while growth in housing-related goods such as home appliances, furniture and building materials all slowed.
Mortgage issuance in the first eight months fell 4.5 percent from a year earlier, worse than a 3.7 percent drop in January-July. Some would-be buyers have complained of long delays in getting loans as banks grow more cautious about their exposure to the sector, while others may be holding off in anticipation of further price declines.
Data on Friday showed that credit levels in China appeared to improve in August after an alarming drop in July, but remained below average. Bad loans are on the rise and banks expect more to go sour as the economy slows.
That followed trade data that showed China's exports were buoyant but import growth unexpectedly fell for the second consecutive month in August, posting its worst performance in over a year.
While most analysts expect the government to unveil more steps in coming months in order to meet its growth target for the year, the room for policy loosening is seen as limited after past stimulus programmes left many local governments saddled with piles of debt and fueled rampant speculation, especially in the housing market.
Premier Li Keqiang said on Monday that China cannot rely on loose credit to lift its economy, and reassured a business forum that Beijing would continue to roll out modest "targeted" measures as policymakers look to shore up growth.